LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Former President Bill Clinton told legislators in his home state that he'd be shocked if it took more than two years for the nation's weakened economy to rebound, and urged them to use millions in federal stimulus dollars to boost the state's workforce.
Drawing on his experience as Arkansas' governor for 12 years, Clinton told lawmakers in a joint address that they should count themselves lucky when compared to other states that are facing budget deficits and sharp cutbacks due to the economy.
"You have no idea what it's like in some of these states," Clinton told members of the Arkansas General Assembly. "They are worried about opening the schoolhouse door."
Clinton returned to his old Capitol stomping ground for his first speech to lawmakers in eight years, reminiscing with old colleagues but also encouraging his home state on ways to weather the nation's recession.
"My best guess is we'll be able to turn back up somewhere between 12 and 15 months, and I would be shocked if it takes more than two years. But I'll be surprised if it takes only six months," Clinton told members of the Arkansas General Assembly during a joint session.
Clinton said he strongly supported the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed into law this week, but said it is not the only answer to the nation's economic woes.
"It is a bridge over troubled waters," Clinton said. "Because this is a private economy, and we have to get the private banking system working again."
Clinton said the state should be grateful it is not facing the budget deficits that other states are experiencing. He praised an $87.8 million tobacco tax increase signed into law Tuesday to fund health programs, and also said he was glad lawmakers were considering another cut in the sales tax on groceries.
"Other states would kill to have that option," Clinton said. "They couldn't even consider it. They're worried about closing public schools."
Clinton's 30-minute speech to the Legislature was his first since shortly before he left the White House in 2001. He spoke in the same House chamber where he delivered six State of the State addresses as governor.
"My life is written in the faces I see here," he said.
Clinton urged the lawmakers to use the state's share of the stimulus package to help create more jobs in Arkansas.
"Think about how you can use this stimulus to maximize the jobs you create," Clinton said.
Legislative leaders said they decided to invite Clinton to speak to the House and Senate because the former president was already scheduled to be in town for another event. They described it mostly as a homecoming, even though only three of the 135 members of the Legislature served during Clinton's terms as governor.
Gov. Mike Beebe, who attended the speech, served in the state Senate when Clinton was governor.
After the speech, House Speaker Robbie Wills said the Legislature would use the federal stimulus package "to leverage everything that we can to do the most benefit for the state."
He said he took Clinton's recommendations for economic development seriously.
"Anytime President Bill Clinton has a suggestion for me or the state of Arkansas, we're certainly going to look at it very very carefully," Wills, D-Conway said.
Clinton has remained a major figure in his home state, and Little Rock is the home of his presidential library. The state's Democratic voters overwhelmingly went for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in last year's Democratic presidential primary. Clinton now serves as Obama's secretary of state.
The former president spent more than an hour and a half after his speech visiting with lawmakers and staffers throughout the Capitol.
Asked by reporters what had changed at the Capitol since he left the governor's office, Clinton replied: "The offices are a lot nicer."
"In general, I think the people responsible for maintaining and continuing to modernize the Capitol have done a good job. You've got a good investment here," Clinton said.
Clinton also met privately with lawmakers in the state Senate before being escorted to the House chamber for his speech. Among those who met with him was Sen. John Paul Capps, the only member of the Legislature who served in the General Assembly for all of Clinton's 12 years in office.
Capps said he thought Clinton's remarks would help the Legislature as it prepared to deal with the stimulus package and other issues.
"I think he's helping us by encouraging us to be positive, and we have to think that way," said Capps, D-Searcy. "We have to make it work. I think what he says really makes sense."