Happy 5th to the federal stimulus!

Posted: February 20, 2014

IT'S BEEN FIVE years since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a/k/a "the stimulus," $787 billion (it actually grew to more than that) to reverse a recession and avoid a depression.

Pennsylvania got $33.8 billion.

Philadelphia got $1 billion-plus, mostly for education.

The money was, for many - and to quote 1980s British rock star Robert Palmer - "simply irresistible."

But five years later, Pa.'s economy is less than humming, especially in job growth when compared with other states.

And Philadelphia still struggles, particularly the schools.

It brings to mind another Palmer line, "There's no tellin' where the money went."

Some regard the stimulus as the biggest earmark in history.

Remember Solyndra, the California solar-panel maker tied to an Obama fundraiser that got a $535 million stimulus loan, then filed for bankruptcy?

But the argument for the stimulus is that without it things would have been much worse - as in breadlines and selling apples on street corners worse. And I mean actual apples, not Apples.

Philly, for example, was able to avoid police layoffs and hire 50 more cops, according to the city's recovery officer at the time, Maari Porter, who says those cops remain on the job.

And the White House Council of Economic Advisors (no cracks about Larry, Moe and Curly) just issued a report saying the act "saved or created" 6 million jobs and will have "little impact" on long-term debt.

This sounds good, especially when the council points out that the act came a year after "private employers shed 3.8 million jobs" and "trillions of dollars of household wealth had been wiped out."

Problem is, then and now, there's no agreement on whether the stimulus was needed or whether it worked.

It gets touted by Democrats, denigrated by Republicans.

It divided the American people. A 2012 Pew poll showed 37 percent approved, 41 percent disapproved.

So while the president downplays the anniversary (he spoke at an event in Maryland yesterday without mentioning it), Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to plug the five-year benchmark in an Illinois speech today.

And GOP House Speaker John Boehner plugged it in a different way. He issued a statement calling the stimulus a "classic case of big promises and big spending with little results . . . millions of Americans are still asking 'where are the jobs?' "

Some things never change.

You'll recall no House Republican voted for it. And only three Senate Republicans did: Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snow, and Pa. Sen. Arlen Specter.

(Specter switched parties and lost a 2010 Democratic primary for re-election. Snow left the Senate last year.)

The Pennsylvania Stimulus Oversight Commission worked from March 2009 through September 2011 on the two-year funding act.

State Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna County, an appointee of Gov. Ed Rendell, says the stimulus worked here because "it was important to protect the state from worse circumstances. . . . We don't get credit for the bad things we stop."

But Gene Barr, Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry president, an appointee of Gov. Corbett, says, "It certainly didn't get us to the goals the president had in mind . . . [and] it didn't invest in infrastructure as much as expected."

So it goes.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey voted for it. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey maintains there's no way to prove it created/saved jobs as claimed by the White House.

We do, however, know a couple of things.

The Washington, D.C., area boomed after the stimulus passed even as the rest of the country continued to suffer.

And lots of the money in the act went to individual tax cuts/credits: more than $200 billion, $11 billion in Pennsylvania, on income, for child care, even to buy a car.

Not sure where my tax cut/credit went. I suspect most folks feel the same.

So. While the traditional fifth-anniversary gift is wood - symbolizing solidity and strength - I'm not entirely sure a gift is in order, especially one symbolizing solidity and strength.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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