Congressman Bill Owens
Congressman Bill Owens (D-NY) held a telephone town hall Wednesday, Feb. 26, with constituents of New York’s 21st Congressional District to discuss policy in Washington, his recent work in the district and issues reflecting both national and local concerns.
“I wanted to host this town hall because it’s been a while since we’ve done this,” Owens told participants before running down a list of recent Capitol Hill accomplishments, including the debt ceiling increase, the 2014-15 resolved budget and last month’s Farm Bill passage.
The outgoing rep said he was instrumental in getting legislation added to the latter to reflect local concerns, including loan facilitation, a $450,000 reduction in export tariffs of apples for juice manufacturing and a bump in funding for maple production and sales.
Owens highlighted the Farm Bill’s Dairy Security Act as important for local farmers and as a boost to the local economy and cited recent discussions with the owners of a robotic dairy farm in Washington County.
“This gives us some real opportunity to allow small farms to continue to exist and let families run those. It’s also a national security issue when it comes to food production.”
Still on the legislative schedule, he said, is the appropriations process, which he anticipates will run smoothly.
“Tax and immigration reform is unclear,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s some discord there.”
Owens then opened up discussion to the 3,996 participating constituents.
“Is there any possibility of the minimum wage bill passing the House?” asked Ernie from Potsdam.
“This is quite unfortunately unlikely as we move forward,” said Owens.
Owens said the state itself done a good job in that respect and some businesses are starting to facilitate changes on their own.
“Seventy percent of the U.S. economy is consumer spending,” he said. “Putting money in the hands of people spending their dollars to enhance the economy is an example of a ‘trickle up theory.’ If people are spending more money, that drives demand which drives manufacturing. We all have a reason to look at where things are made: buy local, buy American.”
Owens said North Country residents should be trained for the jobs that are currently available in the community but remain unstaffed. He estimates there are 2,500 to 3,000 of those in the region.
Linda from Greenville Center asked if Congress was continuing to discuss unemployment extensions: “People have gone quite awhile without help and it’s kind of ridiculous.”
“The Senate has tried to get a bill though and haven’t gotten votes,” said Owens. “It’s a significant and serious problem.”
Owens said he supports the extension of benefits and returned to the training issue:
“I’d like to see that we provide a mechanism for training for available jobs. We have jobs, we need to be training residents to fill those.”
Bruce, location unknown, asked Owens about his thoughts on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposal to reduce the military on Mon, Feb. 24 that would cut the Army to its lowest troop level since before World War II, retire the A-10 “Warthog” attack jet and reduce benefits for servicemembers.
“I think it’s dramatic,” said Owens. “We’re going to have to dig down and look at that very carefully. Any commitment to active duty personnel has to be kept and met. The kinds of wars we fight are different than 40-50 years ago and I think this is going to continually require us to reevaluate and determine our total number of troops and the types of equipment.”
It’s a very difficult process to go through, emphasized Owens, and if the decision was made to modify pay and allowances, that needs to be made prospectively.
“We need to make sure we provide our volunteer forces with what they want into understanding their pay and allowances.”
“Where do you stand on the SAFE Act?” asked Donnie from Schroon Lake, an issue that was addressed frequently throughout the session. “What do us honest people have to look forward to — not home invaders?”
Owens sympathized with Donnie and pointed out that the controversial firearms legislation was state law — not federal — and directed concerns to Assemblyman Dan Stec, Assemblywoman Janet Duprey and State Senator Betty Little.
“I have often said that I wouldn’t have voted in favor of it,” said Owens, citing his A rating from the National Rifle Association, his belief in the Second Amendment and a continued pledge to support gun rights.
“When can we get Highway 98 started?” asked Massena resident Bruce, referring to the proposed “rooftop highway” between Watertown to Plattsburgh. “We need a route to Syracuse to give us business.”
Owens said he acknowledges the benefits that the Northway and I-81 have brought to Plattsburgh and Syracuse, respectively, to help local economies and said the proposed corridor is being held back because of costs.
“We are seeing some movement from Camden-Potsdam that can be looped in the future. If we can do that in an incremental way, it would be extremely beneficial for the local community,” he said. “We also need to study the effects of rail in Massena and the St. Lawrence River. Whatever options we have, we need to explore and exploit.”
In response to another infrastructure-related question, Owens said he supports spending because it has both long and short term benefits:
“If you have good infrastructure, it will bring business to both local communities and the state.”
Owens said House Ways and Means chair Dave Camp’s tax proposal includes $100 billion in infrastructure spending, a “sensible and rational approach” that he feels might help the economy more than anything else in the short term.
Massena’s Jamie asked Owens how Congress planned on addressing the controversial education initiative that seeks to establish consistent standards across the country for K-12 students.
“I see a big difference with my kids — they’re being testing on things they’re expected to know, but don’t,” she said. “Testing needs to portray what children know and we need to know what happens to teachers digging in their heels.”
“The implementation of this is at the state level,” said Owens. “The basic concepts behind Common Core are largely supported and the issue is implementation. People feel as if it should have been implemented for several years before teaching was commenced. A fairer approach is to focus on amending a good idea to make it workable in our communities and schools.”
UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE
Canton resident Leia asked about righting the “sinking ship” of the United States Postal Service.
Owens said the USPS plays a particularly important role in the North Country because it allows people to check up on each other and retain a sense of community.
“I’ve been a supporter of legislation to remove onerous funding obligations for benefit plans,” said Owens, citing the USPS is a constitutionally-mandated service that can’t be dismantled.
If those funding obligations are removed, the ailing organization would be in a breakeven position, said Owens, and can potentially increase their revenue by delivering goods for Fed-Ex, UPS and for other last-mile services: “They can charge for that type of service and should explore other ‘creative activities’ in order to be sustainable.”
Rensselaer Falls’ Bonnie asked why small communities were having trouble receiving access to natural gas throughout the winter. “I assumed that it was regulated,” she said.
Natural gas distribution lines aren’t part of public utilities system, explained Owens, and are operated by independent providers.
“The issue is putting a gas line in and getting it into homes — that’s fairly costly to do. We need to have a conversation with local and town officials and figure how to get more homes and buses hooked up.”
Owens stressed that it’s important to have competition between natural gas, fuel oil, electric and renewable resources.
Judith from Queensbury asked about the pending trade agreement that will govern 40 percent of the country’s imports and exports by potentially eliminating tariffs on goods and services and synchronizing regulations.
“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my arms around the document,” said Owens. “I’ve made it clear that my first concern is whether we can get Canada and Japan opened up to agricultural exports.”
Owens said the current document is “somewhat vague” and he will continue to study it and how it would affect his constituents.
Mineville resident John, echoing sentiments voiced throughout the hour-long meeting, expressed dismay at the Congressman’s decision that he will not run for reelection this year.
“I’m saddened that you’re not running,” he said. “Veterans will miss you tremendously. You’re doing a marvelous job and I’d like to invite you to our VFW ceremonies in Mineville.”
“We’ll do everything we can to get there,” said Owens.
“Think about reconsidering,” said Demilts from Potsdam. “You have reasonability, sensibility and saneness. To lose that, it’s frustrating to go through.”
“It took me awhile to have this conversation,” said Owens. “I didn’t make a decision until New Year’s Day — I felt like it was time for me to be home. This was really a family and personal decision and I’m hopeful that those who follow afterwards will take that same demeanor to Congress and try to be reasonable.”
Owens wrapped up the meeting shortly afterwards and thanked everyone for participating.
“I hope you found the answers you were looking for I look forward to working, listening and visiting with you to help all of our lives become better and that’s ultimately all of our responsibilities, whether in an elected position or not.”