House OKs economic stimulus bill on party lines

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House of Representative approved a massive economic stimulus bill Wednesday that could provide up to $4.7 billion to Washington for road, sewer and school construction, aid to the poor, elderly, students and unemployed and dozens of other programs facing sharp cuts because of the recession.

While political leaders in Olympia say it won’t fix all of the state’s financial problems, Democratic leaders in the nation’s capital estimated it could create or save nearly 100,000 jobs in the state and shave more than 2 percentage points off Washington’s unemployment rate.The bill also includes a $500 payroll tax cut for individuals and $1,000 for families.

The full Senate is expected to consider its version of the bill next week and there could be significant differences with the one approved by the House.

For example, the House bill includes an additional $500 million to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation and other Department of Energy sites.

Sen. Patty Murray was able to put $6.4 billion in additional cleanup money in the Senate bill. The difference between the two bills will eventually have to be resolved by House-Senate negotiators.

The House approved the measure 244-188 on a virtual party-line vote. All six Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation voted for the bill. The three GOP members voted no.

“I’ve spent over a decade working to protect and increase the budget at Hanford and our nation’s other cleanup sites, and I support the nuclear cleanup dollars in this bill. Yet, a massive expansion of the federal government is not the way to get our economy back on track. In fact, the vast majority of spending in this bill is wholly unrelated to creating jobs or growing our economy,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco.

“Congress must hold the line on deficit spending and enact fast acting tax cuts for job-creating small businesses and American families in order to boost our economy. Congress must also work to create more American-made energy, enact fair trade policies that provide new opportunities for Washington state farmers and businesses, protect the dams that provide lower-cost power to the Northwest, and support locally driven economic solutions.”

And Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, who along with his GOP colleagues met with President Barack Obama a day earlier, said the bill focused too much on spending and too little on tax cuts, credits and incentives.

But Democrats defended the bill.

Although he was nervous about the long-term implications for the federal debt, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, said, “We need to do something to stem the downward tide. ... I am deeply concerned about our growing deficit, but the threats to our economy are real and doing nothing was simply not an option.”

The $819 billion House bill was so vast and complicated, even as it passed it was difficult to get a clear picture of exactly how much Washington would receive.

Dick Thompson, a special assistant to Gov. Chris Gregoire, said Washington would likely receive a minimum of $3.6 billion and that could grow to $4.7 billion if the state qualified for additional Medicaid funding because of its mounting number of unemployed. Some on Capitol Hill suggested the state’s share could eventually top $5 billion.

Highlights over the next two years include:

-- Nearly $679 million for infrastructure, including $530 million for construction on roads, highways and bridges, $105.6 million for waste water treatment plants and sewers and $43 million for clean drinking water programs. The bill also includes about $200 million for public transportation, $100 million for weatherization programs mostly for the low-income, and $60 million for state energy programs. Of the road construction money, 55 percent would go to the state and 45 percent to local governments.

-- More than $1.3 billion for education, primarily to restore cuts in state funding for education for K-12 and higher education. The bill also includes $191.5 million for school construction.

-- $814 million for Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care to the low-income. Washington could receive up to an additional $1.1 billion under a provision that provides additional Medicaid funding for states with “accelerated” unemployment rates.

Thompson said it still was unclear how all the federal stimulus funding would effect the state’s budget problems.

Analysis by various House committees released by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office said the bill would provide $392 million, or a 13.2 percent benefit increase for the almost 635,000 people in Washington receiving food stamps; a $25 increase in weekly benefits for the more than 400,000 people receiving unemployment and extended unemployment benefits for about 44,000 people in the state; $55 million in grants to help local law enforcement agencies avoid layoffs and an additional $369 million in Pell Grants for the state’s college students.

Even that doesn’t tell the entire story.

The bill contained no earmarks, or funding for specific projects, but some of the $1.7 billion included for infrastructure improvements in the national parks almost certainly will end up at Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades parks. The bill also includes $650 million for improvements to the roads, trails and campgrounds in the national forests.

The House bill would increase the Bonneville Power Administration’s borrowing authority from the federal Treasury by $3.25 billion, or about double the current level. BPA, which markets the power produced at federal dams in the region, would use the money to construct new transmission lines to bring electricity generated at Eastern Washington wind farms to the Puget Sound region.