Courtney brings relevant issues to E.O. Smith students

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Storrs - posted Tue., Apr. 10, 2012
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-District 2) discusses farm subsidies with E.O. Smith freshman agriculture student Zach.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-District 2) discusses farm subsidies with E.O. Smith freshman agriculture student Zach.

According to E.O. Smith High School civics teacher Tim Bowen, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-2) has been making appearances at the school since 2006. “He’s just a real, genuine guy,” said Bowen. “It’s nice of him to take the time to do this. It’s very important for kids to get involved now in issues that will impact their futures.”

Among the issues Courtney discussed at this year’s visit on April 4 was HR 3826, a bill that he introduced in January to ensure that interest rates on certain student loans do not dramatically increase this year. Without this legislation, subsidized Stafford student loans would revert from their current rate of 3.4 percent back to 6.8 percent. Calling the Stafford loans the “workhorse for lower-income young people hoping to go to college,” Courtney told the E.O. Smith audience that the issue could potentially directly affect their futures. Pointing out that students currently in college already have their lower rates secured, “This issue affects you directly,” he told his audience. “This is really a crisis, I would say, for our country.”

Courtney said that student loan debt currently exceeds credit card and auto loan debt in the United States. “If we don’t do something, that trend will be worse,” he said. According to a press release from Courtney’s office citing the non-partisan U.S. PIRG, “If Congress does nothing, borrowers who will take out the maximum $23,000 in subsidized student loans will see their interest balloon to an additional $5,200 over a 10-year repayment period and $11,300 over a 20-year repayment period.”

“Don’t underestimate your ability to make a change,” said Courtney. To prove his point, Courtney brought up proposed Stop Online Piracy Act legislation, introduced in October 2011. SOPA was a United States bill introduced to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.

The bill resulted in a massive public outcry from many different areas, including online “free encyclopedia” Wikipedia, which went dark in protest against the bill in January, directing users to websites in Washington, D.C. Courtney said that the resultant web traffic froze up Washington servers.

“The outside, external impact completely transformed the debate,” he said. On Jan. 20, Texas legislator Lamar Smith, who sponsored the bill, pulled it from consideration in the House. “Every vote counts,” said Courtney. “Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

Topics brought up by E.O. Smith students during a question-and-answer period ran the gamut from gas prices to computer hacking to gay marriage to the legalization of marijuana. Regarding gas prices, Courtney said that there is a “raging debate” going on in Washington currently. “We actually produce a much higher level [of domestic oil] than we have in the past,” he said. Courtney felt that speculators on Wall Street were influencing prices, and that their influence needed to be reduced.

The two issues bringing the most enthusiastic responses from the student audience were the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage. Regarding the first, “I was waiting for that to come up,” said Courtney. “It comes up every year.” His answer was that the legalization of marijuana should be decided at the state level. “We should treat people, and states, as big boys and girls,” said Courtney. Asked whether he supported gay marriage, Courtney answered, “I do,” eliciting a round of applause from the audience.

Courtney was clearly impressed with a question involving the efficacy of international trade laws, an issue which Bowen said that many of the students have been discussing in class. Bringing up the Warren Wool Corporation in Stafford Springs, Courtney pointed out that, despite the obvious quality of their product, the company couldn’t compete against the prices of producers overseas. Courtney pointed to the manipulation of currency in countries like China. “Where we can’t win is where prices are rigged,” he said, adding that tariffs and barriers might be necessary if foreign producers “don’t start playing more fairly in terms of currency manipulation.”

Asked his thoughts regarding Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Education Reform bill, Courtney gave the governor credit for coming into an office “that’s been sluggish for years.” The bill, he said, he’d give a “mixed grade,” giving the emphasis on early childhood intervention high marks. Regarding teacher accountability, Courtney said, “We should recognize that people should be held accountable,” though he was skeptical that test scores were a good measure of growth models. Overall, “I think it’s a healthy debate and hopefully we’ll come up with a proposal that strikes the right balance,” said Courtney.

Asked whether he thought President Barack Obama would be re-elected in November, Courtney said, “Well, that’s going to be a very exciting issue over the next seven months.” He said his own son is currently working on the Obama campaign in Chicago. With the anticipated selection of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate, “The expectation is this will be a very close race,” said Courtney.

Referring to events close to home, Courtney said that a recent job fair at the East Brook Mall brought a fair number of employers looking to hire. “Two years ago I couldn’t have held a job fair,” he said. “There just weren’t enough employers looking. Clearly having the hiring picking up is a fundamental test.”

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