History will be the judge of Obama’s stimulus

    Thesis #1: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 generated massive amounts of federal stimulus to the economy, saving or creating thousands of jobs and saving the country from the next Great Depression.
    Thesis #2: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a $1 trillion boondoggle that was not needed and will heap mountains of national debt upon future generations.


    History will sort out which of those two assessments will ring true for the ages. For now, the only thing known is that intelligent people stand in each of the two camps.

    Judging from the speakers at a recent Public Policy Forum Viewpoint Luncheon, there are plenty of elements of truth in both statements, even if they seem at once contradictory.

    Sharon Robinson, director of administration for the City of Milwaukee, said that, if nothing else, the stimulus dollars so far have enabled public bodies to keep thousands of vital employees such police officers, firefighters and teachers on the payrolls. The city also used $20 million to repair streets that otherwise would still have potholes, she said.
    “Our budget for 2010 would have been a whole lot worse if the stimulus had not come into play,” Robinson said.

    Indeed, the roadbuilders have been rejoicing about the stimulus act. The industry was facing one of its worst years of all time with the recession until those stimulus funds came along, according to Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.
    “With the stimulus, it was one of the best (years for roadbuilders). From our perspective, it was a tremendous success,” Goss said. “In a short term, this is a jobs retention bill.”

    Arthur Harrington, attorney at Godfrey & Kahn, said the stimulus act has not yet fulfilled President Barack Obama’s promises to provide funds for “shovel ready” projects and create thousands of new jobs.
    “This is not a stimulus bill. In my mind, it’s a cushion bill,” Harrington said. “My concern is, what happens after (2009)? If you want to jumpstart private industry, there’s a different model.”

    State Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) said the stimulus dollars have not reached the private sector, where true wealth and job creation is generated.
    “Much of that money went into things to stabilize taxes,” Stone said. “My concern is that we may have extended into the future a little bit the day of reckoning (of balancing public budgets) … We haven’t produced jobs with the stimulus plan.”

    Mark Wagner, vice president of government relations for Johnson Controls Inc., has a different take. His Milwaukee-based company landed a $299 million research grant to develop lithium batteries for the next generation of hybrid vehicles.
    Without the direct stimulus from the federal government, the development of those batteries would have “gone to Asia,” Wagner said.
    Wagner foresees additional stimulus projects to retrofit dozens of public buildings in southeastern Wisconsin in 2010.
    “We expect to see a major amount of activity in the second quarter … It’s out there. It’s coming,” Wagner said. “We’re just kind of seeing the tip of the iceberg right now. The bulk of it is going to come (in 2010). It will be in 2010 that you’ll really start to see the impact.”

    In the congressional elections of 2010, the Obama administration and the Democrats will no doubt paint the stimulus act as a great economic panacea. The Republicans will no doubt paint it as a catastrophic failure.

    As with most complex political issues of our time, the truth is more complicated than either of those planks and lies somewhere in between.

    Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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