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Owens talks unemployment benefits, road projects, military budget during telephone town hall

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U.S. Rep. William L. Owens said Wednesday night that he supports extending long-term unemployment benefits that expired at the end of 2013, calling the aid a “serious and significant issue.”

As part of that push, Mr. Owens said he hoped more emphasis would be put on job training within high schools, colleges and other programs.

“We need to refocus how we train people for the jobs we have available,” he told constituents who asked questions during an hour-long town hall-style forum via telephone.

In December, Jefferson County posted the second highest jobless rate in the state, tying with Hamilton County at 9.1 percent. Lewis County was the third highest at 8.9 percent.

Mr. Owens covered a wide range of topics during the telephone meeting, including the minimum wage, road projects, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the defense budget.

Discussing the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage, Mr. Owens said he was not sure a vote would happen on a bill in the House of Representatives to increase it to $10.10. If approved, he said, such a change may increase consumer spending, which he said accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

“We want to put money in the hands of people that are going to spend it,” he said. The congressman said raising the minimum wage could raise the pay of other low-income workers.

Asked about the proposed Interstate 98 project to connect Watertown with Champlain, Mr. Owens said the project has stalled mainly because of its cost, but he has seen signs from the state that smaller pieces of work may happen.

Fielding a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would alter market access and tariffs in 12 countries including the U.S., Mr. Owens said he is continuing to study the issue. He said the possibility of exporting the area’s agriculture products to other countries could benefit the north country’s farmers, but said parts of the agreement were too vague.

Mr. Owens, asked about the recent defense budget that includes slower pay raises and changes to tax-free housing allowances, commissaries and the military’s health insurance, opposed benefit reductions for current service members.

“Any commitment we made to any military member on active duty has to be kept,” he said.

He appeared to be more open to changing compensation and benefits in future years, with newer service members understanding what would be offered to them.

Mr. Owens said he also supported cutting some of the financial mandates the U.S. Postal Service has, such as pre-funding pensions decades in advance.

The congressman affirmed his plans to retire, calling it a “very personal decision.”

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