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In The Public Interest: A Stroll Down Main Street Finds Fans of Financial Reform

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Main Street in Wisconsin is just like Main Street everywhere else, and we're wondering if the U.S. Senate back East will stand up for us this spring.

Out here, consumers and small business owners are still struggling to dig out of the recession that the bankers got us into.

The Senate stood up for the bankers when they backed the bail out. Now the question is - Will the Senate stand up to the bankers? The very people who continue to gamble with our tax dollars and who are spending millions on lobbyists whose sole objective is to block the kinds of financial reforms that would protect Main Street from recklessness on Wall Street?

From talking to business owners, senior citizens, students and others in Wisconsin, the answer is clear - we want Senator Herb Kohl and the U.S. Senate to stand up for us, not the bankers!

More than 18 months after taxpayers were forced to bail out Wall Street, Congress is finally moving closer to enacting reforms to protect the rest of us. In December, the House passed comprehensive financial reform. (See my colleague's In The Public Interest column.) Similar legislation could clear the Senate by Memorial Day, in spite of the fierce opposition and heavy lobbying.

What's really astonishing is that momentum for strong legislation is growing, not lagging. Part of the reason is that even though the big banks are serving themselves well with big bonuses, the economy is still stalled.

I hope the senators get a chance to stroll down their local Main Streets during this week's recess. They'll see that even if spring has sprung, ordinary Americans haven't been sprung from the recession yet. Here in Wisconsin, as in every state across the nation, predatory practices by financial institutions have consumers and small businesses locked in a chokehold.

Take Sam Breidenbach of Madison - Breidenbach owns TDS Custom Construction, a local construction and remodeling company. The success of his business depends on his customers' ability to secure financing for their projects.

Recently, Breidenbach accepted a client's design project to the tune of $250,000. In the early stages of the process, the client's bank implied it would finance the construction, but as the project evolved the bank reneged, claiming the home did not hold enough equity. Breidenbach lost the contract and with it desperately needed revenue.

Since the recession began Breidenbach has had to lay off seven of his 18 employees so that he could keep providing the remaining ones with health insurance, full disability, dental, and life insurance as well as paid vacation and sick days. Further, his entire office staff has been furloughed one day a week. The future for TDS Custom Construction is unsure. Breidenbach suspects that losing the $250,000 project will probably take its toll on another few employees.

In fact these days, the only thing Breidenbach is sure of is that what happened with that potential client probably happens a lot more than he or anyone realizes. Most potential clients never give him a call in the first place because after one visit to a bank they just give up.

Breidenbach's story is just one demonstration of why more and more business owners are rejecting the "leadership" of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a shrill voice against reform. Instead, small businesses are joining the call for an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) to police the financial product marketplace and enforce rules and regulations written to protect the public interest.

A recent survey of 1,200 business owners showed that over two-thirds of them (67 percent) support the creation of a CFPA. In March, seven business groups - the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and numerous state and local chambers not affiliated with the behemoth U.S. Chamber - also joined the call for an independent CFPA to promote financial product safety, establish clear, enforceable rules of the road, and "help ensure we do not repeat the reckless practices we are paying dearly for today."

As our Senators prepare to battle it out on the floor over financial reform, they should remember their Main Streets back home.

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