Owens has been meeting with business, government, education and nonprofit officials from across the 21st Congressional District to hear about their concerns.
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“The next couple of months are going to be, I think, unfortunately, very wild,” Owens said.
Congressman Bill Owens has a lot of new territory to navigate this year. His congressional district now encompasses more than 16,000 square miles – the entire North Country– and he has been appointed to the influential House Appropriations Committee.
The House passed legislation last week to prevent defaulting on government debt for another four months. Owens voted for the measure, but he thinks these extensions aren’t the right answer.
“I think we have to tackle the whole enchilada at one time,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to solve sequestration, and we have to solve the debt issue at the same time. I think if we don’t do that, I think it could have some very negative impacts on the economy and on our ratings by the ratings agencies.”
While debates over gun control and government spending loom in Washington, Owens also has to grapple with tough issues here in the North Country. Meetings with local officials like the recent one in Lake Placid provide a glimpse at some of those problems.
Take federal highway regulations for example. North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said that when Essex County receives federal highway aid, it’s required to use specific federal-government-approved companies. That, coupled with bidding regulations, can drive the cost of a $300,000 bridge replacement project as high as $1.1 million.
“To me, that is a travesty,” Politi said. “And this is happening on a regular basis, and it needs to be addressed. If local governments can rebuild this infrastructure for one-third the cost, and save people money, then damn it we should be doing it.”
Owens also heard about the challenges small businesses are facing.
Chris Erickson is owner and head brewer at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, which employs about 55 people. He told Owens about several health insurance issues that he says result in a disincentive for his employees to work more.
In one instance, an employee got sick and had to spend four weeks in the hospital. Erickson said the person didn’t have health insurance and had to apply for Medicaid.
“If he had made 10 more dollars, he would not have qualified for Medicaid and his hospital bill was about $148,000,” he said. “So because he worked less, he qualified for Medicaid and they paid for all of his hospital bills. If he had picked up one more shift at the pub, he would be bankrupt; his credit would be ruined because he would obviously have no way to pay a $148,000 hospital bill. So it’s a good thing he worked less.”
Erickson said another employee who suffers from diabetes had to drop a shift to qualify for aid to pay for treatment.
“I see it every year,” Erickson said. “There are examples of people who come to me and say, ‘Well, I can hostess two shifts a week, but as soon as I hit that third shift, I lose X, Y or Z.’ I think that is an unintended consequence of a plan that is really meant to help people who need it the most, but it ends up disincentivizing people from working.”
Another big worry is the future of health care funding. North Country hospitals ended 2012 on a tough note, with Adirondack Health in Saranac Lake and CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh both announcing job cuts.
Adirondack Health President and CEO Chandler Ralph told Owens that hospitals can’t endure more cuts. She said she fears Congress will again turn to health care cuts as lawmakers look for ways to cut spending.
“We gave up $155 billion as hospitals for the ACA,” she said. “That was totally forgotten and I think will be forgotten as we start having the (fiscal cliff) discussions in March or May, whatever it turns out to be. There’s just so much you can take out of a hospital before you really start to hurt the community. We’re not there yet, but I could see us getting there very quickly.”
Owens promised to bang the drum in Washington to bring attention to all of these issues, but he said the political atmosphere makes it difficult to tackle even the simple problems.
But Owens said he is working to change that climate. He currently belongs to a 14-person bipartisan group – seven Republicans and seven Democrats – that’s trying to expand its influence in the House.
Owens said he hopes the group will reach 30 members: 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats. He said a voting block of 30 moderates could have a big impact in the House.
“So if you do the math, if that group could hang together on significant legislation, it could force it back to the middle,” he said. “Not force it to where I want it to be, but force it back to the middle, because I think, again, if you look at what’s happening in the country, that’s probably the most important thing that I think I should be doing.”
Owens didn’t address gun control at the meeting in Lake Placid. But during a brief interview afterward, he said he would have voted against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sweeping gun control law, although he did call it a “good first step” for New York.
“I have some concerns about a number of pieces of it, but clearly we’ve got to start that conversation,” Owens said.
In the last two election cycles, Owens has gained the National Rifle Association’s highest rating for a sitting lawmaker. As a moderate Democrat from a rural area, Owens will likely be targeted by people on both sides of the gun control debate. He said he’ll take a measured approach to the issue.
“Whatever we propose, we need to understand what it really does, and we need to be driving toward compromise,” Owens said.
Owens said there seems to be consensus in Washington that Congress should expand background checks for gun buyers. He said he thinks lawmakers should start the gun control debate by focusing on those areas of common interest and work from there.