Tester: ‘Jobs bill' should aid Montana

The Missoulian

KALISPELL – Kalispell business leaders are encouraged by the $787 billion federal stimulus bill, with many saying they are ready to immediately create employment with new and needed projects.

The investment, they said, is particularly welcome news in northwest Montana, where unemployment is pushing 9 percent.

“The purpose of the jobs bill is to get the economy running again,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and on Tuesday he heard an earful about how to do just that.

“I appreciate the effort you've put into it,” Chuck Roady told the senator. “It could be a real help to us.”

Roady manages Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., which has curtailed sawmill production amid a nationwide housing slump. He was among the Flathead Valley business leaders who met with Tester for an hourlong give-and-take on the massive jobs bill.

Stoltze is interested in building a wood-fired co-generation plant that would produce both heat and power, Roady said. The company also is eyeing biomass energy projects.

The key, he said, will be federal investment and tax credits to get the projects off the ground.

The jobs bill, Tester said, could be just the ticket, as it includes business incentives as well as tax breaks for alternative energy projects.

“We need to start making government work for the people,” Tester told the crowd, which packed Kalispell's Chamber of Commerce to standing room only. The spending package was critical, Tester said, as the country has lost some 3.5 million jobs since the end of 2007, including more than 4,000 jobs in Montana.

“The fact is that we had to stem the tide,” he said.

The stimulus, he said, includes about $285 billion in tax breaks, $311 billion in discretionary money for infrastructure and education, and $193 billion in mandatory spending for health care and unemployment benefits.

Combined, the senator said, the investment should maintain or create 3.5 million jobs nationwide, and 11,000 here in Montana.

There are, he said, no earmarks in the legislation, and it differs starkly from a previous spending package aimed at shoring up the nation's financial sector.

“The Wall Street bailout was something that I personally opposed from the get-go,” Tester said. That money, he said, was “supposed to trickle down into the general economy, but they treated the money like it was Goldman Sachs' money.”

The new stimulus package “is a jobs bill, plain and simple,” he said, aimed at building infrastructure and providing tax breaks for working families.

“This gets it to Main Street,” he said. “That's the big difference.”

He also stressed the jobs spending is “totally transparent,” with a full accounting available at www.recovery.gov, and provisions for inspector general oversight.

Tester called the legislation a “three-legged stool,” with incentives to grease credit markets, reduce foreclosures and create jobs.

“This is not going to be what fixes the economy,” he said, but added it is a necessary element to turning the country out of a recession that already has lasted longer than the last three recessions combined.

In Montana, the bill provides about $212 million for roads projects; $40 million for municipal drinking water systems; $213 million for general education; $53 million for energy efficiency and weatherization programs; and $51 million for emergency food and shelter assistance.

The state also will gain from nationwide investments in federal agencies, including $4.6 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, $1.1 billion to the U.S. Forest Service (with $500 million to wildfire management), $2.5 billion to tribal nations, $1.2 billion to the Veterans Administration and $750 million to the National Park Service.

Montana residents also will gain from a $400 individual income tax break.

“It is,” Tester said, “about jobs and more jobs,” adding that the massive spending measure is not just an emergency economic safety net, but also “an investment in the future.”

Foremost of interest are what have come to be known as “shovel-ready” projects, which are through the design and review stage and now awaiting funding. Examples could include a U.S. Highway 93 bypass in Kalispell and reconstruction of Glacier National Park's signature Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Kalispell's Chamber members seemed equally interested in the infrastructure projects and the tax breaks, particularly the $39 billion in tax credits aimed at businesses.

Larry Iverson, a Kalispell surgeon, praised the bill and urged Tester to ensure that some of the money is spent modernizing America's medical record-keeping system to an electronic format.

Dan Zorn, assistant superintendent of local schools, said “the timing is really very good for us,” as his district was looking to make deep staffing cuts. Now, he said, those jobs will be maintained.

Kathy Hughes of Flathead Valley Community College noted that her school already is retraining many of those already laid off, with enrollment up 20 percent this semester. With students learning skills needed to take just the sorts of jobs envisioned by the stimulus bill, and many more relying on some tuition subsidy, she said, “I think the things we can do will go hand in hand.”

Bill Nelson, likewise, said the measure will be needed to create jobs for the hundreds of recently unemployed who are receiving training through his local Job Service office.

Manufacturers likewise said they were excited, and county commissioners hoped for help paving dusty roads.

“Shovel ready?” asked Whitefish Mayor Mike Jensen. “We have no shortage of those.”