Stimulus to secure 11,000 jobs in Montana

Associated Press

HELENA – New estimates about how federal stimulus dollars will affect Montana were released Thursday, even as the governor and legislative leaders continue to spar over how to oversee its use.

The numbers, provided by the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, show the stimulus creating – or saving – 11,000 jobs in Montana during the next two years. The jobs are expected to spread across many industries, with 90 percent of them in the private sector.

The numbers were released as President Barack Obama prepares to push forward with a $790 billion compromise package agreed to by congressional leaders Wednesday.

It is still unknown how much money Montana will receive. State leaders expect it could be around $600 million, but much of that will come tagged for certain programs, such as Medicaid and unemployment.

The White House estimates indicate Montana's Medicaid system receiving about $180 million in stimulus money in the next 27 months.

A planned increase of $100 in monthly unemployment benefits is also expected to reach about 53,000 Montana workers who have lost their jobs in the recession, and money will be available to cover an additional 10,000 workers on the state's unemployment roster.

The numbers also show a portion of the funds is tagged for modernizing 32 Montana schools, providing for updates in classrooms, labs and libraries.

Although much of the money will have clear targets, lawmakers will still have to handle the influx to the cash box, and they are mulling whether it should be funneled through a separate bill from the state's main spending bill.

House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre, supports such an approach. But Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, is concerned that using two bills might encourage more spending.

"I don't want to get caught in a situation where we start taking federal money and use it to expand programs that we're going to have to maintain in future years," Story said. "I'm more concerned about getting people working in cities, towns and counties as opposed to agency people in Helena."

Lawmakers and the governor anticipate the state will have discretion over how some of the stimulus money is used. This prospect of unaccounted-for funds in the face of shrinking state revenues has led to quarreling.

On Wednesday, Story proposed a bill to establish a special commission that would oversee stimulus spending in the state. Although it would not have the authority to appropriate funds, it would be charged with ensuring any money is spent "wisely and efficiently," he said.

Democratic lawmakers oppose the new commission and would rather see the existing Legislative Finance Committee handle stimulus oversight.

For his part, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he is against "anything that increases bureaucracy and slows the money down." He also said he expects the federal money will come through established channels and with clear criteria that must be met.

"The devil is in the details," Schweitzer said. "The money won't be sent out here in one big check, or in a shoe box. It comes to the same silos, through the same pipeline that all federal dollars do."

The governor has developed a $3 billion-plus list of shovel-ready infrastructure projects that he would like to see funded with any extra stimulus dollars. But for the first time Thursday he suggested lawmakers might be able to shape how some of the federal money is spent.

"Everybody gets to hang a few ornaments on the Christmas tree," Schweitzer said. "But if they are picking and choosing off that list, they are all good projects, projects that everyone has seen."

The new White House estimates also give an outline of how many Montanans will qualify for tax relief under the stimulus plan. About 320,000 workers in the state are expected to meet requirements for a tax cut of up to $800, and 12,000 families could qualify for a new education tax credit of $2,500.