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Senate hopefuls hesitant to embrace stimulus

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / November 22, 2009

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None of the candidates running for US Senate is standing firmly behind the $787 billion federal stimulus package, with some offering only measured support while others are sharply criticizing it as wasteful and poorly crafted.

The lack of support is particularly notable among the four running in the Democratic primary, where candidates typically are pressured to toe the party line and support an initiative so closely tied to the fortunes of the president. Instead, they act as if it’s radioactive, carefully distancing themselves or denouncing it outright.

“I know it’s not working,’’ said Alan Khazei. “People are hurting and unemployment keeps going up. The first stimulus was full of pork; there were thousands of earmarks.’’

In recent weeks, the stimulus package has come under increasingly harsh criticism as news accounts detail exaggerated job creation numbers and funding for projects that seem only loosely tied to its mission. The Globe reported this past week that sprinkled among $3.9 billion in stimulus projects in Massachusetts are expenditures to fix a remote lighthouse off Cape Cod and to study pollen counts and the evolution of civic life in Viking-era Iceland.

Another Democrat, Martha Coakley, said she would withhold support for a second stimulus until there is stronger evidence the first measure is working.

“I don’t rule it out,’’ she said of a second bill. “But it’s a lot of money and these are taxpayer dollars. The first stimulus was done with good intentions, but it’s too early to say whether it was successful enough.’’

The first stimulus, passed quickly after President Obama took office last winter, included a broad array of provisions: $282 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses, including a $400-per-person income tax credit; $120 billion for transportation and other infrastructure projects; $45 billion to promote renewable energy projects; and a $87 billion infusion to states for Medicaid, among other expenditures.

US Representative Michael E. Capuano is the only candidate who had to vote on the stimulus legislation. He said he voted for it even though it contained some expenditures he didn’t back.

Today, he offers measured support. “It created some jobs and it saved a lot of jobs,’’ he said, adding that the tax provisions should have been focused on putting people back to work, instead of boosting consumer spending. As for a second bill, Capuano said: “If it’s an across-the-board Christmas tree, no, I wouldn’t vote for it. But I would vote for something that’s targeted toward job creation.’’

The measure might have slowed the pace of job losses, but it hasn’t reversed rising national unemployment, with jobless numbers consistently rising over the past 22 months. In Massachusetts, however, there are signs of improvement, with the unemployment rate dropping last month for the first time in two years.

Stephen Pagliuca said a large stimulus was necessary to help jolt the economy out of the recession, but he said it did not include enough money for job training and failed to strike the right balance between creating quick public works jobs and spurring longer-term economic growth. “If you just focus on short-term projects, the money is going to run out at some point,’’ he said.

State Senator Scott P. Brown, a Republican from Wrentham, offered the sharpest condemnation. “The first (stimulus) didn’t work,’’ he said. “It hasn’t created one job that I’m aware of. It created government jobs certainly, and government is doing well. The funds haven’t even been released. How can they do a second one?’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.