LACONIA — Can so-called public banking help create a prosperous economy for Belknap County by allowing local resources to be recycled through the area economy rather than being subject to the control of large banks tied to Wall Street?
That question was discussed in detail at a presentation on public banking held at the Belknap County Complex Monday night which attracted a half dozen state legislators, all three members of the Belknap County Commission and several members of the public, some of whom openly advocated for establishing a local pubic bank.
The presentation was arranged by Rep. Valerie Fraser (R-New Hampton), a member of the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee, who noted that HB-672, which would establish a state bank, had been retained by a 12-4 vote of the committee, which would be taking the bill up for action in the near future.
"It's our money,'' said Fraser, setting the populist tone for the meeting before she introduced Walt McRee, chairman of the board of the Public Banking Institute, which was formed in 2011 following the publication of Ellen Brown's best-selling book ''Web of Debt'', which was highly critical of the practices of large banking interests, such as sale of compromised securities, mail fraud, mortgage scams and other unsound investments which created a heated market for money speculators, particularly in the housing and real estate industries, which later collapsed.
McRee pointed out that the large private banks which were bailed out by taxpayers after the recession of 2008 such as Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan, Bank of America, HSBC, Citicorp and others, have returned to many of their old practices and are now bigger than ever, having grown over 30 percent since the collapse in 2008.
McRee noted that all of the policies promulgated by the Federal Reserve, which is a private not a government agency, are driven by private interests and that the trillions issued in the bailout funds went to private institutions, which used the funds as they deemed fit.
He said that the economy needs credit and cash flow in order to prosper and that it is not being provided by the large private banks and said that there is an alternate form of banking, public banking, which works better.
He said that world-wide 40 percent of assets are held by public banks, including some German banks which are 200 years old and community-owned.
The only publicly-owned bank in the United States is the Bank of North Dakota, which was launched after the Non-Partisan League took over the government there in 1919. The bank is still owned by the people (the state) and is the depository of all the state's revenues including tax money, fees and other such receivables.
''Instead of sending their money to Wall Street for investment, BND keeps its money in the state and invests in a wide variety of needs and projects that help the state build internal strength and financial health,'' said McRee.
He said that such a bank could be established in Belknap County and run by a seven-member board, all of whom would have a financial background, who would hire a bank staff of perhaps as few as three people to run the institution.
''There would be no financial speculation, no bonuses and no ad campaigns,'' said McRee, who said that the bank could focus on financing infrastructure projects and would be able to work with local community banks to help provide financing for affordable housing and solar projects.
He said that because interest rates would be in the one to two percent range the public bank would save hundreds of thousands in interest costs for the county on projects. He said that the bank could be formed by seeking approval from the state Banking Commission or through the purchase of an existing community bank.
Rep. Brian Gallagher (R-Sanbornton) asked how the bank would be capitalized and whether or not it would require a loan from a commercial bank. McRee said that the county's assets could be used to capitalize the bank and that sources other than loans might be available.
Belknap County Commissioner Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) suggested that the bank could be formed with the county treasurer running the operation, which would be overseen by the commissioners with the Belknap County Convention serving as board of directors and would operate right out of the county complex.
But McRee threw cold water on that idea, saying there would have to be a clear line between political control and that the board of directors would have to be truly independent with a background in banking.
It was noted that banks can generally provide loans of up 10 times their capitalization and that in the case of Belknap County, with a $30 million annual cash flow, that could mean as much as $300 million in loans.
DeVoy and others said that the Gunstock Mountain Recreation Area is a county-owned asset which would increase the capitalization amount for a county bank.
Commissioner Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) urged a cautious exploration of the idea, noting that the county would be taking on risks as well as opportunities.
Joseph Castagnaro of Gilford said that the whole idea of going to public banking is to get away from the control of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, which he said ''favors the one percent at the top. We prosper and Wall Street goes down the drain.''
McRee said that he doubted that the effects of public banking would go that far but noted that ''we have lost control of our money'' and cited a recent Princeton University study that concluded that America had become an oligarchy governed for the benefit of the wealthy rather than a democracy.
Castagnaro said the real challenge to establishing a public bank is ''getting it past the banking lobby in Concord",' a sentiment echoed by Peter Mulcahy of Gilmanton and DeVoy.
Rep. Shari Lebreche (R-Belmont) said that other people will have to get involved for the public banking idea to succeed and said that there needed to be a discussion with the entire county delegation.
Joel Weinrebe of Belmont said he liked the idea and that the county could use a public bank to retire some of its own debts and reduce the amount paid in interest in each year.
DeVoy said that the county will look at what the next steps are in moving the process along and McRee said the institute has staff who could help the county in the process. ''You should do a study exploring the idea and develop an example of what might be possible.''
Rep. Valerie Fraser (R-New Hampton) and Walt McRee of Public Banking Institute listen to questions at a presentation on public banking held at the Belknap County Complex Monday evening. (Roger Amsden photo for the Laconia Daily Sun)
Walt McRee of Public Banking Institute describes how the Bank of North Dakota, a public bank, helped that state get through the recent recession while maintaining a budget surplus. He was the featured speaker at a presentation on public banking held at the Belknap County Complex Monday evening. (Roger Amsden photo for the Laconia Daily Sun)