ELLSWORTH, Maine — The focus was small business Tuesday at a forum led by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, but much of the discussion dealt with health care.
That forced the senator to defend her votes on health care legislation, but also gave her an opportunity to chastise majority Democrats and to renew her call for more transparency in the process of melding the differing House and Senate versions of health care reform.
The forum, hosted by the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, drew an estimated 130 people. It was the first of three such forums scheduled by Snowe to discuss issues important to small businesses.
Snowe said she scheduled several forums to hear from small-business owners about what they need from the federal government, what has worked and what has not, and what more Washington can do to help small businesses recover from the recession.
“It is going to be small business that will lead us out of this recession,” she said. “We have to depend on Main Street. All of you, small businesses, you are the job generators.”
Snowe brought with her a panel of officials involved in banking, small-business support, economic development and job creation and training, who offered capsule outlines of the types of small-business programs they offer.
The senator also touted some of her efforts to help small businesses, including working to increase maximum amounts on some Small Business Administration loans, extending the 90 percent guarantee rate on loans; legislation that would allow small business to deduct capital assets in the year they are purchased; and legislation that would help small business to increase exports.
Some of those in attendance praised the efforts Congress has made. Ellen Hathaway, representing the Down East Business Alliance, said federal stimulus funds had helped it add staff members who are working to help small businesses get started.
Others, such as Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, the town manager in Stonington, noted that most of the stimulus programs available to the towns involved loans.
“That made it tough,” she said. “We needed to retire some of our debt and not increase the tax burden.”
Billings-Pezaris also drew nods from the audience when she said that economic development in Stonington and other rural Maine towns would depend on access to high-speed Internet.
Others raised concerns about the unpredictability of oil prices. Karen Birdsall, co-owner of No Frills Oil, said the spike in oil prices a few years ago had forced a number of local merchants out of business. She asked what, if anything, could be done to stabilize prices.
Snowe said she expected Congress to address an energy bill this year that would need to include all alternative energy sources as well as conservation methods and also benchmarks that would measure a path toward energy independence.
The emphasis on health care during the forum was appropriate, since, according to Snowe, it not only affects every American, but also includes measures that will affect small businesses.
Although some audience members directly called on the senator to support health care reform legislation, judging from applause, the audience seemed evenly split between supporters and opponents of the separate measures that have emerged from the House and Senate and await a merging process.
A final version is expected to be voted on by both chambers before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, likely to be delivered at the end of this month or early in February.
Snowe supported the Finance Committee version of health care reform, but voted against the final Senate version, much of which, she said, has been developed behind closed doors.
“They are very different bills,” she said.
She pointed out that the eventual bill that the Senate adopted added 1,200 pages to the Finance Committee version and included new policies and programs. Some of those, she said, could be detrimental to small business such as a new Medicare payroll tax and a new long-term care insurance program, which she said would no longer be self-sustaining after five years.
The final bill also is likely to include an employer mandate requiring any business with 50 or more employees to provide health insurance or pay a penalty.
In an interview at the Bangor Daily News offices in Bangor after the forum, Snowe said the idea of a public option — a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurance companies — appears to be dead. The Senate version includes no public option, and the public option in the House version is likely to be jettisoned during the merger to ensure Senate approval.
Snowe had championed the idea of a “triggered” public option to take effect in the event private insurers failed to provide a range of affordable coverage plans, but even that measure failed to get included in the Senate bill.
Snowe bristled when one audience member in Ellsworth suggested that some Republican senators have opposed health care reform to hand the president a political defeat.
“That’s not me you’re talking about,” she said.
Part of the problem, Snowe said, is that an “artificial and arbitrary deadline … shortchanged the process” and left out the kind of review that is necessary in such a far-reaching bill.
“To this day we still lack the answers to the most fundamental questions people are asking,” she said.
“We need answers to those questions. We need the time to do it right, particularly when [most of the components] will not take effect until 2014. What is the rush?”
Snowe said she has assured President Obama that she remains willing to work constructively to improve the bill so that it unites Americans rather than dividing them.
She also has joined Republican senators to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to increase the transparency of the negotiations to merge the two bills and to allow those discussions to be broadcast on the C-SPAN network.
Although she said she still hoped for a truly bipartisan bill, Snowe said she did not know whether there was any hope that the atmosphere in Washington would change and that the process would involve open discussion to improve the bill.
“When they’ve got 60 [votes], it’s not an incentive to make concessions,” she said.
Snowe also plans forums in the Biddeford-Saco and Lewiston-Auburn areas.
BDN writer Meg Haskell in Bangor contributed to this report.