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Sen. Gillibrand addresses regional business priorities

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks May 7, 2018, at the Adirondack North Country Association office in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

PLATTSBURGH — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., highlighted provisions of the recently signed American Rescue Plan that seek to address regional business priorities during a virtual conversation hosted by the North Country Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

Chamber President Garry Douglas asked the senator about multiple topics, including vaccine rollout, business relief, infrastructure and the U.S.-Canada border.

Vaccine funding

Douglas pointed to the chamber’s 2021 Annual Issue Survey in which 95% of participating businesses indicated acceleration of the COVID-19 vaccination process was their top federal priority.

Gillibrand said the American Rescue Plan included a great deal of resources for vaccines, including $7.5 billion in U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding for distribution, such as vaccine clinics, and $5.2 billion for vaccine supplies and procurement.

She additionally noted money for a public health workforce — which mirrors legislation she put forward — that “will basically provide for training of tens of thousands of health care workers” by the CDC which will subsequently be deployed to states to assist in the vaccination process.

Gillibrand added that community health centers are also set to receive funding.

SBA funding

Douglas expressed concern regarding how the U.S. Small Business Administration has yet to start accepting applications for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program enacted in December, and what such a delay could spell for rollout of the new $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Program.

Gillibrand said this week’s confirmation of Isabel Guzman as SBA administrator would help.

“But we do know that the SBA has been pretty slow in terms of making new business relief available for a lot of small businesses, particularly those who didn’t already have relationships with banks that gave SBA loans. So this new administrator hopefully can hit the ground running.”

The senator added that the American Rescue Plan added some funding streams to the SBA and that more guidance on how to reach businesses in rural and underserved areas was provided.

She advised those in need of assistance to reach out to her regional office. Douglas said a webinar on the new restaurant funding was likely forthcoming.

Rebuild rural

Gillibrand and Congressman Antonio Delgado (D-Rhinebeck) have reintroduced their Rebuild Rural America Act, which would give direct funding to rural communities through non-competitive renewable block grants.

The senator said they are working to get it included in the upcoming infrastructure package.

“President Biden has put a premium on infrastructure and the Rebuild Rural America Act has specific dedicated resources for infrastructure to get to harder-to-reach rural areas.”

Gillibrand also hopes legislation that would aim to train and hire local residents who live in the communities where large infrastructure projects take place will also be incorporated.

Transportation

Douglas said the area’s business community overwhelmingly supports major new investment in infrastructure, particularly robust funding of mass transit equipment for rail and buses, and broadband.

He added that NovaBus recently received its first order for electric buses in the United States, which will be made at its Plattsburgh plant.

According to Gillibrand, the American Rescue Plan provided $30 billion for public transit.

“We got $1.4 billion to assist in funding capital investment projects, which will create opportunities for transportation equipment producers.”

Though helpful, the senator continued, those allocations alone were not sufficient.

“We need a lot more investment in the transportation sector and that will be a huge part of the Build Back Better bill that we’re going to start drafting now.”

Broadband

Similarly, Gillibrand said the federal government should be able to provide more funding for broadband and other infrastructure projects in the Build Back Better bill to build off of American Rescue Plan provisions.

Those included $7 billion to address schools’ lack of broadband and high-speed internet and $10 billion for tribal government capital projects.

“A small amount of money based on the need, which is massive,” Gillibrand said, “but it’s investment now that we should be able to further in the next large COVID relief bill.”

She agreed with Douglas that closing the broadband gap also entails improving cell phone service in rural regions.

Border plan

According to Douglas, the Champlain port of entry has seen a 97% drop over the last year in personal car travel, a statistic he said defines the enormity of the impact of border restrictions on the region.

Reiterating his prior calls, he expressed support for having a metrics-based plan in place for reopening the border to nonessential travel, and taking interim steps that include exceptions for people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and more flexibility for those with family or property on the other side of the border.

Douglas said Biden’s early executive order directing cabinet members to work with Canadian officials on a plan was appreciated, though there was a sense Canada may be less ready for such discussions, in part due to slower vaccine rollout there.

Gillibrand agreed on the need for a plan and noted how the border restrictions have been devastating for businesses, families and friends.

“We’re focused on that, and I am optimistic that that’s something President Biden will change soon.”

Gillibrand also said she shared Douglas’ view that Canada should be exempt from “Buy America” provisions.

Child care

The pandemic has spotlighted a child care crisis and its impact on families and employers in the North Country and elsewhere, Douglas said.

“I think there’s a bigger consensus than ever that we need, as a country, to seriously look at addressing accessibility to, affordability of child care.”

According to Gillibrand, prior to the pandemic, there was one slot available for every four children in New York state, and know there is one slot for every eight.

“It’s really harming the ability of families to get back to work, to be able to recover.”

She added that $39 billion from the American Rescue Plan is targeted at child care. That breaks down to $24 billion for child care stabilization grants for providers and $15 billion in child care and development block grants.

The funding could help 449,000 child care providers who serve 7.3 million children for six months, and expand child care assistance to 875,000 children, according to Gillibrand.

She added that Head Start is set to receive an additional $1 billion.

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