LITTLETON- U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen has spent the last few months trying to answer the question of how to get the economy working again, and last Friday's North Country tour was an opportunity to focus on the needs of small businesses – to determine where the federal government can help, and where it needs to step back and give the private sector room to grow, Shaheen said. A stop in Littleton to hear concerns and answer questions from local business and political leaders was part of that mission.
"I think we need to deal with [debt,] but we need a thoughtful approach that deals with all government spending," said Shaheen at the White Mountain Community College (WMCC) to the more than 15 people in attendance. Shaheen spoke out against the "House way" of dealing with cutting the budget, which she said is just to focus on the discretionary, non-defense spending that represents only 12 percent of the budget.
Shaheen said there is clearly a difference between the House and the Senate as far as how to deal with the budget, and the outcome is unclear, though those who have been in Washington a long time say that a government shutdown is possible. All government services aside from essential operations will shutdown unless both bodies can come to an agreement on the terms of a funding extension bill by Friday. The government last shutdown in 1995 and 1996, lasting five and 21 days respectively, and costing the country millions of dollars. Many of the programs on the chopping block were raised by those in attendance, asking Shaheen to advocate on behalf of the programs that they see as most vital to the North Country.
North Country Council Director Michael King urged Shaheen to maintain Economic Development Act (EDA) funding, which was recently restored to its prior amount after an $80 million cut to the proposed budget.
"We're looking at creating jobs, and that is our one funding source up here," said King. "It has been a stalwart as far as what we've been doing in the North Country."
Shaheen agreed that it doesn't make sense to eliminate funding that promotes job creation, which is why she encourages a "thoughtful" approach to the budgetary process.
WMCC President Kathy Eneguess turned the discussion to post-secondary education, asking Shaheen to oppose cutting Pell grant funding – one of the many programs on the budgetary chopping block. Pell grants are college grants awarded based on financial need, and Eneguess said that 96 percent of WMCC students receive them. Shaheen said she is a big supporter of the community college and university systems and sees education as necessary for developing a viable work force. She said she was proud when extra Pell funding passed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.
"I don't think it makes sense to throw a bunch of young people out of college," said Shaheen, adding that the demographic is "our future."
Affordable Housing, Education, and Development (AHEAD) Director David Wood praised the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, saying that you cannot drive around the North Country without seeing the program's positive effect.
"We could not compete and develop our properties in rural areas without CDBG," said Wood.
The House has proposed a two-thirds cut to the program, which equates to over $500 million. Supporters of the program argue this could have a detrimental effect on the economy as the program provides thousands of jobs and results in millions of dollars in revenues for communities across the country.
Shaheen plans to continue to support the Small Business Jobs Act, which Notchnet's Veronica Francis praised for the small business loan she received to help expand her web services company. The act, which was passed in the fall, extended the SBA loans, continues waiving fees on loans, and expands the amount of funds available. The law provides $12 billion in tax relief, and set up two funds that will help states with their own lending programs. It also provides small businesses with export assistance which Shaheen pointed out is important because while 95 percent of markets are outside of the United States, only one percent of small businesses do business outside of the country. Prior to stopping in Littleton, Shaheen had visited Laconia where last year a company that makes machinery secured a contract with a German company, allowing them to hire three more employees.
Shaheen also mentioned the tourism legislation passed last year that will create support for tourism nationally. The funding for the bill – which will be raised through a surcharge on visas – is not yet available, but Shaheen hopes the bill will help increase tourism to the state. Though this past year was better than the year before for tourism, Shaheen said the industry has been down since September 11.
"It's easy when we've got such a great product to sell," said Shaheen in response to Resident Dick Hamilton's praise for her tourism help
Ned Densmore asked Shaheen about the status of the health care reform bill, passed last year and being targeted for repeal or removal of funding by Republicans. Shaheen voted for the bill that she said provides not only access to care, but also quality and affordability. She stressed that, though it may seem counterintuitive, the measures put in place by the law will actually save the country money over the long-term. Many of the provisions the law creates, such as the coverage for children with pre-existing conditions, expanded Medicaid prescription coverage, and coverage for adult children on their parent's insurance until the age of 26, have not kicked in yet, and will not until 2015. Russ Dowd, of Pinetree Power, pointed out that a lot of people are blaming the reform bill for increases in health insurance, but those increases are a result not of the new system, but of the old system that has "been out of control for a long time."
"The reality is the health care system we had wasn't working – or wasn't working for a lot of people," said Shaheen.
Bill Bedor, speaking as Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees at Littleton Regional Hospital made the point that the increased cost in health care comes not on the part of the individual care providers who usually work to keep costs down as much as they can.
"It's really the system as a whole that handcuffs everybody," said Bedor.
Ultimately, the feedback from the local community ended on a positive note.
"There more good news going on than bad news," said President of the Littleton Investment Development Corporation, pointing to the recent purchase of the former Montgomery Wire building by New England Wire and subsequent lease to Tender Corporation that will allow it to expand its operation and work force in the North Country.
Representative Rusty Bulis put New Hampshire in a national context.
"All you have to do is watch the nightly news and look at states other than New Hampshire, and realize we're not so bad off," said Bulis.