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Cashing in on stimulus: Money, jobs headed California's way

WASHINGTON -- Working in his office at a public health clinic in downtown Sacramento, Robert Caulk is gearing up to make a dent in California's growing unemployment rate, now at 10.5 percent.

Caulk, the chief executive officer of The Effort, has already offered a job to a psychiatrist to help the homeless, making a good start in his goal to hire from 40 to 44 new employees by the end of June.

"That's going to be a challenge, but that's what we're going for," said Caulk, who has been plenty busy since his organization became one of the very first in the state to cash in on the massive $787 billion stimulus program passed by Congress.

His planning is the ultimate proof that the stimulus is sending money and jobs to the Golden State, as Congress promised when it passed the largest spending bill in the nation's history last month. And while only time will tell if the stimulus delivers 396,000 jobs in California in two years, as promised by the White House, the early signs appear encouraging.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office this week said the latest estimates show the stimulus bringing $85 billion in benefits to the state, including $50 billion in new spending and $35 billion in tax cuts.

The tax cuts for working Americans are expected to show up in paychecks by April 1.

Those who are not working will get a raise, too: The White House said Thursday that all people who receive Social Security benefits will get a one-time payment of $250 in May, part of a plan to spread "recovery payments" as quickly as possible.

In making the announcement, Vice President Joe Biden said the plan is to get the money "out the door in record time and into the hands of folks who need it most."

The White House said that three-fourths of the stimulus money will be spent within 18 months. State officials are under pressure to act quickly to avoid losing any of their funds.

In California, the lion's share of the money -- more than $27 billion -- will be spent on health and human services and education programs, according to state officials.

And by early May, the California Department of Transportation is promising to begin the first of 57 transportation projects worth $625 million. They're expected to create more than 11,000 new jobs throughout the state.

"This is about jobs, jobs, jobs," said Caltrans Director Will Kempton.

Schwarzenneger said Tuesday that the federal stimulus money will be spent "efficiently and with transparency and accountability." The state has created a special Web site (www.recovery.ca.gov) to make it easier for the public to track all spending. In addition, the state will be required to submit periodic reports to the federal government, outlining exactly where the money has gone.

While California is estimating its total haul of new spending at $50 billion, that number could grow. The state plans to update its Web site as the federal government releases more competitive grants and as more federal guidelines for the money become available. State officials said the site will use digital mapping technology to allow people to see the geographic distribution of the money, as well.

Caulk, no stranger to dealing with bureaucratic government agencies, said he can't believe how quickly the federal government is moving. He said he was notified that he would receive a $1.3 million grant on March 3, only two weeks after President Barack Obama signed the stimulus into law.

"They were so bloody fast ... I was surprised to get a call from Washington saying congratulations," he said. But he said he had one big advantage: His money did not have to go through the state first.

While he's made one job offer using stimulus money so far, Caulk said he has yet to hire anyone, but he's not about to go too quickly.

"The worst thing you can do in my business is roll out programs, start hiring people, rushing through stuff, if you don't have the infrastructure and you don't have the accountability tools in place," he said.

While the stimulus is pumping billions of dollars into individual programs around the country, some state officials fear what will happen after two years, when stimulus funding ends but the public has expectations that programs will continue.

Caulk said he's familiar with the argument, but he's not worried about filling his positions, even if there's no guarantee that the jobs will still exist in two years.

"There's so much instability right now that nobody's worried about that right now," he said. "People are looking for opportunities. ... People are eager to join our team."

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