By SHIRLEY PULAWSKI
OBSERVER Staff Writer
WESTFIELD Congressman Tom Reed made a round of town halls around Chautauqua County early Saturday in Hanover, Westfield, Frewsburg and Olean. The OBSERVER was present at his Westfield appearance.
OBSERVER Phoo by Shirley Pulawski
Rep. Tom Reed holds a town hall meeting Saturday morning in Westfield.
The Westfield Town Hall was the location for the meeting, and the room was full with roughly 50 people, mostly men, when Reed began.
Questions were submitted prior to Reed's talk, and his aid said four questions came in on one issue: gun control. One he read said, "Please, let's use common sense on gun control," and another stated, "I'm concerned regarding the proliferation of guns in this country, especially rapid fire, military-style guns."
Reed began by telling the crowd, "I believe in the second Amendment. I believe that it's a Constitutional, fundamental right, and once you go down that path of restricting those freedoms, it's a slippery slope, and we can go down there very fast. So I'm very sensitive to those proposals that restrict those freedoms."
Some current discussion on gun control is not realistic, according to Reed. He said, "In the gun control debate that I see out there ... people are looking for the quick easy answer. I've had this said to me ... if you just ban guns, the problem just goes away, and you won't have these situations like in Connecticut and in California. And it's just not the case."
Reed said there should be more to discussions on gun control than simply guns. "In my opinion, you also need to have the conversation about gun control coupled with a conversation about mental health issues. How do we empower our mental health providers, our teachers, our law enforcement officers? How do we empower them to be able to identify individuals that are exhibiting some of these issues and these diseases, and provide resources to them to be able to address these issues," he told the crowd.
The discussion quickly became lively, and many opinions were shared on the topic.
One woman in attendance had several questions for Reed, and began by asking, "How many guns do we need before we are safe? ... And if the Second Amendment means we can have all the guns we want, then why can't we have hand grenades or bazookas or tanks?"
"And I think there are people who might dispute what the Second Amendment really says," she concluded.
Reed replied, "I appreciate that, and there is another issue which you touched upon which I'm very interested in as having as part of this conversation. When we talk about the guns, and the way we promote the guns, I would take it a step further than that. We promote violence in our society. ... and I'm guilty of it," and explained he bought a video game system for his children and found the games to be violent in nature. "I look at the games that are out there, and they're pretty graphic," he said.
The woman replied, "I think we need to consider that other countries have those games. Other countries see those same violent movies ... but the difference between those developed countries and the levels of violence they have is the access to guns."
Reed agreed that what he called "a culture of violence" was part of a problem, but other audience members had different viewpoints.
"These guns (used in mass shootings and other crimes) are bought illegally, by criminals," said one man in attendance during a lengthy reply. "They are being used by people who legally cannot have them. Our governor, in the same sentence said (he wants) to decriminalize marijuana possession, and take away Second Amendment rights in the same sentence," he lamented.
Westfield Mayor David Carr was in attendance and said, "There's too much knee-jerk reaction to this whole thing," and said he believed anonymous sales of guns at shows in southern states are a major cause of illegal gun trafficking and violence. "You can get any type of gun you want there at a gun sale, and they don't even ask you your name. That's what has to stop."
Carr added, "You're never, ever going to get rid of all the guns there are in this country. Anybody who thinks you can has his head in the sand."
Discussion by many people, including Reed, surrounded whether guns could be purchased without identification at some gun shows in the South, and whether guns may be purchased by one person legally then sold to another illegally. Other discussion focused on how dealers could sell guns at shows versus sales by individuals at shows. Each person who spoke had different opinions on what laws may be in certain places, but Reed said he was not aware of gun sales without identification in other states.
Another man stated he has been a lifelong hunter and believes in the right to bear arms and owns guns, but began his thoughts on the gun control discussion by saying, "The one thing in this country that I see happening is there's people wanting to take rights away from other people: Second Amendment, Christmas, there's people in this country that want to destroy that and that's not the way this country was founded, He went on to say he's a gun owner and a veteran, and believes with training, teachers should be able to have guns in schools.
"You can have a teacher who goes to that federal arms school, and gets proper training," but he added, "I'm not in favor of M15s, M16s. I don't need one and I don't see any reason for them."
"But that's gun control," replied another attendee.
Others shared similar ideas before Reed's aid moved the discussion to another topic about spending.
Reed provided materials to attendees which included charts and graphs outlining current and projected spending. One pie chart which Reed discussed during his visit showed total government spending in the fiscal year 2011, using figures from the Congressional Budget Office. The two largest segments were Social Security at $726 billion and defense at $703 billion. In descending order, non-defense (discretionary) spending was $650 billion, Medicare at $555 billion, "other mandatory" spending, which Reed said included the Department of Education, Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation, was listed at $476, Medicaid at $274 billion, and interest on debts the smallest amount at $221 billion.
