New Jersey Sen. Lautenberg says it’s time for a new WPA

By Megan Carpentier
Tuesday, October 18, 2011 15:33 EDT
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Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) isn’t taking last week’s failure to pass President Obama’s jobs package lying down. Instead, he’s got a bolder plan in mind: create a new Works Progress Administration.

“It’s apparent that there’s a lot of need out there, and it’s apparent that there’s a lot of works out there,” he told Raw Story in an exclusive interview. “We’ve got millions of people looking for work,” he added, and his plan has “the immediacy factor” that other plans — including the President’s — lacks.

“The President’s plan — and, by the way, we wouldn’t have minded if it passed, I voted for it — has a lot of good things… but it doesn’t have the immediacy factor [of mine],” he said.

Lautenberg’s legislation, called the 21st Century WPA Act, wouldn’t be exactly like the WPA that gave Lautenberg’s own father a job during the Great Depression. Rather, it would award funding to projects that would give jobs to people unemployed for more than 60 days; have a continued economic benefit after their completion; and would devote a “high” portion of each dollar spent to employee pay. The legislation suggests — but does not limit departments to — a variety of projects, including the construction of water treatment plants, schools and firehouses, highway repairs and maintenance, building weatherization and trail maintenance.

He says that the projects he suggest aren’t simply make-work: “Since 1970, our population has increased by about 110 million people, which by itself would create a need for [these facilities],” he said. And because the priority would be on funding projects that would “get people a job in a hurry,” he says it would get people working faster than the jobs legislation that Senate Republicans blocked last week.

Asked about how long he thinks it would take to get people hired for projects in the legislation, he said, “A couple of months, maybe,” before pointing out that “People can get on the job before projects break ground,” since most would require architects, planning and a variety of other managerial, professional and administrative workers to get started.

Another new initiative in the legislation is the creation of a WPA fellowship program, which would help train unemployed workers new skills. Employers who can’t find sufficiently skilled workers for their companies could apply for participate in a program through which the WPA would pay for a previously-unemployed person to get on-the-job training for up to 12 months, after which the employer would either hire the fellow or terminate their participation in the fellowship program.

Lautenberg says the whole program would be paid for by a 5.4 percent surtax on income over $1 million for single filers (and $2 million for joint filers). A surtax on high earners was once considered as a way to fund health care reform, but jettisoned due to controversy from Republicans.

The President’s jobs bill is expected to resurface in pieces when the Senate returns in November from its district work period.

UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act, the first piece of the President’s original jobs package, and it is expected to be considered on the Senate floor as early as this week.

The text of Lautenberg’s legislation is embedded below.

[Image via Amy Blodgett Walker for Wellstone Action, Creative Commons licensed]

Megan Carpentier
Megan Carpentier is the executive editor of Raw Story. She previously served as an associate editor at Talking Points Memo; the editor of news and politics at Air America; an editor at Jezebel.com; and an associate editor at Wonkette. Her published works include pieces for the Washington Post, the Washington Independent, Ms Magazine, RH Reality Check, the Women's Media Center, On the Issues, the New York Press, Bitch and Women's eNews.
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