WASHINGTON — A $26 billion aid package approved by the House on Tuesday is either a boon to cash-strapped schools and local governments or a lavish giveaway that the country can't afford — depending on which side is talking.
Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, put himself squarely on the first side Tuesday, praising the measure for saving teachers' jobs and helping keep hospitals and clinics open.
Mr. Owens joined the Democratic majority in voting for the bill. The House returned from summer recess for one day to approve it, following last week's Senate action. President Barack Obama signed the bill later in the day.
The congressman's vote was never in doubt; he had said for weeks that he wanted to see Congress approve the teacher aid and increased Medicaid reimbursements to counties, and had expressed some frustration that the House was waiting on Senate passage.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Mr. Owens cast the vote in broader goals than simply helping state and local governments. Helping education ultimately helps create jobs, he said, and access to health care is a big factor companies consider in deciding whether to locate in Northern New York.
"If you fail to keep health care institutions open, you put yourself in a position of less health care," Mr. Owens said.
North country school districts would see about $21.8 million from the measure, including $4.4 million in St. Lawrence County, $3.8 million in Jefferson County, $1.3 million in Lewis County and $2.2 million in Franklin County, Sen. Charles E. Schumer's office reported.
Although local breakdowns of how many teachers' jobs might be at stake were not available, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that 8,100 teaching jobs across New York would be saved by the measure. A total of $607 million is coming to school districts statewide.
Democrats stressed that the measure does not add to the budget deficit because they found other ways to pay for it, through cuts in other programs and increased taxes on multinational corporations that shift jobs overseas.
"This is paid for, so we have, in effect, moved dollars around," Mr. Owens said.
Neither side had much to say, however, about one program the Democrats decided to tap: food stamps, which will be cut by $11.9 billion beginning in 2013 unless Congress finds a way to fill the gap before then. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., already are vowing to revisit that issue.
States will distribute money to districts by the same formulas they use to allocate other federal education money. Although the legislation is aimed at preserving jobs, state education departments may have some leeway in determining how to use it — and Mr. Schumer weighed in Tuesday.
"The education jobs bill is solely designed to stem the tide of layoffs and keep workers from the unemployment line," Mr. Schumer said in a press release. "That's why I plan to push Albany to spend every nickel the way it was intended to be spent — on jobs."
Although the bill's backers pointed to their strategy to pay for the measure, Republicans continued to tag them as wasteful spenders.
The Upstate New York Tea Party criticized Mr. Owens on those grounds and suggested the budget pain local school districts and governments are facing may indeed be necessary.
"Sadly, he also placed his name on the same roster with Nancy Pelosi and a large host of other tax-and-spend liberals who insist on spending money they don't have, to protect public schools and state governments from the spending cuts we taxpayers must have," UNYTEA Chairman Mark L. Barie said in a press release.
Mr. Barie also accused Mr. Owens of supporting the measure as payback to teachers unions that have contributed to his campaign, although the measure had the support of school administrators as well. After the Senate approved the bill last week, the American Association of School Administrators' president, Ed Hatrick, said the result "sends a very clear message: Educational success and economic well-being go hand in hand. AASA thanks the House and Senate for focusing on the priority: Preserving educator jobs and preventing local budget cuts."
And in an indication that campaign season has fully kicked in, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a press release that opened, "Like an addict desperately in need of feeding an addiction, Bill Owens rushed back to Washington today — on the taxpayers' dime — to do House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's bidding by voting to pass a $26 billion-dollar government spending bill."