ELLSWORTH, Maine — The $787 billion economic stimulus package is a necessary first step in addressing the country’s economic woes, but according to Sen. Susan Collins, it was just the first step in what will be a more comprehensive approach.
“This is likely to be part of the solution,” Collins told a breakfast meeting of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. “There’s still work to be done in the financial sector and housing. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Collins criticized proposals from former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to address the problems in the financial sector as being so vague that “no one can understand what the proposal is.” She said she expected Congress to tackle that issue once it is back in session.
Although she said she has not reviewed President Obama’s $75 billion aid package for homeowners unveiled on Wednesday, Collins said any housing package would have to help homeowners whose properties have dropped in value to renegotiate their mortgages.
“I’m not talking about helping speculators or people who went out and bought several properties,” she said. “I’m talking about helping homeowners who need assistance in refinancing their mortgages.”
Although she acknowledged the economic stimulus package was not perfect, Collins said she is hopeful it will help to turn the economy around.
“The bill obviously is not what I would have written if I could have drafted the bill myself,” she said. “Although far from perfect, the bill we produced will provide tax relief, help create jobs and address the dire economic crisis our nation faces.”
Collins worked with a bipartisan group of senators to develop what became known as the Collins-Nelson Bill, which cut approximately $110 billion from the original House proposal. That effort included a one-on-one meeting with the president.
Collins and Sens. Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter were the only three Republican senators to vote in favor of the stimulus package.
Collins said the final package was a major improvement over the initial House bill, which she likened to “Christmas trees upon which members hung their favorite programs without regard to whether or not the spending belonged in an economic stimulus bill.” And she defended the role she played in crafting the stimulus bill.
“I felt, however, that Congress had a responsibility to work together to achieve the right balance, the right size and the right mix of tax relief and spending programs,” she said.
She said she has been criticized by the left for cutting spending she felt did not belong in an economic stimulus bill; and by the right for working with the president rather than voting no so that a filibuster could kill the bill.
“‘Just say no’ is a wonderful slogan when it comes to using drugs,” the senator said, “but it falls far short of being a solution to our current crisis. I don’t believe the people of Maine sent me to Washington to sit on the sidelines. I believe that they want me to work across the aisle and try to solve problems. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, doing nothing is not an option.”
She stressed the bill is expected to create 3.5 million jobs over the next few years. She outlined Maine’s share of the stimulus package, which will include $133 million for highway investments and another $50 million for water and sewer infrastructure improvements.
Collins said the Maine funds target “shovel-ready” projects that will put people to work immediately. According to the senator, the Associated Contractors of Maine estimates that projects funded through the stimulus package could create more than 3,800 new jobs in the state.
Maine also will receive: a $470 million increase in federal Medicaid funds; $196 million in state stabilization funds; $43 million for the Weatherization Assistance Program; $27.5 million for the State Energy Efficiency Program; and $53 million in special education funding. The package also includes funding for Pell Grants for low-income college students, as well as the tax relief component.
Collins also noted the federal government’s substantial investment would require oversight to ensure that taxpayer’s money is spent properly. She said that she and Sen. Joseph Lieberman soon would hold the first hearings on safeguards to protect against waste, fraud and mismanagement of the stimulus funds, and to ensure accountability and transparency.