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There is reason to believe things are stabilizing

The economy is topic number one on everyone’s mind. Alabama is feeling the full brunt of the recession, with the state’s unemployment rate at its highest levels since the early 1980s. Things have been so difficult that it has almost bankrupted Alabama’s most populous county, caused proration in our education budget, caused an FDIC takeover of the state’s second largest bank, and created a historically high foreclosure rate.

Yet, even with so much bad economic news there is some reason to believe that things are stabilizing.

First, the national unemployment rate actually went down nationally in June, from 9.5 percent to 9.4 percent. That’s the first time that has happened in almost two years. Job losses are slowing, and businesses seem to be making the choice of retaining workers.

Alabama’s unemployment rate is about a percentage point higher than the national number, reflecting the shakeout of many of our state’s industries. However, there are some signs we can look to for a better picture ahead.

Alabama is still the fifth in the nation for auto production. The auto assembly plants operated by Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai in Alabama turned out a combined 672,102 vehicles over the past year. That’s a 9 percent decline from 2007’s record-setting total of 739,019, but better than most other automakers.

Hyundai in Montgomery recently went back to a five days a week production schedule, which is up from the four it went to earlier in the year. This now gets all their employees back to full-time status.

The Alabama automakers have said the government program “cash-for-clunkers” helped. When consumers shifted to more fuel-efficient vehicles, they were able to move with the market quickly.

Auburn University Montgomery economist Keivan Derav said it was no surprise Alabama was doing better than the rest of the nation during the slump, because “we have some of the most efficient production lines… We have the cream of the crop in terms of the automobile industry.”

There are other small bright spots for smaller Alabama manufacturers and employers, with everything from bio-diesel to advanced materials making incremental gains in communities across the state.

There will also soon be an increase in construction spending, an area hard hit by the recession and the burst of the real estate bubble. In the federal stimulus plan, Alabama has $560 million earmarked for transportation projects. Working on our roads and bridges is not only good for infrastructure, but it can employ hundreds of construction workers who lost their jobs when housing slumped and commercial development tanked.

Another important part of the Alabama job market helped considerably by the stimulus is education. Over the next two years, Alabama is slated to get $1.3 billion in education budget stabilization funds. These funds directly saved more than 4000 teaching positions across the state and thousands more education support workers in every school district.

Many criticized the stimulus over issues like the increased debt, or that government has no business in the economy at all, and there are some valid points in those concerns. However, say what you want about the federal stimulus spending, right now it is a critical economic engine for Alabama.

From “cash-for-clunkers” increasing the demand for Alabama cars to the money that is fixing Alabama roads, the stimulus money is helping keep Alabama workers working. With these times as tough as they are, every bit of positive economic activity helps.

Jimmy Martin serves as Chilton County’s representative’s in the Alabama Legislature.