A picture of Senator Rob Portman
Robert P.
Republican OH

About Sen. Robert
  • Perkins Loans, Hardest Hit Fund, and Enforce Act

    by Senator Rob Portman

    Posted on 2015-12-10

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    PORTMAN. Mr. President, I rise today to talk about a couple of areas where I think we can make progress on legislation before the end of the year. This has been a legislative session in which we passed a number of important bills, and I think there is more we can do. Specifically, I am going to talk about some legislative initiatives that will give a leg up to American workers--Ohio workers--and also to help our families and help our students.

    I will start with students. There is an opportunity over the next couple of weeks for us to ensure that we reauthorize the Perkins Loan Program. Perkins is an incredibly important program, particularly for low-income students. In my view, of all the student loan programs out there, Perkins is by far the most flexible. This is an urgent matter because if we don't pass an extension, new loans will not be rewarded, even in January as students start this next semester. Let's not allow college tuition to become even less affordable for low-income students. Let's ensure that they can get a college degree to pursue their dreams and that we do move forward with this Perkins reauthorization.

    I spoke about this on the floor a month or so ago. I talked about it as a program that was incredibly important for students in my State. I talked about the fact that there are 60 schools in the Buckeye State, in Ohio, that have received loans from this program. Over the last school year, more than 25,000 Ohio students received financial aid through Perkins--including about 3,000 students at Kent State University and about 1,700 students at the Ohio State University.

    I was in Columbus last weekend and had a chance to meet with some Ohio State students who care a lot about this. They want to ensure that this Perkins is going to be there for them so they can stay in school. Some of them already have help from other programs, but they know that if they don't have the Perkins Loan Program, they can't afford to make ends meet and to stay in school. It is very important.

    I have also heard from our college Presidents from around the State-- particularly from Dr. Beverly Warren from Kent, who was here a couple of weeks ago to talk to me about this, and Dr. Michael Drake, whom I saw last week at Ohio State. They want to ensure that their students have this possibility.

    One of the students I talked to is Keri Richmond. Keri is a junior at Kent State, and she interned at my office this past summer. Keri was an incredible intern. She is a student who is working hard. She is at Kent State, likely to graduate a little bit early. She spent her teenage years going from foster home to foster home. She fought the odds, and she is now excelling in college. She is bright. She is ambitious. Even with her Pell Grant, she has to have that Perkins loan in order to be able to stay in school, in order to make ends meet.

    This is an important program, but it is not about a program. It is not about numbers. It is about people. It is about Keri Richmond and others like her. The impact goes well beyond Ohio. Over 1,7000 colleges and universities across the country participate in this program. Low- income students everywhere rely on it. If it expires, it is only more difficult to pay for school. Instead, what we should be doing in the Senate is making it easier, not harder, to afford to go to school. Some of these tuitions have gone up and up. We have to be sure every kid has a chance to be able to get ahead by going to college or university.

    If we don't move, students who previously received a Perkins loan will lose their eligibility if they change institutions or academic programs. It is a big deal for them. If we don't act soon, students who are seeking loans for the winter and spring semesters will be ineligible. In total, it is possible that 150,000 freshmen will lose their eligibility this fall. We can't let that happen. Let's not allow college tuition to become this roadblock for low-income students who are looking for a college degree. Let's give them this chance. Let's give them this opportunity. By the way, let's extend it but at the same time work on ways to improve the program. I know there are some Members on my side of the aisle--and I think on the other side as well but certainly on my side of the aisle--who said they have concerns about some of these student loan programs and would like to reform them to make them work better. That is great. Let's take the time to do that.

    In the meantime, let's not eliminate this program and have these kids fall between the cracks. I am there on the reforms. I would like to help on that. I think we can do better for all of our student loan programs and help all of our kids be able to have a better chance to succeed. Let's not create this terrible uncertainty for these students in the meantime. Let's extend this program and then work on those reforms.

    I thank Senator Casey, Senator Baldwin, Senator Collins, and others for their strong leadership on this. I want to ask my colleagues in the Senate to do simply what the House has done and do an extension of this program. The House has already passed this legislation. There is no reason it shouldn't be in the omnibus legislation, and there is no reason we shouldn't move forward with ensuring that these kids have the certainty they need to be able to stay in school.

    [[Page S8591]] Mr. President, the second issue I want to talk about is that while students get the education they need, we also have to ensure that the communities they are going back to are safe and make sure those communities can thrive and grow.

    One of the issues we have in Ohio and unfortunately in too many neighborhoods all around this country is that you have a lot of blight, a lot of homes that have been abandoned. Two things happen: One, when homes are abandoned, they become a magnet for crime, for drugs, and for other criminal activity to the point that they are dangerous for the community, but, second, they drive down the cost of the other houses-- sometimes by as much as 80 percent. If you are in a community or you have a beautiful home you are taking care of but your neighbor's house becomes abandoned and becomes a magnet for crime and an eyesore, it drives down all of the property values.

    In Congress we have spent a lot of money, taxpayer money, on helping people deal with their mortgages when they are underwater--particularly after the financial crisis. In my view we ought to focus more on taking down these abandoned homes and creating safer neighborhoods but also, through market forces, allowing the property values of all of these homes to increase.

    I think this is an honorable effort, and it is one that a lot of people are focused on now around the country. I don't think we are quite caught up to where our neighborhoods are here in Washington, DC, because when I go home to Ohio I hear about this all the time. We have about 80,000 of these dangerous abandoned homes in Ohio.

