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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (Source:  Gillibrand)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (Source: Gillibrand)

Sen. Gillibrand: government-backed loans can liberate rural economies

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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made a swing through the North Country last week, making stops in Watertown and Lake Placid.

The freshman senator heard dozens of requests for federal funding for local projects in the region.

But with the national debt soaring, Gillibrand argued that the best way to spend local dollars may be by boosting loans and incubator efforts for small businesses.

Brian Mann has our story.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Ask Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about the national economy and the portrait she paints is still pretty bleak. "We have a high unemployment rate, you know, a national unemployment rate close to 10% is nothing compared to the real unemployment rate of 15%, 20% when count all the people who've stopped looking for work and you count those who are underemployed," she said.    

Gillibrand thinks the answer will be a renaissance in small businesses. But getting commercial loans in rural America has never been easy and when financial markets came close to collapse in 2008, risk-averse banks tightened their purse-strings even more. Senator Gillibrand says the answer is to offer government backing for small business loans. "Small businesses are struggling to get credit lines. They've had credit lines their whole careers and they've been discontinued. They've been able to get loans in the past but now if they can get a loan it's at a very high interest rate," she said. "So getting capital that's affordable is difficult. So we have decided on a $30 billion infusion of funds to go right into small businesses through community banks."

Gillibrand is also hoping to add a provision to the bill funding more business incubators designed to nurture new start-ups. Incubators, she says, "take business plans from small businesses and make them better. They help hone them, they help refine them, they help them get the access to credit that they need to grow the business and then really take them along in the early stages when most businesses fail."

The idea of that kind of private sector spark drew praise in Lake Placid where Gillibrand spoke to a packed auditorium at the convention and visitors bureau. But the North Country's main economy--non-profits, school districts, and local governments--is all taxpayer-driven. And most of the people bringing questions to this meeting were asking for direct infusions of cash. Joyce Morency, town supervisor in St. Armand, asked for assistance with the town's facilities. "I'm asking for help for the town of St. Armand," she said. "It's a very small town and we have a sewer plant that is kaput. And we still owe them I think 14 years' payment on this thing."

Lake Placid mayor Craig Randall asked for help with Olympic Regional Development Authority. "Anything we gain in terms of support from your level of government for our Olympic Regional Development Authority and the resources we have here--it's a partnership proven that works," he said.

Gillibrand said her office would help local groups and governments win as many grants as possible. She also said Congress might pump more cash into local school districts to ease widespread teacher layoffs expected next year. But she also said the exploding federal deficit means that those dollars will be harder to come by. "You know we have a $13.2 trillion debt right now and when you have a high national debt you have to pay interest payments," she said. "And that's a huge conflict because last year we paid almost $400 billion in interest. And people are saying isn't it time for the federal government to stop spending because the debt is so high. The problem is we're in a grave recession and we're doing everything in our power not to slip from a recession into a depression."

In political terms, Gillibrand's relaxed North Country swing suggests that sees little threat in the November election. Once seen as vulnerable, the latest polls show her leading her likely Republican opponents by at least 20 points.  

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