Two different — yet connected — fears arose from U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem’s listening session Friday at the Regional Technical Education Center (RTEC).

A packed room of about 100 area residents raised concerns about the soaring federal debt, a looming tax burden and foreign ownership of the debt. They spoke of the danger of a worsening recession and economic collapse.

But the audience also worried about the impact of proposed budget cuts on South Dakota. They noted the state relies heavily on the federal government for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, health care, roads, water projects and agriculture.

Noem (R-S.D.), who won her first term last November, told the Press & Dakotan that the nation cannot continue on its current path. She used the analogy of running off a cliff.

“We’re running out of road. We have to change the direction of our spending,” she said. “We can’t afford (to dig) this hole any deeper.”

Noem made stops earlier in the day to speak on education reform at Milbank, Watertown, Lennox and Vermillion.

However, the Yankton meeting focused on the debt and economy, which Noem said has dominated her conversations with            constituents.

“The two biggest things I hear are gas prices and the (federal) debt ceiling,” she said.

Members of Congress agree the debt needs to be brought under control, Noem said. However, the House and Senate have deadlocked over taxes and spending cuts, she said.

In fact, Congress didn’t pass a budget for the first time since the 1970s, she said. Now, appropriations bills might not be completed by the August recess, she said, and there are talks about operating on continuing resolutions to 2013.

Noem opened Friday’s meeting referring to the political paralysis surrounding the budget crisis.

“This country is facing its most predictable financial crisis in its history, and (politicians) do nothing about it because they want to be re-elected,” she said.

Noem noted the situation has worsened even in the four months she has been in office.

The federal government must borrow 42 cents of every $1 it spends, she said. A child born today automatically inherits a $47,000 debt — up from the $42,000 figure of just a few months ago.

“We talk about cutting spending, but spending has escalated so much,” she said. “If we don’t make any cuts, in 10 years they will have to raise your taxes 60 percent.”

The nation faces a $14 trillion debt, and federal lawmakers and officials now routinely refer to trillions rather than billions, Noem said.

“Everyone recognizes we are on the path to a financial crisis,” she added.

The nation needs to make deep cuts while still protecting programs for veterans, senior citizens and children, Noem said.

“These programs are all going broke,” she said. “We have to figure how to fix it and do it in a timely manner.”

The federal budget stood at $3.5 trillion for fiscal year 2010. Government spending accounted for 25 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), up from the former 19 percent, Noem said.

“That’s how much government has grown since 2008,” she said.

Most of the budget is locked into “auto pilot,” she said, noting the non-defense, discretionary items account for $666 billion of the $3.5 trillion budget. Interest accounted for $202 billion of the debt in fiscal year 2010.

“But I have to remind you, we are at a time of record low interest rates,” she said. “We could possibly see $1 of every $5 (in federal spending) going to interest on the debt. That would be devastating.”

Foreign nations held 47 percent of the United States’ debt in fiscal year 2010, Noem said. That’s up from 5 percent foreign ownership in 1970 and 19 percent in 1990.

“We truly are becoming enslaved to other countries,” she said.

While Congress debates which direction to take, any action on the debt is better than no action, she said. “The only radical proposal talked about is doing nothing,” she said.

For the next portion of the meeting, Noem outlined the fiscal year 2012 budget resolution crafted by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The proposed budget is entitled “Path To Prosperity: Restoring America’s Promise.”

The proposal cuts $6.2 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years, Noem said.

The plan would create jobs, secure social programs, meet health care needs and balance the budget, she said. The proposal will bend the cost curve for federal spending and reduce debt as a share of the GDP, she said.

Standard & Poor’s downgraded the nation’s credit rating because of the debt and lack of a plan for tackling it, Noem said. In contrast, South Dakota was the only state to see its credit rating upgraded because of its financial practices, she said.

Taking control of spending will create economic growth, more jobs, higher wages and more prosperity, she said.

The nation also faces a challenge funding Social Security, Noem said. In 1950, there were 16.5 workers for every one Social Security recipient. In 2009, the ratio slipped to 3-to-1, and by 2040 the ratio is estimated to be 2-to-1.

American life expectancy has risen to 78 years, and 10,000 Americans go onto Social Security every day as more Baby Boomers reach retirement age, Noem said.

Noem disputed the contention that the proposed budget will gut or eliminate Medicare. The proposal protects the current funding for those now ages 55 and older while making changes for those who are younger, she said.

Without changes, Medicare would go broke in nine years, she said.

“If we don’t make changes now, there is no way to fix Medicare and protect seniors,” she said, adding that health care providers and others would have time to adjust to the changes.

Noem then fielded audience questions on a number of        subjects.

• An audience member asked about a court order that President Obama act on six Gulf drilling permits within 30 days and its possible impact on the proposed Hyperion refinery in Union County.

Noem said she supports an energy plan that makes more use of American resources and less reliance on the Middle East. As far as Hyperion, she said the project was moving forward but slowly.

• An audience member asked about the shipment of jobs overseas. Noem said the proposed budget contains tax reforms that make it more financially competitive for American companies to keep jobs at home.

• An audience member asked how the federal government could hit its debt limit of $14 trillion yet continue operating until August. Noem explained that U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used what he termed “extraordinary measures” such as delaying payments to keep the federal government afloat.

• When asked about foreign aid, Noem said the United States must carefully examine if it is helping enemy forces.

“We have to ask, ‘Is it beneficial, and are they truly allies?’” she said. “If the Muslim Brotherhood would be in charge of Egypt, ... they would not be our allies.”

• Audience members expressed concerns about “raids” on the Social Security “lock box” and the FDIC trust fund that insures financial institutions.

• The South Dakota congressional delegation is working to address concerns about the closure of small post offices and the curtailment or elimination of Saturday postal service, Noem said.

• Questions were raised about subsidies for oil companies, the ethanol industry and farm programs.

In response to agriculture, Noem said farmers are more concerned about maintaining a safety net, such as crop insurance, than direct payments.

As for oil companies, Noem said she feared the reduction or elimination of those subsidies would find oil companies merely passing on higher costs to consumers.

• The Lewis and Clark pipeline project, which would provide crucial water supplies for communities in three states, has seen its federal funding cut, Noem said. The local governments paid their money upfront to keep the project moving, but the federal government has not come through with its commitment, she said.

No criteria exists for allocating and maintaining federal funds for projects such as Lewis and Clark, Noem said. The pipeline deserves funding because of the number of people served by the project and their reliance on it for cleaning drinking water, she said.

“It’s a long battle, but we have to keep fighting to make sure the project gets completed,” she said.

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