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Elected officials visit, talk health care, economy, stimulus dollars

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By Angye Morrison

Sen. Bill Nelson sat down with local community and government leaders last Thursday afternoon in the conference room of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce in Quincy.

As the meeting began, Nelson asked those present what issues were on their minds. Foremost among those issues were health care reform, the Apalachicola River, the economic forecast and stimulus dollars.

The senator said he’d just come from a press conference in Tallahassee, and pointed out that big banks like Bank of America and City Corp are not making small business loans despite the fact that those funds were written into the stimulus package. The loans are 100 percent guaranteed with a rate of 2 percent above prime with no interest that small business owners can pay back over a 5-year period.

“That money is to help small businesses get back on their feet. Small community banks are making these loans, but not the big banks,”  Nelson said. “I’ve written the president a letter to make sure he’s aware of this.”

Andy Gay, Quincy mayor, asked Nelson what his thoughts are on the current state of the economy. Nelson said the economy is swinging upward again and there will continue to be a decline in unemployment nationally.

Gadsden County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eugene Lamb said he feels the economic stimulus plan didn’t really address the needs of rural communities.

Nelson replied there is money in the stimulus package for areas that are mostly rural, like Gadsden County.

“The money is there, so you keep applying. If you feel someone isn’t dealing with you fairly, you let me know,” he said.

Nelson explained that there was $15 billion in stimulus dollars earmarked for Florida, and more than $4 billion of that was to replace the state’s money on Medicaid. More than $2 billion went directly to the school districts in the state’s 67 counties, helping teachers keep their jobs, and about $1.5 billion went to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Nelson acknowledged that the state’s payout of stimulus dollars has been slow.

“Out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, Florida is No. 51 in its spendout. You ought to be raising some Cain over there in Tallahassee with the state government,”  he said. “There’s no excuse. It’s been 6 months since we passed the economic stimulus package. That money was for economic stimulus. It was to get in there on shovel-ready projects; to get out the door and create jobs. I’m hopeful the state of Florida is going to finally get it going.”

On health care reform, Nelson said to disregard anything that’s been reported by the media.

“The problem is getting 60 votes to cut off debate. The place that the legislation will be written will be the Senate Finance Committee, because it has jurisdiction over Medicare/Medicaid. We’re trying to get a consensus,” he said.

Nelson mentioned the recent death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was known for crossing party lines to reach a consensus on issues.

“He was able to cobble together consensus in a bipartisan way to get something passed. I think that is going to be the legacy that we’re going to honor in putting together this health care legislation,” he said.

Nelson did not discuss his stand on the issue of health care reform, but did say he is serving on the Senate Finance Committee and he’s working on putting together that consensus.

The condition of Social Security was also mentioned during the sit-down, with Nelson saying it’s “in good shape at least for  another 30 or 40 years.”

Also a concern is keeping the water flowing in the Apalachicola River, an ongoing issue. Alabama, Georgia and Florida have been fighting in federal court over water from the river since 1990. Florida needs the water for fish and wildlife in the river and for the seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay, while the other states need it for cities, farms and recreation.  

“We are winning the battle,” Nelson said. “We have teamed up with Alabama senators, and we’ve written to the Army Corps of Engineers following a federal court decision that Atlanta can’t keep pulling water out of Lake Lanier. They’ve been doing it illegally, according to a federal statute. That’s now confirmed by a federal court. We wrote a letter 2 or 3 weeks ago  and said, ‘You see what the court said, now do what the court said and do it now.’ This is to keep water flowing under certain criteria that is set out in the law that should keep sufficient waters flowing south so that we don’t mess up our river or Apalachicola Bay, which was threatened.”

Asked what his advice is to small business owners, Nelson said he’d advise them to be optimistic.

“There’s a lot of (financial) help available. I would encourage them to get in there and hold on,” he said. “ I think things are starting to turn around.”

In attendance at the meeting along with Gay and Lamb was David Gardner, executive director of the chamber; Anthony Baker, Gretna mayor; Lee Garner, Chattahoochee city manager; Don Gibson, president of Gadsden Men of Action; and Robert Nixon, executive director of the Florida A&M University Small Business Development Center. Also attending were local business community members Wilson Hinson, Walter McPherson, Frank Holcomb, Richard May and Hemant Patel.