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Local issues dominate Sen. Shaheen's town hall forum

Senator Jeanne Shaheen answered questions without any notes and listened to constituents’ comments for two hours at Thursday night’s forum at WMCC in Berlin. Photo by Edith Tucker. (click for larger version)
April 12, 2012
BERLIN — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen "has had Berlin's back for the last 15 years," Mayor Paul Grenier said when he introduced her to 200 constituents at Thursday night's town hall forum at White Mountains Community College. Grenier exuberantly said that the City's incipient "renaissance" would not be underway were it not for the efforts of Sen. Shaheen and DRED Commissioner George Bald.

Shaheen, in turn, commended both the community's spirit and efforts, including the hard work of Talent Team members.

Gorham Paper & Tissue, LLC, will soon install a new high-speed state-of-the-art tissue machine, thanks to the investments of Lynn Tilton of Patriarch Partners, said the senior senator, who noted that "innovation and training" was the day's overarching theme.

Once Shaheen open to Coös constituents' comments, Brian Bresnahan of Groveton, representing GREAT – the nonprofit Groveton Regional Economic Action Team — took the microphone. High unemployment still plagues Coös County, with the Groveton mill complex and The Balsams shuttered. Bresnahan asked if the JOBS bill, just signed by President Barack Obama, would help. Shaheen explained that the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) bill assists in capital formation to give small companies access to new investors' capital.

The bill would not be a magic bullet, Shaheen said. There are still too many N. H. people out of work, especially in the North Country, she said. Small Business Administration loans are the most effective, and she also favors extending unemployment benefits, Shaheen said. Widening the benefits of the Trade Adjustment Act so it applies to front office workers and not just line workers has also helped workers, including those who lost tjobs at Ethan Allen, she said.

Harry Brown of Stewartstown, representing the North Country OHRV Coalition — a dozen OHRV clubs and two Chambers of Commerce —described their goal of linking up ATV trails to create an enormous loop to connect Groveton, Berlin, Errol, Pittsburg, and Stratford that would give tourists a unique experience. "This is our new factory," Brown explained. He asked Shaheen what funding sources are available to help pay for trail work to expand recreational opportunities.

Although specific funding for recreational trails had been included in an amendment to the Senate Transportation bill that passed, 74 to 22, Shaheen explained that the Transportation bill itself had not been taken up in the House. Instead, only a 90-day extension was passed. It is vital to preserve the recreational trails funding program, she said.

Gorham selectman Paul Robitaille explained that FEMA's 75-year-old outdated flood maps would require more residents to buy flood insurance. Shaheen promised that her staff would provide assistance in helping to correct the problem. Robitaille said he continues to believe that the economies of Northern Forest communities would benefit if Route 2 became an improved two-lane limited-access highway from Bangor, Me., through northern New Hampshire to upper New York state, designed for 60 to 65 m.p.h. speeds. "This would connect us to I-91, I-95, I-93, and I-89 and other interstates," the selectman said.

Shaheen said she shared his frustration with the difficulties in securing funding for infrastructure improvements, but that she "would keep at it."

Bob Lord of Errol brought a copy of a petition signed by hundreds of people seeking to stop the planned expansion of the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's latest Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), now in effect. "We want the government to get out of New Hampshire; we want our land back; we want our freedoms back!" Lord said. "This land will never be sustainably logged." Without logging, moose and deer herds will decline.

Lord also questioned the truthfulness of the visitor numbers the Refuge claims. "The Refuge is not a money-maker for us; this is killing us," he said, adding that conservation easements would be better than fee acquisition.

He urged Shaheen and others to come to a meeting, tentatively scheduled on June 23. Lord also asked for an investigation of what he believes is a 15-year snowmobile agreement and asked that the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) be fully funded every year.

Peter Donovan of Milan also urged Shaheen to support full funding PILT payments, especially in light of ever-rising county taxes.

Inn owner Mark Peabody, also of Milan, said that the Umbagog Refuge is a real lure to tourists. "It is too early to pull the plug," he said, adding that locals do feel as though they are not included in planning efforts.

Newry, Me., selectman Gary Wight pointed out that the 25,000-plus-acre Refuge spanning Maine and New Hampshire is a big tourist draw for the entire region. Visitors to the Bethel-Newry area head to Grafton Notch and visit the Refuge; businesses these travelers patronize are important to his town's tax base, he explained.

Dave Publicover of Bartlett spoke in support of same-sex marriage rights. Shaheen said that she had co-sponsored legislation to repeal DOMA — the Defense of Marriage Act — and supports equal rights for lawfully married couples, believing that all deserve to receive the benefits of marriage under federal law.

When questions about the future of Obamacare came up, Shaheen said that she believes that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — a.k.a. Obamacare — is constitutional and had thought so when she voted for it. "It's not clear to me what the Supreme Court will decide," she said.

The federal legislation addresses the healthcare system, including its rising prices and the uneven quality of care available in some places, Shaheen explained. Brochures with basic information on the controversial health care law — www.healthcare.gov — were left on each seat.

In response to a plea from a Bethel, Me., resident that federal monies be used to subsidize passenger train service from Portland-to-Lewiston-to-Bethel-to-Montreal that would run through northern New Hampshire, Shaheen said that these kinds of investments would be unlikely until the nation's big debt and ongoing deficit spending is brought under control. She noted that in 1991 as a Seacoast state senator she supported the "Downeaster" which now operates five daily round trips between Portland and Boston.

Shaheen lamented that efforts to reach an agreement on a "Grand Bargain" for national debt reduction had failed in December 2011.

Shaheen, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, also discussed the high price of fuel oil and gasoline. She pointed out that domestic oil production is up by 20 percent and demand is down. Unregulated speculation plays a role in today's "pain at the pump," she said. Shaheen reported that she is co-sponsoring an energy efficiency bill with Senator Rob Portman, a Republican of Ohio. She praised efforts of the Navy to reduce energy use by 50 percent by 2020. The federal government is the biggest energy consumer, and the military makes up 93 percent of that usage.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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