The statistics are chilling: the state's unemployment rate is at a 15-year high with figures in South Jersey counties nearing or surpassing 10 percent. In the final months of 2008, home prices plummeted on average 15.3 percent. And the situation is expected to get worse before it gets better. Direct, targeted action is clearly needed.
The shared intention of Congress and the Administration was to craft a bipartisan bill that would create desperately-needed jobs immediately. With its $787 billion taxpayer-funded price-tag, the economic stimulus bill recently signed into law falls far short of those goals. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 11 percent of the legislation's $311 billion in discretionary spending will be spent by the end of 2009, and that 53 percent will be spent between 2011 and 2018. Upon close examination of the details, it became clear to me that the bill is neither direct nor targeted, particularly in its benefits to South Jersey.
As the only South Jersey member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, I know the critical importance of highway and transit projects in our region and the thousands of jobs they create. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that thirty-five thousand jobs are created for every $1 billion spent on infrastructure projects. Each federal dollar put toward non-job creating projects, such as improving weather forecasting and STD prevention programs, takes away from the underlying intention of the economic stimulus bill. With only 5.9 percent of the bill's total cost - a minuscule $47 billion - being allocated for transportation infrastructure projects, Congress short-changed a proven means to create jobs.
Furthermore, I have little faith the federal stimulus dollars that are awarded to New Jersey will find their way to projects in South Jersey. Rather than specifically detailing which "shovel-ready" projects and deserving programs would receive funding, tens of billions of dollars will be awarded to state capitals for distribution. Trenton's record for spending money wisely is non-existent and, as we know too well, South Jersey is not often found on the radar when its time for the state to award funding. Add in the fact that the Obama Administration - much like the Bush Administration's bailout proposals - failed to put in place critically necessary oversight, transparency and accountability requirements for the hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending, I strongly believe there must be a better process to protect the taxpayers' interests and hard-earned dollars while directly stimulating our economy.
As I have long said, we cannot and must not continue on this path which threatens the long term financial and national security of our country. Like the steady stream of bailout bills that Congress considered and I consistently voted against: we need a comprehensive economic solution rather than "rescuing" one industry over another. Unfortunately, the recent economic stimulus bill continued to do just that by intentionally denying any casino-related projects, including employment hiring and retention programs or infrastructure projects that would improve access to the properties, from receiving federal funds.
It is absolutely unacceptable that casino workers and their families be treated differently than any other household affected by the economic downturn. Furthermore, the livelihood of countless small businesses and vendors unrelated to gaming are dependent on Atlantic City's 11 casinos and its $3.5 billion in purchasing of goods and services annually. Thus, if the economic stimulus bill had permitted federal grants to be awarded to the gaming industry, then the benefits would be felt not only by casino workers, but by local construction contractors, service companies, food suppliers, transportation providers etc. across the region. By being limited in its scope, the bill excluded economic recovery for hundreds of local small businesses and thousands of South Jersey families.
The President was right to call for an economic stimulus package that would immediately and positively benefit struggling families and our nation's economy. I agree that we must reinstitute the free-flow of credit to qualified borrowers; to invest in our transportation infrastructure to spur job growth; to reduce the tax burden on our small businesses to encourage hiring; and to focus on growing the economy of tomorrow, not of yesterday. These are serious and challenging times that must be thoroughly addressed yet the bill written and passed by the Democrat Congress should not have been hastily rushed. This was not the best bill that Congress could have crafted. More importantly, it was not the best bill to get South Jersey residents back to work, to raise the standards of living for all Americans, and to get our country back on track.