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A safety net for government jobs?

Obama's stimulus plan may strive to prevent layoffs of public-sector workers in states, cities.

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In that context, an Obama economic recovery plan that saves jobs that otherwise might be lost amounts to much the same thing as creating new jobs, he adds.

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“If we can avoid job loss in the public sector as well as the private, that would be a major achievement,” he says. “It’s not clear [the Obama plan] would add to the baseline of public employment. It’s simply going to avoid job loss that otherwise might be.”

For public-service unions, which were among the strongest backers of the Obama and Democratic congressional candidates in the 2008 race, stakes couldn’t be higher. Thousands of members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are contacting members of Congress this week to lobby for

“significant relief” to state and local governments to preserve “crucial services and good jobs.”

“In state after state, there are real issues about the number of workers they’re talking about laying off,” says Anna Burger, SEIU secretary-treasurer in a phone interview.

“In Michigan we heard yesterday that because they had to cut back on road crews, they won’t plow unless there are at least four inches of snow on the ground. In New York, there’s now a half-an-hour wait on a child-abuse hot line to get to workers, because of cuts. These are services critical for safety,” she adds. “We will be as active postelection as we were in the election … to make sure the newly elected members of Congress do the right thing.”

After meeting Monday with the president-elect and Democratic leaders in the Capitol, GOP leaders said they welcomed the inclusion of tax breaks in the Obama recovery plan but were wary of favoring public-sector job creation and unconditional grants to the states.

“I remain concerned about wasteful spending that might be attached to the tax relief,” said House Republican leader John Boehner in a statement after the meeting. “Simply put, we should not bury future generations under mountains of debt and create 600,000 new government jobs which, according to reports, the plan under consideration would do in the name of economic stimulus.”

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans favor offering help to state and local governments as a loan: 5 percent interest over five years and then 9 percent after that.

“I think the states that did take advantage of the loans would be very careful about how they spent the money,” he said in a press briefing on Monday.

The high-profile role of public-employee unions in the lobbying over this bill is troubling for some Republicans, who see the unions as key players in GOP defeats in the 2008 election. They see a boost for public-sector jobs as a boost, too, for partisan unions.