Reed shared several ideas about how he would reduce spending and in which areas.
"The heart of the problem is going to be to focus on the spending side," he explained. "I support downsizing this government."
He said he agreed with some of the Obama administration's proposed defense spending cuts, but felt cuts to defense proposed were too broad. "I'm willing to absorb some of those cuts, but we can't go past that red line of putting our men and women in harm's way, and these cuts will impact that ... so I'm interested in moving those cuts over to (the mandatory spending area of the chart) not dollar for dollar, but reallocate those funds," but was not specific about which areas of defense he would like to cut or support or what he would cut under the "mandatory spending" heading.
Another area Reed targeted for cuts was Medicaid. After a question submitted by an attendee, who asked for reforms to welfare and Medicaid but to leave Social Security and Medicare alone, Reed spoke of his plans. Cutting "waste, fraud and abuse" he said was a key to reducing Medicaid costs, but he also said current Medicaid guidelines in the state create dependence. "In New York, we have a Cadillac Medicaid plan," which he said is "unsustainable" and invited Assembly member Andy Goodell to elaborate.
"Medicaid exceeds the coverage you get in private health insurance, so when people get a good job with health care, they lose benefits (compared to those they received on Medicaid). It's unfair to people," Goodell explained, and said he is pushing for reform which brings coverages by Medicaid down to levels similar to private insurance.
Reed said he agreed with Goodell's strategy along with finding and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.
The phrase "waste, fraud and abuse" was one Reed repeated for emphasis as part of his overall strategy, but said it is only a start to solve the country's financial problems. "I'm not going to blow smoke. Even if we seek out and eliminate every bit of waste, fraud and abuse, it still doesn't solve everything," and referred to the pie chart, saying reform may only reduce Medicaid costs by around a third.
"We have to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse. ... But if that's the end of the conversation, we're going to be a trillion dollars in the hole every year for the foreseeable future."
He added, "You can't tax your way out of it."
On reforms and spending cuts, Reed said, "We hope to get more members on both sides of the aisle to join with us." When asked by the OBSERVER whom he meant by "us," Reed said, "There a re a couple of groups we're working with. Go Big is one of them. There are some bipartisan groups ... we meet with on a regular basis. Sometimes, it's informal and just sitting on the house floor talking about things, and some are more formally organized groups. It's not just guys taking the mic saying, 'It's your fault,' 'No, it's your fault," but Reed did not name any groups other than Go Big.
The Go Big Coalition started as a group of dozens of Senate and House members who made news in November, 2011 for seeking nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction.
"Being an eternal optimist, I look at all of these battles (to obtain spending cuts) as opportunities to solve the problem," he said.
Reed discussed an "all of the above" energy plan which he said includes extraction of natural gas through the controversial process of hydrofracking. "It doesn't have to mean orange skies and orange water," he said about pollution concerns from the process.
Reed addressed local issues such as harbor dredging needed in several places along lake Erie in the region. He said a fund the region has money for dredging problems in the past, the Harbor Trust Fund, is now "upside down" financially due to heavy demand. The fund has historically been funded by part of the gasoline tax.
"It's taken in $39 billion in revenue, but needs $100 billion."
He said he has asked for a study on how to generate income from federal land, such as the areas which separate thruway lanes. An attendee mentioned switch grass, and he said that has been discussed as an option, and hopes the land can be put to use to generate income for infrastructure projects such as local dredging and other needed upgrades. "There are places around here that still have wooden water pipes," he said.
Reed was asked about the layoffs announced at Petri's and Carriage House, and said he supports "setting the stage locally and across America" to develop business. He said increasing energy production and retrofitting NRG's coal plant to natural gas would help attract business.
"We need to identify infrastructure needs, have workforce development and partner with our two-year schools," he added.
One audience member said he liked the bullet points in Reed's handouts, but said, "Most of this won't happen for a long time. What can you do right now? ... Why doesn't the government lower gas prices?'
Because gas prices are determined by commodities markets and production versus demand, not the government, Reed asked, "How do you propose to do that? Subsidize it?"
"Well, I guess so, for a while anyway," the man replied, which received groans from several in the crowd who supported spending cuts in earlier parts of the discussion.
Reed was asked if he is working with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Charles Schumer.
"We will work with everybody and anybody who wants to do it," Reed replied.
Another man in attendance said he also agreed with many of Reed's ideas, but asked, "What are the chances any of this will get passed?"
What are the chances of these things passing?
"Well, that's going to be uphill all the way," Reed replied.
Reed said this day of town halls is only a first and many more will follow, including town halls in more populated areas like Dunkirk and Fredonia.
Comments on this article may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.