    Again, to address public safety concerns and tumbling home values in these struggling neighborhoods, one of the best alternatives is to demolish these abandoned structures. Sometimes another structure can be rebuilt there. That is what we want. We want more economic development in these communities. In some cases, I have seen where there was an abandoned home, it was torn down and made into a community garden and the community can all participate. The point is to get these homes down so we can have the redevelopment we all want.

    I have walked the streets with local officials in Cleveland, Warren, Lima, and Toledo, OH, and I have seen these problems firsthand. As I do that, I talk to the residents. I ask them what they think. You can imagine the response I get. First, for them, it is an eyesore. It is a danger for their kids, grandkids. Second, they are worried about their property values.

    I had one occasion to speak to someone in Toledo, OH, that was particularly concerning to me. This was a woman who had three kids. Her home was right next to an abandoned home, literally feet away--6 or 7 feet away, sort of like a row house. She said: Rob, every night I go to bed worrying that the home next to me, which is abandoned, is going to be torched by arsonists. At that point in time--this was in Toledo, OH--there was about one arson a night, where these abandoned homes were not just targets for crime but they were also being used by arsonists as practice for burning down a home. She was worried about her kids. She was worried she couldn't go to sleep at night because if that home caught fire next to her, her home could be next.

    This is something we ought to focus on and we can focus on. Land banks in some of our hardest hit areas of Ohio, Michigan, and other States have gotten to work on attacking this problem. They have done a great job. They don't have the resources they need to demolish as many properties as they would like to help some of these struggling neighborhoods. That is why these land banks have come to us and asked: Can you help us a little more? After talking to them, after visiting these neighborhoods, we did take action. We authored legislation called the Neighborhood Safety Act of 2013, which was a bipartisan effort and a bicameral effort. In the House, you had Members like Dave Joyce, Marcy Kaptur, and Marcia Fudge working on this. Our legislation called for what is called the Hardest Hit Fund to be used not just to help people pay down their mortgages but also to help people be able to knock down these abandoned homes. We pushed it aggressively, and this important change was made administratively. It has provided nearly $66 million in Ohio and around the country to deal with these thousands of abandoned homes in our State. Michigan also got funds, as did other States.

    Now, in many of these States, these Hardest Hit Funds have run out. In other words, there are more abandoned homes than there is money to be able to deal with the problem. Given the success rate we have and the fact that these land banks are doing a great job, we think it is time to provide some more funding. That is what we proposed to do in the Omnibus appropriations bill.

    I am working with Senator Stabenow, Senator Brown, and others to transfer funds from what is called the Home Affordable Modification Program, which is a program that would be eliminated under our proposal, and shift some of those funds into the Hardest Hit Fund for demolition purposes. I have repeatedly discussed this issue with our leadership, Senator McConnell and others, our leadership here on the committees in the Senate and in the House, and I am very hopeful this can be done before year-end. It is the right thing to do. It is an opportunity for us to be able to shift some of these funds from a program that is not working as well into a program we know works and to make progress in some of our struggling neighborhoods in Ohio and around the country.

    I give special thanks to these land banks in Ohio that have taken the lead on this issue back home. Particularly, I want to thank the tireless efforts of Jim Rokakis, director of the Thriving Communities Initiative at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. He has done excellent work in helping to lead this effort and highlight this issue. I hope we can get this done, even in the next week here, to be able to help our communities in Ohio and around the country.

    Mr. President, finally, when we talk about keeping our communities safe and the need to help our students, we also have to be sure that we are helping our workers. We need to ensure we are protecting jobs in our States that are threatened by unfairly traded imports.

    I am pleased that we will soon be voting to pass the conference report for the Customs bill. It is my understanding that this may come up as early as Monday or Tuesday next week. I hope we can pass that here in the Senate and send it to the President for his signature.

    There are a number of aspects of the Customs bill I support, but one aspect of it that I think is really important is legislation that is called the ENFORCE Act, to ensure that we are enforcing our laws properly. This is on the heels of legislation we already passed as part of the trade promotion authority earlier this year. That legislation is called Level the Playing Field Act. Senator Sherrod Brown, my colleague from Ohio, and I offered this legislation, and it is now part of our law and ammunition we can use against unfairly traded imports. It is already working because it has already been signed into law, and it is helping to deal with dumping when people are selling below costs or when they unfairly subsidize imports. It is helping workers in Ohio. It is helping our tire workers, paper workers, and steel workers, and we are proud of that.

    The problem is that although the legislation that we have already passed, the Level the Playing Field Act, helps with regard to taking on countries that are sending their products here unfairly, sometimes those countries then decide to try to evade the provisions we put in place, the higher tariffs for their dumped products or their higher tariffs for their subsidized products. That is what the ENFORCE Act is about. It is about ensuring that although we have this legislation in place, countries and their companies don't go around those regulations and still try to get products here into the United States by illegally sending it through another country or relabeling the product so that it doesn't fall under the tariffs that might be levied against them.

    I am really hopeful that we will able to pass this additional legislation. It is incredibly important, as I said, not only for Ohio, but it is also important for the country. Time after time we [[Page S8592]] have seen that once we put these protective orders in place against these unfairly traded imports, these countries continue to illegally enter our country through illegal transshipments to other countries or through relabeling these products.

    I think we have an opportunity to move forward on something that is really important to help protect workers to ensure that we can closely examine these schemes and stop them.

    This effort, by the way, is backed by the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Iron and Steel Institute, and the United Steelworkers. They have a common cause because they understand that it is so critical that we ensure that our workers get a fair shake.

    I got an email last week from workers at Pennex Aluminum in Leetonia, OH, in the Mahoning Valley. They have 78 workers at their facility, and they won an important case against aluminum extrusions from China. The email said that this relief really helped us.

    Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent for 1 additional minute.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection? Without objection, it is so ordered.

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