Senator King talks tar sands, trains, sequestration
In a wide-ranging discussion with Bethel community leaders and businesspeople Tuesday, Sen. Angus King favored close scrutiny of any plan to reverse the flow of oil in the Portland-Montreal pipeline; expressed a willingness to work on rail service through this area; wondered about the value of raising the minimum wage; criticized the president for a lack of leadership on the debt crisis; and suggested a caucus of former governors in the U.S. Senate might play a role in breaking Congressional gridlock.
About three dozen people turned out to share views with Maine’s newest senator at the hour-long gathering at the Bethel Inn.
The issue of the possible transport of diluted bitumen (dilbit or tar sands) through the nearby PMPL is a concern to some local residents who worry it may make a spill more likely. The question was put to King.
“I’m pretty skeptical of the idea,” he said. “It’s a different substance going in a different direction at a different pressure and temperature than we have traditionally pumped through that pipeline for the last 60 years. Why bear the risk if there isn’t a lot in it for Maine?”
At the request of a tar sands opponent, he said he would support an effort by anti tar sands groups to require oil companies to provide a full environmental impact statement if they wish to reverse the flow, rather than allow them to make such a move based on current permits.
But on the larger issue of Canada’s plans to get its dilbit oil to world markets, King said he was reluctant to tell Canadians how to handle their land, environment and economy.
However, if a plan to build the “Keystone” pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico were to come to the forefront, he said, “taking it through the U.S. is our business. Keystone should pass environmental muster with the people of Nebraska.”
King was also asked for his views on another potential Portland-Montreal project: the return of rail service.
Some in the room said it would be an important economic development tool for the region.
King said he is a big fan of Amtrak service and the Downeaster in particular, and he would be willing to work with a local group advocating for service here.
The senator also posed his own question to the gathering: What did they think of raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour?
Responses were mixed, ranging from “It’s not high enough,” to “It would discourage employers from hiring the youngest employees.”
“The idea of having more money in circulation is good,” said King. “But that money has to come from somewhere.”
He said he is so far undecided on the issue, but was pondering the idea of indexing the wage to inflation.
Turning to Washington politics and the national debt, King offered a primer on the debt crisis.
Noting that sequestration will go into effect March 1 if no alternative is found, King reminded the audience that budget cuts averaging 9 percent across the board would affect defense and non-defense discretionary spending, but not Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the national debt.
Instead of trying to make sense of the usual raw numbers offered on the budget problems, King outlined spending and taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product.
“Non-defense discretionary spending is at the lowest percentage of GDP that it’s been at in 50 years (2.8 percent compared to an historic 3.5 percent),” he said. Examples of such spending include education, national parks and air traffic control.
The problem, he said, is health care costs - Medicare, Medicaid and federal employee care costs. While projections for Social Security, defense spending and non-defense discretionary spending are relatively flat, he said, health costs go from 4 to 12 percent of GDP.
“We could cut discretionary spending down to zero and we’d still have a budget problem,” said King.
Sequestration, he said, “is shooting an arrow at the wrong target. I am very frustrated by the president not coming forward to lead to a solution on this problem.”
He also said federal revenue is at its lowest since 1950. With tax revenue at 15 percent of the GDP compared to an historic average of 19 percent, and spending at 24 percent, “that’s where the gap is,” he said.
He said as an Independent, he hopes to contribute to a solution by talking to both sides.
King also said he is among a dozen senators who are former governors.
“We’re going to put together a caucus and talk about these things,” he said. “Governors are used to getting things done.”