PLATTSBURGH - The North Country's number one priority is creating jobs.
That's the point emphasized by Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, during a town hall meeting at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh May 22, at which hundreds turned out to engage in a discussion of issues facing the 23rd Congressional District.
Owens, who was elected to the Congressional seat last November following former Rep. John M. McHugh's appointment as Secretary of the Army, gave the audience an overview of his last six months in office. In his address, Owens stated three main issues are at the forefront of the minds of people with whom he has spoken.
"I hear people talking about jobs. That was true during the campaign and that's consistently true today. They talk about the deficit, they talk about health care," said Owens. "Essentially in that order."
With the North Country's unemployment rate hovering at approximately 10 percent, Owens said he understands the need for more good-paying jobs topping people's chief concerns. The War on Debt Act, which Owens introduced into the House of Representatives in late April, would be a way to help combat that, he said, and potentially increase jobs in the U.S. The legislation, as proposed, would include the creation of "War on Debt Bonds" that would require 30 years to mature before being redeemed. Proceeds from the bonds would be used to reduce the amount of public debt in foreign countries, particularly China, said Owens.
Economists believe currency would appreciate in value up to 40 percent, said Owens, and up to a million jobs could be repatriated to the United States. That, when paired with putting caps on further increases in deficits and debt would help the country's situation as well, added the congressman.
"Those are the kinds of things we need to be focused on to get the economy back up and running," said Owens. "In addition to that, we have to become responsible in how we spend the money and figure out ways - and it's going to take some creative activity - to get that done."
However, healing the economy will take time, said Owens.
"After World War II, the debt to [gross domestic product] ratio was 121 percent. It took us 20 years to get it down to 40 percent. It took us another 30 years to get it down to a surplus, which occurred at the end of the Clinton administration - the first time that occurred since the end of World War II," said Owens. "There is tremendous difficulty in this process."
During the remainder of the open forum, Owens addressed issues including immigration reform, health care and corporate bailouts, hearing concerns and viewpoints from several constituents. The dialogue opened that day is what will help move the Congressional district and the nation in the right direction, said Owens.
"I think we got people really engaged in the debate, which was what I really wanted to do," the congressman said following the forum. "Now, what I'm hoping is people will think about this over the next couple of days or weeks, that they'll get back to us with some good suggestions as to what we can do."
Owens said the tone of the discussion was "very civil, even when people clearly didn't agree with me or other members of the audience." He also noted he would have liked to have heard from representatives of the Upstate New York Tea Party, an organization whose mission is "to advocate for reduced government spending, lower taxes, and less government." The group has been publicly critical of Owens' stance on issues, including the War on Deb Act, which UNYTEA chairman Mark L. Barie has previously called " a cynical attempt to fool North Country voters in to thinking that he is a fiscal conservative."
Owens said though the group has alleged he has not made himself publicly available enough, he disagreed.
"I think I've been as accessible as I can possibly be in my tenure in office," said Owens, citing hundreds of visits in the past six months to places including Plattsburgh, Saranac Lake, Fort Drum and Watertown. "And, I intend to continue that."
As for UNYTEA, Owens said the group - which chose to protest Owens presence outside in the Angell College Center Plaza - was invited to come into the forum "like everyone else."
"I have no idea why they would choose not to come in and ask questions and engage in the debate," Owens said.
When reached for comment, Barie stated UNYTEA members chose not to go inside due to an e-mail allegedly circulated prior to the forum accusing UNYTEA members of plotting to disrupt the forum and "stack" it with members of their organization.
"Under the circumstances, I viewed our presence at the forum as a recipe for a confrontation and asked our members to stay away," said Barie.
"Under the circumstances , I viewed our presence at the forum as a recipe for a confrontation and asked our members to stay away," said Barie.