COLUMBIA — About 200 people attended an economic development workshop hosted Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is holding a series of "Kitchen Table Talks" around the state.
The workshop, held at the Elks Lodge on Route WW in east Columbia, sought to teach the owners of small businesses how to write grant applications that might get them a slice of the federal stimulus pie.
McCaskill said it's important to teach people how to write grants, given the lack of earmarks in the stimulus package.
"We tried to look at other ways that we could be helpful," McCaskill said. "And we figured out how many grant opportunities there were out there, and that there were lots of folks in Missouri that may be too small to hire a lobbyist or grant writer. We wanted to make sure everybody was aware of what's out there."
McCaskill spoke at length about her distaste for earmarks and assured those in attendance that there were none in the stimulus bill and that every project had been or would be competed. She also said that most of the money in the bill that has been appropriated for Missouri would have come to the state anyway.
"But there is a huge tax cut," McCaskill said. "There is a tax cut for most of you. I'm willing to bet almost all of you in the room."
McCaskill also explained that she feels the stimulus package is intended to create jobs and that she worked hard to remove close to $100 billion in programs that were necessary but did not work toward that goal.
The stimulus bill "was not to right all the wrongs that we have in America," she said. "It was about making jobs or saving jobs."
The senator addressed unemployment in her speech, too.
"We're going to continue to see high unemployment throughout this year. I don't think unemployment will peak probably until the first of next year," McCaskill said. She later added: "I think we're going to start seeing it come down after that."
McCaskill also offered an explanation of her voting record. She was one of three Democrats who rejected the budget bill about a month after voting in favor of the stimulus bill.
"The budget bill was drawn up last year before the economic crisis. I didn't think we'd done a good job reconciling the reality of those budget numbers with the reality that we face right now," McCaskill said.
The original 8 percent worth of proposed discretionary spending on domestic programs also was too high for McCaskill's comfort, she said. She did vote for an amended budget last week, however, after seeing the discretionary spending reduced.
"If you take out the increase we spent on veterans and the one-time cost of the census, the domestic discretionary spending dropped this year from last year," the senator told the audience. "People are paying attention to what we spend, and they are paying attention to the deficit. People are trying to be responsible with your money."
Although McCaskill told the gathering she opposes increased spending, she did speak to a special exception: veterans' care. McCaskill said her father, a veteran of World War II; a colleague, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; and her visit to a military hospital in Iraq left a lasting impression on her.
"We've been trying to nickel-and-dime our veterans for a long time. I think it's time that our country keep every single promise that we made to the people who wear the uniform for us," McCaskill said as the audience applauded.
The new budget gives $5.5 million more to veterans than last year, McCaskill said.
Her visit to Columbia was part of a statewide tour in which she is trying to engage Missourians in talks about the stimulus. She said it helps to keep her grounded and accountable.
"When you get out to Washington, you get to thinking that you're a pretty big deal. And when you come home and talk to these wonderful people, it keeps (you) focused on them," she said.
McCaskill said she's faced some opposition as she traveled the state and has been "chewed on pretty good" by people from the left and the right. Still, she said, it's an "important part of the work."
The workshop featured speakers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, the USDA Farm Services program, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Economic Development Administration, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Trade Adjustment Assistance for Firms program, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the State of Missouri Economic Stimulus Team, the Missouri Department of Economic Development and the Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers.
After her stop in Columbia on Wednesday, McCaskill was headed to Rolla and Osage Beach.