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Welch collects stories from working parents, vows to oppose the interest rate hike

RUTLAND - Just listening to these working parents pursuing college degrees is exhausting.

Ava Pehm, 42, of Pittsford is a single mother to two kids, ages 10 and 13. She is pursuing a degree in administrative management from the Community College of Vermont in Rutland and works part-time.

Greg Lambert, 36, of Rutland is a single father to a seven-year-old boy and is a recent cancer survivor pursuing a degree in environmental science at CCV.

Niki Twohig of Rutland has two-year-old twin boys, and splits her time between school and work.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., visited CCV Thursday as part of an effort to thwart a proposed doubling of interest rates on new, subsidized Stafford student loans, from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. The event was a roundtable discussion with 10 CCV students who count on Stafford loans and other financial aid sources to pursue their academic goals.

Welch intends to take some of their stories to the House floor this month when he argues against the interest rate hike. It's worked before and the Congressman hopes it will work again. Welch used the same strategy in March of 2012 to win a one-year reprieve on the interest rate hike. That reprieve is set to expire July 1. If the interest rate hike goes through, it will add roughly $1,000 to the Stafford loan tab per students.

But it would also raise an estimated $6 billion toward lowering the federal deficit at a time when federal budget negotiations have Democrats and Republicans at a standoff. At this point, neither party has money set aside in their respective budget proposals to keep student loan interest rates at current levels.

But Welch said Thursday that he believes just cutting costs is not the way to solve the debt crisis and shared a recent argument he had with Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee and was the Republican vice presidential nominee last year.

"My argument is, yes, we have to deal with debt in this country, but we also have wage stagnation and income inequality," Welch said. "We have to invest in our future and in our infrastructure, and if the only thing we're doing is cutting, we're going to make (the economy) worse, not better."

Welch was clearly impressed with the workload the students have taken on, with six out of 10 of them working while going to school and raising families.

"I don't know if I can get through the rest of you," Welch said jokingly after hearing from half of the students. "Do you know how easy my life is compared to yours?"

Welch added that supporting students is the best way to invest in the country's future.

"We have to get incomes up and get people to work," he said. "And here you are, working hard to create a future, and your government's policies should take advantage of that."

Ava Pehm concurred.

"Yes, aren't we the future?" she asked. "Aren't we the ones who will be paying our taxes and contributing to the economy?"
The congressman seemed heartened by the exchange.

"You are the future, and you know what? I feel confident in our future," he told the students. "You're going to take care of me in my old age. As citizens, you're entitled to have Congress watching your back, more than we are now."

Afterwards, Welch said he's hoping for a longer-term solution than another one-year reprieve, but he'll take it.

"I'll definitely be talking about these students," he said. "They are so inspiring. All they want is a shot. I would like a longer-term solution, but let's do what we can."

Welch said he believes there are ways to raise revenue other than a hike in student loan interest rates, which he considers taking advantage of students.

"It's just unconscionable to double the cost to these students," he said. "It's like a punitive tax. If we could get some stability for families instead, we'd be much better off."

Photo by Lee Kahrs