BANGOR — The one line in the 327-page conference report on the 1997 tax bill called it “small business job protection,” but a small-business advocate from Maine wasn’t buying it.
“There are no good arguments” for a $50 billion break for the tobacco industry,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins recalled Wednesday, so she was proud to be a leader in last year’s successful effort to repeal the tobacco break.
That effort was one of four areas Collins brought up in a meeting with the Bangor Daily News editorial board, highlights of her first “Annual Report to the People of Maine.”
Collins said that the attempt to sneak the gift to tobacco companies in the bill represented “back-room politics at its worst,” and it has made her dubious about whether the industry will keep its promises about how it does business in the future.
“We lead the nation in the percentage of young adults who smoke,” Collins said of her home state, a fact she said will spur her on in the Labor and Human Resources Committee’s work on public health policies.
What really helped small business in the tax bill, Collins said, was the component on estate tax relief for family-owned businesses and farms that made it into the bill’s final version. She had sponsored a separate bill on the topic to help lower those taxes.
“Estate taxes have been so high, families have been forced to sell rather than pass on the businesses to the next generation,” she said, a problem that afflicts not only farm areas such as her home county of Aroostook, but also towns and cities such as Bangor.
It’s important to help these family-owned entities continue, she said, because they’re “community-oriented” and motivated to keep jobs at home.
Education was a major focus for Collins this past year, she said, especially with Maine ranking 49th in the percentage of high school students who go on to post-secondary education.
Collins sought information on the reasons for that problem during a field hearing in Bangor last year, she said, and as a member of the Labor and Human Relations Committee, she worked on increasing the maximum Pell Grant from $2,700 to $3,000.
The education bill also partially funded her proposal to allow working students to earn more without losing Pell Grants. The senator will continue working on more of this funding, which is so vital to the older college students who often have families to support while they complete their education.
Tax deductions for interest on student loans were the topic of another bill Collins introduced, and that found its way into a modified form of the Taxpayer Relief Act.
Another focus for 1997 was campaign finance reform, Collins said. “It’s still a priority,” she said, adding that “it’s going to be a battle, but I think something will pass this year.”
The senator said that grass-roots pressure was probably the factor that could put the effort over the top in needed votes, and that she hoped many organizations which have remained on the sidelines on the soft-money issue would step forward and add their voices to the debate.
Collins said she didn’t see it as an issue that divided along party lines as much as one that separated older members of Congress from the more junior members.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy on this issue,” she said. “A lot of people co-sponsored the bill with their fingers crossed.”
At the end of the meeting, Collins said that the escalating cost of the recent ice storm on the state was an area where she hoped to be of help. Relief needs to be available to the utility companies, too, she said, “otherwise I fear the ratepayers will pay the cost.”
From a conversation with Andrew Cuomo, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Collins said she was under the impression that money is available for Community Development Block Grants to help the utilities in this situation. If that doesn’t work out, she would draft a disaster relief bill for Congress.