February 26, 2014BERLIN — Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican of Nashua, brought up-to-the-minute news to Thursday's town meeting on Warden Esker "Lee" Tatum's plans to the scanty audience on hand at the VFW Post 2520 at 1107 Main Street (Route 16).
Tatum told one of the senator's staffers that he is aiming to have between 90 to 100 percent of the staff and male inmates for which the federal correctional institution — FCI-Berlin — was designed on hand by the end of March.
The huge East Side building is designed to house 1,152 medium-security and 128 minimum-security male inmates, requiring a staff of 342 federal employees.
The two-year Consolidated Appropriations bill, for which Ayotte voted on Jan. 16, included sufficient monies for the Berlin facility to operate as planned. Operating at full capacity is important because the City welcomed its construction as one of the ways to diversify and stabilize the Androscoggin Valley's employment base.
It was Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican who was Ayotte's immediate predecessor, who championed locating the prison in Berlin at the request of City officials. Due to sequestration, it sat empty for a year after it was completed and then operated with only a few inmates and a small staff, reducing its positive economic impact.
Ayotte also discussed another issue that is important locally. She was one of six Republicans to cross party lines to start Senate debate on legislation — the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act — to temporarily extend long-term unemployment benefits, an issue important in the North Country where a significant number of mill and factory closures have resulted in many workers depending on unemployment benefits for long periods of time. She worked with her colleagues to find a fiscally responsible compromise proposal that would pay for a three-month extension without adding to the deficit, and she supported several proposals — and introduced her own amendment — to do so.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not allow votes on her measures, however, and on Feb. 6, Reid and Senate Democrats agreed to a temporary extension of long-term jobless benefits. Ayotte voted in favor of a motion to end debate on this proposal, which also included a provision prohibiting unemployment compensation for millionaires. This procedural vote required 60 votes to move forward, however, and it failed to pass, 58 to 40.
Ayotte focused most of her town meeting presentation on her ongoing concern about the size of the national debt that now tops $17 trillion and is growing larger every day.
"The debt is a bipartisan problem," Ayotte said. "It took two parties to get us this far in debt, and it's going to take two parties to get us out of this debt." Under President George W. Bush, a Republican, the debt grew by $4.9 trillion in eight years, and under President Barack Obama, a Democrat, it has grown by $6.6 trillion in five years. Only 35 percent the federal government's spending is discretionary, and Social Security, Medicare, and the S.S. Disability Insurance Trust Fund face insolvency in the future, unless changes are made, Ayotte pointed out.
The debt, she said, is projected to reach $27 trillion in the next 10 years. An average-income married couple contributes about $119,000 through payroll taxes to Medicare over their lifetimes but consumes about $357,000 in Medicare benefits, to a great extent because elders are living longer.
Ayotte discussed her fight against a one-percent pension cut to retired military personnel under the age of 65 that she believes unfairly targeted men and women in uniform.
She also detailed her concerns about some specific provisions in the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, that she believes discourages economic growth and recovery, such as defining "full-time" worker as someone who works 30 hours a week, rather than the usual 40 hours.
Ayotte is working to make changes in the Act since it is the law of the land even though she continues to believe that it should be repealed and has co-sponsored legislation to do that. The senator also said that believes Obama should consult Congress before issuing executive orders that change the Act's implementation schedule.
Former state senator John Gallus of Berlin introduced Ayotte, calling her a "great public servant" who has become a "national presence." In wrapping up the session, he also knocked spending federal dollars in the Granite State on efforts to save two endangered species: the Blanding's turtle, which he said is used to make soup, and the cottontail bunny, since it is already virtually extinct.
Gallus pointed out that North Country constituents are well served by Ayotte's on-the-ground special assistant, Mike Scala, who was on hand. Scala staffs her office on a regular schedule at 19 Pleasant Street, Suite 13B, near the IGA market.