News Column

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs and the GOP

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Zakiya Ashford lost her job last year.

Since then, she has lost her car. She paid $9,000 for it and lost it with just $2,000 left to pay. The home where she lives with her husband and two boys, 14 and 6, is in foreclosure. Friday, she was sitting in the waiting room of the state unemployment office, waiting on some documents in an attempt to get a loan modification to save her house.

Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican presidential field say they want to put Ashford back to work. It is in their slogans, speeches and signs.

But Ashford doesn't believe it.

"If the Republicans and Democrats and all of the politicians, if we can switch and make them see how I feel for just a month ... they might think different then," she said.

To be elected president next fall, national polls show, the winning candidate will have to offer a plan to do something about U.S. unemployment, almost 10 percent and, factoring in underemployment -- including those working only part time who want full-time jobs -- roughly 20 percent.

Creating jobs is the No. 1 issue. Last month, a poll by Winthrop University found 62.4 percent of likely S.C. Republican primary voters said the most important problem facing the country is the economy and jobs.

Of course, President Obama, the Democrat incumbent, has his own plans.

But, for now, in South Carolina, the state that holds the first-in-the-South Republican primary in January and is almost certain to go Republican on Election Day 2012, the focus is on what the GOP candidates have to say about jobs and the economy.

The GOP candidates all promise to "create jobs."

Consider the front-runners: Former corporate chief executive Cain points to his cleverly named "9-9-9" plan, which pledges to create jobs by reforming the tax code. Texas Gov. Perry boasts about the state of Texas, where he has been governor for 11 years, including the creation of 1-plus million new jobs. And former Massachusetts Gov. Romney boasts about his 160-page jobs plan.

All of them have the same goal: Put Ashford back to work.

"If I could get a job, everything else will fall into place," she said.

Job record

One way to judge a candidates' job-creating power is to look at what they have done while in charge.

Three GOP candidates -- former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Perry and Romney -- have worked as governors. All of them have pluses and minuses during their tenures.

Perry can claim the largest number of jobs created.

In January 2001, one month after Perry took office, there were 10,023,806 jobs in Texas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In August of this year, the most recent month for which numbers were available, Texas had 11,216,227 jobs.

That's 1,192,421 new jobs in Texas while Perry has been governor, a huge number that Perry has not been shy of showing off.

"I want to take that success to this country," Perry told a raucous crowd at Bazen's Family Restaurant in Florence in August, a week after he entered the race.

But the new jobs in Texas did not keep up with Texas' growing workforce.

As a result, more people are unemployed in Texas today -- 1,036,563 -- than were unemployed when Perry took office -- 442,929. That means Texas' unemployment rate, while still below the national average, has more than doubled under Perry's leadership: 4.2 percent when he started, 8.5 percent today.

Huntsman can claim a historic low unemployment rate.

In April 2007, two years into Huntman's first term as the governor of Utah, the state's unemployment rate dipped to 2.7 percent -- the lowest ever for that state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When he left office in his second term to become U.S. ambassador to China, Utah had 43,462 more jobs than when he started.

But Huntsman did not end strong. Utah added 130,592 jobs in his first three years in office, but lost 87,130 jobs in his last two years in office. Also, Utah's unemployment rate increased to 6.6 percent in 2009, up from 4.1 percent in 2005 when Huntsman took office.

Romney can claim he left Massachusetts with a lower unemployment rate -- meaning, unlike Huntsman and Perry, fewer people were unemployed when he left office. Romney was governor from 2003 to 2007, and Massachusetts had 49,700 more jobs when he left.

But Romney was governor during the good times, leaving office a full 18 months before the U.S. economy crashed into the Great Recession. While Massachusetts' unemployment rate declined under Romney, it was still above the national average. Today, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts is 7.4 percent, below the national average.

Chris Edwards, an economist with the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, said it is a stretch for governors of any state to say they "created jobs."

"Texas, of course, has been economically successful because it's a Southern state, it has a bit of a smaller government than other states, it doesn't have a personal income tax, and it is a right-to-work state. All those things were in place before Perry came to power," he said.

"To his credit, he hasn't screwed up those advantages."

Tax plan jobs plan

Others in the GOP presidential field -- U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Georgia businessman Cain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- cannot point to their executive records, leading a state.

But they agree with Huntsman, Perry and Romney on one thing: For Republicans, lower taxes and more jobs go hand in hand.

"The business sector is the engine of economic growth," Cain said during a Labor Day forum in Columbia. "If you do not start with that principle, we're never going to move this economy."

That's why every candidate's jobs plan includes some type of tax reform:

-- Bachmann wants to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent.

-- Cain wants to throw out the entire current tax structure in favor of a 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent sales tax -- his now-famous "9-9-9" plan.

-- Gingrich favors a 15 percent flat tax, meaning all taxpayers would pay the same rate.

-- Huntsman wants to lower the tax on corporation's profits to 25 percent.

Paul wants to eliminate the personal income tax altogether.

-- Perry, while not offering a specific plan yet, promises to cut taxes.

-- Romney wants to cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent.

-- Santorum wants to eliminate corporate taxes for manufacturers who make their products in the United States.

But Holley Ulbrich, an economist with the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University, says these plans are all missing the same thing: accountability.

"Both Republicans and Democrats want to create jobs," she said. "They're just going about it very differently. The Democrats are proposing to do it more directly -- by hiring teachers and rebuilding bridges. We know those create jobs.

"Republicans propose, even though it may seem more direct, to cut people's taxes. That's actually more indirect. You cut taxes and hope they will use that money in ways that create jobs.

"But if you're going to give tax breaks as an incentive, you need to have accountability that people will use those tax breaks to do what the incentives provided for."

In other words, increased corporate profits due to lower taxes, for example, could go to pay for other things than jobs, such as stock buybacks or executive bonuses.

Others say the government simply should walk away from the idea that government or its policies can create jobs.

Government already has tried the incentives route, says Bill McAfee, president of the S.C. Club for Growth, a hard-line low-tax, small-government group allied with the GOP.

"Let the private sector decide instead of the government giving out specific incentive packages," he said.