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Shaheen says her focus is on economy

NASHUA - Federal lawmakers' No. 1 priority remains getting the economy moving, with reforming health care, building a strong clean-energy industry and freeing up credit for small businesses paving the way to revitalization, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said Friday.

"Even though we're doing better in New Hampshire than much of the rest of the country, we still have too many people who are struggling, too many small businesses in particular that are finding it difficult to keep going," Shaheen, D-N.H., said at a luncheon attended by about 100 business officials and state lawmakers.

Her speech was part of a Legislative Symposium presented by the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. The symposium was sponsored by Public Service of New Hampshire and BAE Systems and held at the Radisson Hotel.

Shaheen, who also answered a handful of questions posed by audience members, joked that a red spot on her nose wasn't because she had been in a fight.

"I had a little skin cancer removed," Shaheen said. "I'm OK; they got it all."

The former three-term New Hampshire governor serves on the Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

The economy was the focus of her address.

Shaheen said she's looking for ways the government can work with the private sector "in order to get this economy going and create jobs again. In my mind, that's been everything from health care to helping small businesses look for credit."

The federal stimulus act has put money back into the economy, Shaheen said.

"Fortunately, we are back from the brink from the very critical situation we were in when I took office," she said.

Shaheen said she worked to make sure New Hampshire received its fair share of stimulus funding, naming state companies that have received funding.

Health care reform remains one of the greatest challenges, Shaheen said.

"I think it's very clear that the status quo when it comes to our health care system is not sustainable," she said. "I think this very frankly is an economic issue, an economic issue for our families, an economic issue for our businesses and a competitive issue for this country."

It's clear that health care is becoming unaffordable for more and more people, she said.

"More than 60 percent of all personal bankruptcies are due to health care debts," Shaheen said.

"More and more small businesses are dropping health care coverage for their workers, not because they want to, because they simply can't afford it and be competitive."

"The high cost of health care makes it very difficult for American manufacturers to compete globally."

American companies are at a competitive disadvantage paying the health care costs of retired workers, who in other countries are covered by the country's health care system, not the company's, Shaheen said.

An official from Nashua company W.H. Bagshaw testified at a hearing that the company spends more money on health care than on raw materials, Shaheen said.

"We can't continue to do that and be competitive," she said.

Although "the path to health care reform is uncertain and remains challenging," it's a path that the nation must continue to work toward, Shaheen said.

Shaheen said clean energy is vital to New Hampshire, and she noted the economic recovery act made the biggest investment in history to clean, alternative energy technology.

She mentioned a number of local companies on the cutting edge in the industry, including Batchelder Biodiesel Refineries.

Such companies will create good jobs that can't be transported over seas, Shaheen said.

"Investment in clean energy is one of our greatest economic opportunities," she said.

However, China, Germany and Brazil are competing with the United States to become a leader in the alternative energy industry, Shaheen said.

Turning to the tight credit that many businesses face, Shaheen said it's important for the Small Business Administration to expand lending through 2010.

During the question period that followed, Suzanne Delaney, owner of the Entrepreneur's Source in Nashua, asked about how loans could be extended to people starting a business. An entrepreneur hoping to launch a business can't get loans until he or she has been in business for six months to two years, Delaney said.

Shaheen responded that her focus has been to expand the number of companies to which the SBA can loan.

"We still need to make changes in the financial regulatory system," Shaheen added.

Other questions included revoking or renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement to create a level playing field for U.S. companies; easing restrictions on lending by credit unions; getting the federal government to help the state foot the bill of rising unemployment benefits; addressing the decline of the U.S. dollar compared to Chinese and other foreign currency; and improving how aid can be delivered to the victims of the Haiti earthquake.