The $819 billion federal stimulus package is aimed at ending one of the worst economic downturns in years. One day after he voted for the bill, DFL Congressman Jim Oberstar pitched the plan at the State Capitol in St. Paul. He said it will create or save 91,000 jobs in Minnesota.
"Our unemployment rate is trending just over 7.5 percent and we have over 30,000 building tradesman that need jobs and we can have them working by the first of June," Oberstar said. "If the state adheres to that initiative, we can do this."
Oberstar told the House and Senate transportation committees that Minnesota is in line to receive $685 million for transportation and infrastructure projects. Republican Senator Dick Day of Owatonna questioned Oberstar's job numbers.
"I just think that this is so much foo foo dust that that's coming out with all of these numbers," Owatonna said. "There's no practical way that you can ever come up with these kind of numbers."
Oberstar stood by the numbers and he wasn't the only member of Congress at the State Capitol on Thursday.
DFL Congresswoman Betty McCollum and DFL Congressman Collin Peterson also met with state lawmakers to discuss the package. Peterson was one of 11 Democrats to vote against the bill. He said he was concerned that the plan spent too much money and worried about the $1,000 tax credit that most families will receive.
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"We have already tried this once where we gave people checks. It didn't work," Peterson said. "I don't know why they think it's going to work this time. Again, we don't have the money to do this."
The House bill does spend money. For Minnesota alone, there is $1.9 billion dedicated to subsidized health insurance for low income and unemployed people. There is also $175 million more for food stamps, and Betty McCollum said there is also funding for public safety and schools.
"There are some opportunities in here to help our local school districts to not lay off some teachers," McCollum said. "There's some things in here for families. But it's going to be up to the state of Minnesota to look at this as an opportunity to help create jobs here at home."
McCollum, Oberstar and Peterson met privately with DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller to discuss the package. After the meeting, Pogemiller warned that the funding won't solve the state's budget problems.
"In the last week or so, in my judgment, there has been an over-expectation of how the federal stimulus package might help the state budget," Pogemiller said. "I think we need to be cautious of that."
Pogemiller's comments came just weeks after DFL legislative leaders said they were relying on stimulus money to help plug the state's nearly $5 billion budget gap. Governor Pawlenty included a placeholder of $900 million in stimulus money in his budget proposal but said he expects that figure to change.
Some of the federal money will come with strings attached, especially when it comes to subsidized health care. The House bill requires states to continue providing health care to people already on government programs. DFL Representative Paul Thissen, of Minneapolis, said the state could potentially lose hundreds of millions of dollars if Pawlenty's proposal to cut health care eligibility becomes law.
"If this is a one-time crisis and ultimately we're going to build back up towards our commitment for people to get affordable health care, turning back those federal dollars makes zero sense in a short term or a long term perspective," Thissen said.
Governor Pawlenty warned that no one should worry about losing federal money because work on the stimulus isn't finished yet.
"The bill isn't even done yet," Pawlenty said. "The Senate is going to vote on the bill next week. It has to go conference committee after that. Minnesota hasn't missed out on anything because the money hasn't started to flow yet."
Pawlenty made his comments after he spoke to another business group about his budget. He told the audience that he would work to get as much money as he can from the federal stimulus package.