At the one-year anniversary for the federal stimulus package, Democrats and Republicans from Washington to Florida are still arguing over whether it is a success or a failure. The reality is the bleak economic picture in the Sunshine State would look a lot darker without the federal money.
The tale is in the numbers, even if there are disputes over the precise figures. Without the federal help, the state would have been forced to lay off thousands of teachers and would be facing an even deeper budget crisis. Yes, the state still lost more than 1 million jobs in 2009 and the unemployment rate has risen to 11.8 percent. But it would have been even worse without the stimulus package. The federal government estimates 112,000 Florida jobs were saved or created by the federal help.
The stimulus money has not just bailed out state government. More than $3.5 billion went to Floridians in federal tax credits, and more than $2.5 billion went to Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. More than 1 million Floridians have expanded unemployment benefits because of the stimulus package. State legislators foolishly refused to accept another $440 million that would have further helped the unemployed, and even now Congress needs to approve another extension of benefits because jobs are so scarce.
In the Tampa Bay area, the impact of the stimulus money will be felt for decades. Construction on more U.S. 19 overpasses already is under way in North Pinellas, and in Hillsborough a connector between Interstate 4 and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway will help business at the Port of Tampa and create thousands of jobs. The stimulus money earmarked for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando will jump-start a project that could help transform the economy for an entire region.
It's understandable that many Floridians are discouraged that the stimulus package has not had a more immediate impact. The state has been one of the slowest in the country in spending the money, according to an Orlando Sentinel analysis. But there are still positive results to come from the methodical approach. State figures show more than $6.6 billion has been spent while Florida ultimately should receive about $17 billion in stimulus.
Gov. Charlie Crist acted in the best interests of all Floridians in supporting the stimulus package, and the Republican-led Legislature was right to spend the money. Instead of looking backward, the federal and state governments should be looking forward and working on more ways to stimulate the economy and put more people to work.