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Instead of a jobs tax credit, we should fix our infrastructure

President Obama pledged to make job creation a top priority in his State of the Union address, and his appearance at a Highlandtown machine shop last Friday confirmed it. But while his proposed $5,000-per-new-job tax credit for small businesses sounds helpful, it's a relatively paltry incentive and ripe for abuse from firms that are bound to find ways to collect the credit without necessarily expanding their payroll.

If voters are angry that so much money went to bail out banks, will they necessarily be excited by the prospect of small businesses getting a one-year $33 billion hand-out and Social Security discount? Surely not when incidents of fraud are exposed, as will inevitably happen.

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If Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Congress want to do more to jump-start hiring -- as they should given that 15 million Americans are out of work -- a more sensible means is at hand. And perhaps most important, the money spent could represent a genuine investment, the payoff coming not just today but to the benefit of generations to come.

This nation's transportation and public works infrastructure is strained and deteriorating to an alarming degree. The U.S. has not kept up with needs, and for all the talk of the burden the budget deficit places on our children and grandchildren, this failure to keep our infrastructure in good repair may prove just as onerous.

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Perhaps it's not sexy to talk about asphalt and steel, concrete and catenary, but the construction industry has been hit harder than most sectors of the economy. Even the tens of billions committed by last year's economic stimulus pales in comparison to the unmet needs.

That was amply demonstrated last week when Mr. Obama announced the beneficiaries of the $8 billion in high-speed rail program contained in the stimulus. As welcome as the boost will be, it is likely to leave states feeling a bit like a hungry orphan looking for more workhouse gruel: For every dollar awarded, the government had $7 in requests from states. Many received little more than planning money for projects that neither the feds nor the states are prepared to finance.

Right now, states have 10,000 ready-to-go transportation projects valued at $79 billion waiting to be funded, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Funding them creates real, not theoretical, private sector jobs, many of them in small companies.

What kind of left-wing crazies can support this kind of capital investment? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- and other conservative business groups -- are usually first in line. That's because they see the value of better roads, bridges and mass transit in growing the economy.

The jobs bill passed by the House -- and endorsed by Mr. Obama in his State of the Union -- includes such spending and is a good starting point. The Senate needs to make the $154 billion plan leaner and meaner, turning it into a straight public works bill that Republicans cannot so easily oppose -- at least if Democrats can refrain from larding it with earmarks and wasteful pet projects.

Elected leaders who are genuinely worried about the deficit recognize that the sooner the economy is firmly back on track, the sooner the government can both collect the taxes and trim the spending needed to bring the budget back in balance. Spending on infrastructure ensures that money is not just priming the pump but creating something of critical long-term value, too.

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