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Bank or bust 

Lumetrics is the kind of company that local elected and business officials love to tout.

The Henrietta firm was founded in 2002 and employs 25 people. It designs and manufactures extremely precise measurement systems for multi-layer and coated materials, which other companies use in the production of everything from automobile windshields, to contact lenses, to angioplasty balloons. The company developed its optics-based technology from tech licensed from Kodak.

Lumetrics has recently increased its sales to foreign buyers in Malaysia, Indonesia, and elsewhere, says Susan Baier, the company's director of finance and human resources. Those sales, however, come with risks: the product could conceivably be damaged during shipping or the customer might stiff the company — although that's never happened.

That's where the federal Export-Import Bank, which provides insurance to companies that export goods, fits in. Lumetrics has insured approximately $1 million worth of exports through the bank since 2014. If a recipient fails to pay, the company won't have to eat the loss, and that protection has given Lumetrics confidence to boost its exports, Baier says. It might not have taken the risk otherwise, she says.

But that insurance is no longer available. Congressional authorization of the Export-Import Bank's charter lapsed on June 30, which means that, for the moment, the bank can only honor prior obligations.

New York manufacturers have benefitted substantially from the bank's services. Since 2007, the bank has supported more than $11 billion worth of exports from 358 companies across the state.

Democratic House Representative Louise Slaughter is co-sponsoring a bill, introduced by fellow Democrat Maxine Waters, to renew the bank's charter, and has in recent weeks publicly and repeatedly called for reauthorization.

"We're trying to save these jobs right here, right now," she says.

In Slaughter's district, which covers most of Monroe County, the bank has provided insurance or financing assistance for $170 million worth of exports from 15 companies, from small operations including Lumetrics, to larger, international operations such as Harris Corporation. That backing has supported 685 jobs across Monroe County since 2010, according to information provided by Slaughter's office.

The House Republican majority is at the root of the stalemate. Speaker John Boehner has called for the bank's reauthorization and asked his caucus members for a bill, but he hasn't brought the Democratic measure to the floor.

The bank's expiration is the handiwork of some other top Republican leaders. Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, is a major opponent of the bank. And as he cheered its expiration, he echoed the talking points advanced by a network of conservative groups, which includes FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.

"This is a small step toward renewing a competitive, free­market economy and arresting the rise of the progressive welfare state and the cronyism connected to it," Hensarling said in a late June statement, anticipating the Ex-Im Bank's expiration.

The bank's conservative opponents also include Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, who are both part of the crowded field of GOP presidential candidates. Detractors launch accusations of crony capitalism and corporate welfare, and claim that the bank benefits large corporations at the expense of smaller businesses. They also say that the government, via the bank, is picking winners and losers; Solyndra gets mentioned a lot.

But plenty of Republicans support reauthorization of the bank, including the three GOP House representatives from Monroe and adjacent counties: Chris Collins, Tom Reed, and John Katko. They say that domestic manufacturers need the support in order to keep pace with foreign competitors, who are receiving assistance from their governments. Reed's spokesperson says that Reed has likened the bank's expiration to "unilateral disarmament."

Collins, whose district sprawls across Western New York and extends into Hamlin and Clarkson, formed a small manufacturing business that's benefited from the bank's services. Audubon Machinery, which makes oxygen systems for industrial and medical uses, created 65 jobs through that support, he said in a USA Today op-ed last fall.

"Opponents of Ex-Im are willing to toss around soundbites vilifying the program," Collins wrote. "But these points often neglect the fact that we do not live in a world where other countries abide by the same free-market principles. Without Ex-Im, exporters in the US would be severely disadvantaged internationally."

The bank is far from standard-issue corporate welfare. It has its origins in President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as a way to stimulate Depression-era trade.

The companies that use the modern-day Export-Import Bank pay fees for insurance and loan guarantees, which fund any payments that the institution has to make. The idea that it's squandering taxpayer money is wrong, Slaughter says, and it doesn't cost the public anything. Instead, it makes money for the federal government, she says.

The national AFL-CIO, which is often a loud critic of tax breaks for big business, supports the Ex-Im Bank and its reauthorization. The bank supports the growth of socially beneficial industries such as clean energy, as well as the creation of middle-class jobs, says Jim Bertolone, president of the Rochester-Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation.

And the institution is important for communities such as Rochester that are transitioning from manufacturing economies to ones that encourage growth among the smaller, tech-oriented companies that are emerging in their place, Bertolone says.

The Department of Defense recently announced that Rochester would be the home of a new integrated photonics manufacturing institute. Many expect that the hub will draw even more smaller-scale innovative companies to the Rochester region, Bertolone says, and the Ex-Im Bank, if reauthorized, could play an important role in growing those companies.

"We don't see it as a giveaway," he says. "We see it as an aid to business."

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