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Job-creating economy on minds of most Pennsylvanians

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Monday, Jan. 10, 2011

Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is lower than the national average, but that's no comfort to the jobless.

"Unemployment isn't really 6, 8 or 9 percent. It's either zero or 100," said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh. "You either have a job or you don't."

Kay Hoskin, 68, of Bellevue said she has been in the "don't" category for 18 months.

She's in a better position than most to understand why 70 percent of voters said creating jobs and improving Pennsylvania's economy should be a priority for the new governor and Legislature this year, according to a statewide poll conducted for the Tribune-Review.

"I try not to be a pessimist," said Hoskin, a former English teacher who believes the government should cut tax incentives to companies that send jobs overseas. "Those in power don't seem motivated to listen."

Next on voters' to-do list: Reforming state government in Harrisburg, a priority among 35 percent surveyed.

That could be explained by 53 percent of respondents who said Pennsylvania "has gotten on the wrong track," a 6-percentage-point increase from 2009. The Susquehanna Polling & Research poll surveyed 800 registered voters from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2; the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

Only 28 percent said the state is going in the right direction.

That figure matches voter responses in a September 2005 survey conducted two months after the Legislature's infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise. And it's the second lowest "right direction" percentage since Susquehanna began tracking it in 2003, said Jim Lee, the firm's president.

The "right direction" question hit bottom at 22 percent in March in the depths of the economic recession, which "shows we still have a long way to go to restore optimism here at home," Lee said.

Forty-one percent said they think Pennsylvania's economy will improve in the next 12 months. Republicans (45 percent) were more likely to predict an improvement than Democrats (38 percent). Republican Tom Corbett of Shaler will be sworn in this month as governor, and Republicans will hold a majority in both the Senate and House.

"In Harrisburg, do we need all those legislators• No. Other states do it with half as many," said William "Bill" Budris, 61, of Aliquippa.

Like many in the survey, Budris, a Democrat, isn't optimistic that positive reforms will happen, and he said he's worse off financially than he was five years ago.

The state's looming $4 billion to $5 billion budget deficit and crumbling public pension system could cause enough of a crisis to rile voters to demand legislators cut their ranks and spending, he said.

In the survey, 56 percent support a combination of budget cuts and tax increases to solve the state's budget problems. Only 23 percent believe cuts alone are a solution.

"We have wasteful spending, and if you add it all up, it wouldn't put you $4 billion in the hole, but it creates a certain way of thinking," said Jim Parker, 77, a retired Heinz factory manager from Richland.

He said legislators are more likely to cut off or suspend a public service -- state parks, for example -- to reduce state spending than they are to slash spending on their state-paid vehicle leases.

Briem, the Pitt economist, said pessimism about the economy likely comes from a national focus on "a bad national recession" rather than the notion of Pennsylvania as a separate economy.

The national unemployment rate dropped to 9.4 percent in December, the lowest mark in 19 months. Pennsylvania's rate was 8.6 percent in November.

There are reasons for optimism regarding job growth and wages. The average wage for all occupations in the Pittsburgh area is near the national average and slightly above it in the Philadelphia area, labor statistics show.

Rapid growth of the Marcellus shale gas industry is creating jobs in pockets of the state that have long suffered from the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Voters expecting newly elected politicians to stimulate significant job growth might be disappointed, Briem said.

"The tools that they have are fairly limited," he said. "And the period of time a governor is there is not that long. Economic impact takes time. Changing population trends takes even longer."

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