Republicans apparently figure if they spread enough misinformation about the federal stimulus money that staved off an economic meltdown, voters will believe it. In a statewide debate Tuesday night, U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio once again contended the stimulus has been an abject failure. And once again, Gov. Charlie Crist, the independent candidate, and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democrat, were correct to defend the federal spending as necessary to avert economic disaster — because the facts are on their side.
While the economy remains so fragile, it's easy to take cheap shots at the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress early last year and appeal to voters frustrated with the very slow recovery. Yet by many objective measures nationally and in Florida, the stimulus money has had a significant positive impact. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that the stimulus increased the number of people with jobs by up to 3.3 million in the second quarter. That effectively lowered the unemployment rate by up to 1.8 percentage points. But Floridians did not hear those facts during Tuesday night's debate.
They also didn't hear many specifics about the economic disaster Florida would be experiencing without the stimulus money that Crist willingly accepted — and the Republican-led Legislature happily spent and then complained how irresponsible Congress was to send the cash. Florida is expected to receive more than $23.7 billion, and roughly half of that amount is still to be spent. Another $11 billion in federal money went directly to Floridians in such forms as unemployment compensation, increased food stamp benefits and Medicaid. Where would those hurting the most be without that help?
The stimulus money helped state lawmakers cover Medicaid costs, prop up public education and avoid thousands of layoffs of teachers and other public employees. It is paying for road projects such as further improvements to U.S. 19 in Pinellas and a vital link to the Port of Tampa in Hillsborough — projects that will yield benefits for years. Overall, some 167,000 jobs have been created or saved in Florida. To fail to save those jobs, as Crist said, would have been "unconscionable.''
Yet Rubio and other Republicans won't let the facts get in the way of a campaign pitch. Republican candidate for governor Rick Scott has claimed the stimulus did not create one private sector job — earning a "Pants on Fire'' rating from PolitiFact Florida. He also is no fan of high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, even with the $1.25 billion in stimulus and preliminary work under way. Richard B. Nugent, the Republican candidate in the 5th Congressional District, would stop spending stimulus money to the detriment of his own North Suncoast communities. Incumbent Republicans such as Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Adam Putnam of Bartow, who voted against the stimulus, now want stimulus money for pet projects.
While Crist and Meek properly defend the stimulus, Rubio has a remarkable memory loss about the grave situation the nation and the state found itself in 20 months ago. The federal stimulus package has its flaws, and unemployment in Florida and elsewhere remains far too high. But the facts show the stimulus has produced positive results, and in Florida there is more to come as the state continues to spend the rest of the money.
To voters worried about the future, though, "things could be worse'' is a tough sell.