‘Jobs by June’ seems distant goal for legislative panel

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

As members of the Colorado Legislature’s nascent Committee on Job Creation and Economic Growth met in the Capitol for a second time, it became increasingly apparent that there’s no easy way for them to fulfill their charge of creating “Jobs by June.”

“Another presentation we need our antidepressants for?” asked Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, the chair of the committee, before hearing testimony from a Denver economist on Thursday, Dec. 4.

The economist, Patricia Silverstein, president of the Littleton-based Development Research Partners, told the 10-person committee that although Denver’s economy usually adds 27,000 to 29,000 jobs annually, she projects that only 7,000 jobs will be created in 2009.

Statewide, she predicted some “minimal” job growth in 2009.

The committee’s goal is to find — and quickly, cost-effectively boost — economic sectors with potential to create a significant number of new jobs for Coloradans.

In response, Silverstein named four sectors that might offer opportunity for economic growth during the coming year: aerospace, bioscience, renewable energy and aviation.

Each has potential up sides and down sides.

Silverstein noted that Colorado ranks second in the nation for private-sector jobs in the aerospace industry and characterized the bioscience segment as fiercely competitive. Colorado’s position in the renewable energy segment, she noted, is bolstered by the presence of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

She was most cautious in assessing the potential of the aviation industry, warning that the economic downturn might cause both the public and private sectors to cut back on their flights.

She lamented the recent collapse of the financial sector, which she had viewed as an area of probable growth for 2009. Instead, she noted, that industry has sustained “severe job losses” in Colorado.

Silverstein believes government has a role to play in job creation. With a tip of the hat to the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, she said public spending on such projects as mass transit are more likely to create jobs than increased consumer spending.

She said significant spending on Denver International Airport and other massive projects during the early 1990s had helped bring the state out of a recession.

Silverstein also said that although the federal government initially lacked a coherent strategy to deal with the crisis — bailing out Bear Stearns while letting Lehman Brothers fail, for instance — it now has instilled greater confidence in the financial markets for consumers through a more coherent policy.

“I think that they’re starting to move down the same path here,” she said. “So I think that will help on the consumer side.”

As Democrats across the country speak of putting “shovels in the ground” to literally dig the country out of economic stagnation, some Republicans — at both the state and national level — are wary, citing debt as the very reason the country has gone into its current economic spiral.

At a meeting with governors across the country last week in Philadelphia, which was attended by Gov. Bill Ritter, President-elect Barack Obama pushed the Democratic approach, promising to produce 2.5 million new jobs by 2011, largely through government efforts to create “green” jobs and rebuild infrastructure.

Although not all governors at the conference publicly favor more government spending, none raised their hands when asked if they would reject transportation funding if it were offered.

At both job creation panel meetings, Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, has emphasized the need for Colorado to “step up and take more than our fair share back” of the federal dollars.

One witness at the hearing on Thursday morning spoke strongly against drawing any solutions to the financial crisis along party lines.

John Brackney, president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, repeatedly pleaded for legislators to put politics aside and “work voraciously” in areas of common agreement.

“I believe we are living in a time that no one else in this room has ever been alive during,” he said. “Please get rid of partisan politics. Please eliminate it. Don’t even think about it.”

“Sounds controversial — it’s not,” he said, adding that the Legislature should not go anywhere near the labor vs. business battle that occurred during the 2008 elections until the economy is back on track. “Fight next year, so you all can get elected from wherever you are.”

Brackney, who said he probably had met with more CEOs than anyone else in the state over recent months, said the economy “is 100 times worse in the last three weeks than two months ago.”

“Controversial again,” he said, for perhaps the tenth time during his testimony.

During the hearing, the governor’s office announced a series of statewide Small Business Finance Forums to help small businesses survive the ongoing financial crisis. Six forums will be held across the state, beginning with a Pueblo forum on Dec. 11. The new program will offer small business owners the opportunity to confer with members of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade and learn how various government programs, such as those offering venture capital to startups, work.

The committee will meet at least four more times before the legislative session begins in January. Schwartz, D-Snowmass, said the Dec. 8 meeting will feature a panel of four small business owners who will discuss the potential removal of regulations that hinder business growth. It also will feature leaders from the nonprofit sector, higher education, the Department of Natural Resources and the Governor’s Energy Office.

The Dec. 15 meeting will include representatives of the oil and gas industry, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the construction and home-building industry and the Department of Local Affairs.

On Dec. 22 — following what is likely to be a dire economic forecast set for release by the governor’s office on Dec. 19 — the committee will discuss strategies to land federal dollars likely to become available from the Obama administration.