Strictly Business: Stimulus plan may grow jobs

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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The job-producing project is important, but perhaps not as important as the way it's being funded.

I'm talking about the Port of Vancouver's 108-acre, light-industrial-zoned Centennial Industrial Park, which I wrote about in these pages on Aug. 12.

Port officials told me they'd secured a $5.75 million grant from the state to groom 58 acres of the site with sidewalks, roadways, utilities and landscaping -- infrastructure prospective employers like to see before moving in and bringing jobs with them.

Turns out that $5.75 million came from a little-known, yet quite significant, move by the Legislature earlier this year to pump a lot of stimulus dollars into the state's economy.

That stimulus came in the form of a $1.1 billion capital budget package passed by state lawmakers and dubbed the "2012 Jobs Now Act."

Intended to create tens of thousands of jobs -- especially construction jobs -- the package includes new state general obligation bonds and appropriations from existing bond capacity, federal funds and other dedicated accounts.

Never heard of the Jobs Now Act? Neither had I until port officials told me about it.

Then again, media outlets in the state didn't exactly splash it all over the place.

About the best mention I could find in a mainstream publication was in The Seattle Times, which listed the Jobs Now Act (but didn't call it that) in a paragraph toward the bottom of a story wrapping up this year's legislative session.

What's surprising to me is that economic stimulus -- that is, the kind where government fills the void left by a battered private sector by spending to juice the economy -- is even still in play.

You'll recall the federal government stepped in to buffer the U.S. economy against the financial crash. Most mainstream economists agree that the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- advanced by the Obama administration and passed by Congress -- prevented the economy from reaching ghastly depths.

For example, Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics -- who was an adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign -- told the Christian Science Monitor in 2010 that "we would be in a measurably worse place if not for the stimulus."

Nowadays, there's no political will to do more federal stimulus even though some credible experts say it's what's needed in the short term to spur growth.

But in Washington state, economic stimulus is alive and pumping even if it registered only on the radars of the wonkiest of policy wonks.

Read it. It's replete with public-works projects in counties across the state.

In Clark County, it's really just getting under way. The Port of Vancouver estimates its Centennial Industrial Park project has the capacity to support some 500 jobs. The Port of Camas-Washougal, helped by $1.5 million from the Jobs Now Act, recently broke ground on a project estimated to support some 300 to 400 jobs. The Clark County Family YMCA is getting a big remodel thanks to $1.5 million that came from the state's stimulus.

Will the Jobs Now Act work?

It's probably too early to tell.

After all, the legislation was barely noticed; its benefits are only now beginning to sprout.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.