LAKE PLACID - U.S. Rep. Bill Owens got an earful from North Country community leaders last week, leaving the Plattsburgh Democrat with even more work to do as Congress prepares to tackle big, time-consuming issues like proposals to strengthen gun laws and extend the federal debt ceiling.
Owens met with a roundtable of business, government, education and nonprofit officials from across the Tri-Lakes region for more than an hour at the Lake Placid Conference Center on Friday. The meeting was part of a 12-county tour of New York's new 21st Congressional District that Owens embarked on earlier this month.
Owens will have to navigate new territory this year - literally and figuratively. His congressional district now encompasses 16,500 square miles- the entire North Country - and he has been appointed to the influential House Appropriations Committee.
Chris Erickson, right, owner and head brewer at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, discusses health care challenges he deals with as a small business owner during a roundtable with Congressman Bill Owens in Lake Placid on Friday. Lake Placid village Trustee Peter Holderied listens.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
"The next couple of months are going to be, I think, unfortunately, very wild," he said.
In the weeks and months ahead, Owens said he believes House Republicans will put forth a plan to extend the federal debt ceiling by three months. Owens said he thinks an extension isn't the 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."
Among the top concerns expressed to Owens was monetary waste brought on by federal highway regulations.
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. He said that, coupled with other rules attached to the bidding process, 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."
Politi said he's also concerned about the potential elimination of tax-free municipal bonds. He said if local governments have to compete with the private sector for bonds, the cost to villages and towns could increase dramatically.
Owens had to relinquish his spot on the House Small Business Committee when he joined Appropriations. He has long argued that small businesses are the backbone of a strong economy. On Friday, Owens got a sobering dose of reality when it comes to the challenges small businesses face.
Chris Erickson is owner and head brewer at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, which employs about 55 people. He told the congressman 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."
Another of Erickson's employees 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."
Owens said the problem is that Washington lawmakers put forth legislation that is good in principle, but those measures often aren't flexible enough to work in reality.
Adirondack Health President and CEO Chandler Ralph told Owens that the latest round of fiscal cliff negotiations, which ended with a last-minute deal to extend tax cuts for earners making up to $450,000 annually and delayed sequestration by two months, resulted in a $1.2 million loss for Adirondack Health. In a joint news release issued last month, North Country hospitals - including Adirondack Health, the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh and Elizabethtown Community Hospital - noted that they're looking together for ways to deal with $320 million in cuts over the next decade due to the Affordable Care Act and other cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
North Country hospitals ended 2012 on a tough note. In December, Adirondack Health announced it was laying off 17 employees as part of a long-term restructuring plan. In November, CVPH also laid off 17 workers.
Ralph told Owens that hospitals can't endure more cuts. She said she fears Congress will again turn to health care cuts as it prepares to begin new fiscal cliff negotiations in the coming months.
"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 said he'll carry that message with him to Washington.
Moving to the center
Owens said he currently belongs to a 14-person bipartisan caucus - seven Republicans and seven Democrats - that's trying to expand its influence in the House. He said he hopes the group will reach 30 members: 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats.
Owens said a voting block of 30 moderates could have a big impact in the House, which currently has 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats.
"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 during his meeting with local officials, but afterward, during a brief interview with the Enterprise, he said he wouldn't have voted for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's sweeping gun control law, although he called it a "good first step" for New York state.
"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.