States follow Uncle Sam's lead in offering jobs bills
In the heart of West Virginia's coal country, ''just about everybody'' is unemployed, says strip miner Alfred Nelson - including himself. The eight-year veteran of the coal fields lost his job nearly a year ago, and now he's about to exhaust his unemployment benefits as well. As far as he's concerned, his dangerous work as a ''shooter'' - a person who sets up dynamite charges - pales in comparison with the precarious existence he now leads. Trying to support a wife and two young children on a $194 weekly unemployment check - vs. the $500 a week he was once making - he's been forced to dip into the savings he and his wife had accumulated by living in a rented mobile home.
Yet, in the midst of the gloom that has settled over the hollows of Appalachia and in the Nelson household and others like it, a bright spot may indeed be appearing on the horizon. With unemployment in West Virginia at 20.4 percent, state lawmakers have introduced a bill to help put people back to work. Those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits would be eligible under the plan, and would be employed in a wide range of public-works jobs.
Critics call the West Virginia plan and similar jobs programs in other states ''make-work'' legislation. Mr. Nelson calls it ''the last, best chance I've got.''
Besides West Virginia, at least six states, including Minnesota, Utah, Vermont, Missouri, New Jersey, and Washington, have passed or are considering public-works programs similar to the multibillion-dollar jobs bill now in Congress. Some programs would accelerate work on already approved projects. Other states have passed or are considering bond issues to fund job programs.
Like the federal initiative, state jobs programs will put people to work on sewer and water projects, bridge and road repair, and building construction, as well as reforestation and weatherization projects.
For already pinched state budgets, the new programs will mean more borrowing, higher taxes, or other means of raising money that may be unpalatable to voters.
On March 7, a special commission in West Virginia presented the Legislature with a $300 million plan to put West Virginians to work upgrading secondary roads and restoring historical state buildings, among other labor-intensive projects. The state has been forced to borrow $1 million a day from the federal government to fund unemployment benefits. Who qualifies
In order to provide employment for some of the 26,000 men and women in the state who have exhausted their unemployment benefits (the standard of eligibility most states apply to their jobs programs), backers of the legislation are calling for a sales tax on food and an increase in the payroll tax.
In Minnesota, Gov. Rudy Perpich (D) unveiled last week a one-year, three-tiered jobs program. The $75 million to $125 million proposal will give top preference to private sector hiring. The plan offers a state subsidy of $5 per hour per worker for a six-month period for any employer rehiring workers. The employer would have to repay 70 percent of the subsidy a year after the date of hiring. A second tier would offer a more traditional public-works jobs program, while a third tier would include ''safety net'' unemployment benfits.
Jobs bills appear to pop up at random among the various states. It is not limited to those states with the highest unemployment, or those that could more readily afford the cost of such an effort. Neither is the jobs legislation limited to states where a liberal Democrat occupies the governor's mansion.
In Vermont, GOP Gov. Richard A. Snelling has proposed ''Vermont Futures,'' a their unemployment benefits to work on state public-works projects. Vermont currently ranks 47th among the states in unemployment, with a 1982 yearly average of 6.8 percent.
Governor Snelling was an early point man for President Reagan's New Federalism proposal, which was designed to turn control of some federal programs back to the states. But he sees no switch from Reaganomics to the New Deal in his current stance.
''Vermont Futures is not contrary to my economic principles,'' says the governor. ''It is a viable program that will keep Vermont from losing skilled labor.'' Characterizing bonds as jobs bills
In some states, legislators are getting political mileage out of ordinary bond initiatives by hailing them as jobs programs. For example, supporters of a bond issue for new prison construction might play up the jobs component that naturally attends such construction but was never highlighted in the past. The technique has a good track record. Lee Webb, author of ''Putting America Back to Work: What States and Cities Can Do,'' says, ''The bond initiatives that succeeded last November were the ones that made the most of the jobs component.''
Instead of characterizing ordinary bond issues as jobs programs, some states are funding public-works projects with bond issues. Traditionally, bond issues have been floated for capital goods - anything from a sports stadium to a sewer system. The new bond issues are for such noncapital items as state park maintenance.
Last year Missouri voters approved a $600 million bond issue. In September, the Legislature authorized the sale of $75 million of those bonds, which will go toward the renovation of state property as well transportation needs. Gov. Christopher S. Bond (R) has said the overall program could create as many as 57, 000 jobs and has called on the Legislature to authorize the sale of another $200 million in bonds.