- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

ST. CLOUD, MINN. (AP) - Minnesotans put Vice President Joe Biden and four Cabinet members on the spot Thursday, asking how federal aid could help their transit projects, community colleges and small businesses make it through the economic downturn.

The focus of the town-hall-style forum in a bus garage in central Minnesota was the middle class, and Biden told the crowd of more than 400 that the Obama administration is making sure the $787 billion economic stimulus package helps middle-class families get through the downturn and prosper when the economy eventually turns around.

“We’ll measure our success in these four or eight years based on one thing: whether or not we’ve been able to raise the standard of living for middle-class people,” Biden said. “We’ve got to get this nation growing again.”

The forum at New Flyer of America Inc. was the second meeting of the Middle Class Task Force, a Biden-led group of Cabinet members and top administration officials. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and the secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Education joined Biden on a stage surrounded by new electric hybrid buses manufactured at the plant.

After giving an overview of programs that will get a boost from the economic stimulus and explaining how the middle class would benefit, Biden and the others fielded questions from an audience that included members of the public, students and teachers from local colleges, transit officials and New Flyer employees.

Joyce Helens, president of St. Cloud Technical College, told Biden and the others that colleges are facing a funding crisis, and she asked what the federal government could do to help make sure colleges are still able to train workers.

Biden said billions in financial aid will get more students in college and keep them there to finish their degrees. That potential boost in enrollment could help offset budget cuts while training workers for good-paying jobs, he said.

“It’s going to relieve the burden of laying off people and a lot of other constraints you have,” he said.

The questions sometimes strayed from the agenda. One person asked about services for immigrants and refugees; another wanted to know about veterans programming.

Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland asked if a proposed bus rapid transit project connecting to light rail in her part of the Twin Cities area would qualify for stimulus money.

“Tomorrow you’ll have a phone call from folks at DOT,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “It’s a classic example of what we want to do at DOT to help communities like yours.”

Also Thursday, the task force released a report showing details on how the stimulus would help middle-income families. The report said jobs created by the stimulus would lower the unemployment rate by 2 percentage points, which would raise middle-class incomes by 2.3 percent.

Tax benefits included in the measure could also add $2,000 to after-tax family income, the report said.

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