Welcome to the fourth in a series of conversations with Maine's political leaders. After speaking with Governor John Baldacci, Speaker of the Maine State House John Richardson, and Senator Olympia Snowe, this week I had the opportunity to chat with Senator Susan Collins.

Collins, a Caribou, Maine native, was raised by a family that ran a fifth-generation lumber business. She attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and went on to spend several years working for former Senator William S. Cohen and former Maine Governor John R. McKernan.

Collins became the founding executive director of the Center for Family Business at Husson College in Bangor, Maine in 1994. She won election to the Senate seat vacated by Senator Cohen in 1996 after winning the nomination of the Republican Party.

Collins, Maine's junior senator, is now half-way through her second term in the Senate and serves as the Chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and also serves on the Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Aging. Collins is proud of the fact that she has been present for every roll call vote since her first day in the Senate.

The following includes excerpts of the interview.

Evan Kohn: Senator, what is your response to 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton's recent statements in the New York Times and on "Meet the Press" saying that Homeland Security funds and First Responder grants need to be allocated based on risk? As Chair of the Homeland Security Committee, do you think it should be a priority to have these funds allocated to different places based on risk? How are these funds affecting Maine?

Senator Susan Collins: I was very proud that in its final report [on Monday] that the 9/11 Commissioners listed me first among people that they thanked in Congress. I think that was [in recognition] of the work that I've done to ensure the implementation of some of their recommendations in the area that I oversee...There's no doubt that the Homeland Security [funding] formula that is in the current law is flawed, and it is flawed for many reasons. One is it doesn't have good, strict accountability measures to ensure that the money is being wisely spent. We've seen examples of wasteful spending in Newark, New Jersey, buying air-conditioned garbage trucks with Homeland Security funding. The legislation that Joe Lieberman and I have drafted would put in place strict accountability measures to ensure that money is spent to meet national preparedness goals.

Second, the current law does not allocate funds sufficiently based upon an assessment of risks, threats, and vulnerabilities. But in doing that, you have to be careful not to equate large populations automatically with risks, threats, or vulnerabilities. We know that two of the hijackers began their journey of death and destruction from Portland, Maine...We know that the hijackers trained and organized in rural communities throughout America. So, if we want to increase the preparedness of our nation as a whole, we have to have sophisticated formula, and that's what we proposed. The legislation that Joe Lieberman and I have written would double the amount of funds that are based on the Secretary of Homeland Security's assessment of risks, threats, and vulnerabilities. It would also ensure a meaningful baseline of funding for every state so that the nation as a whole can achieve preparedness directives.

So, I agree with the 9/11 Commission that the current law is flawed. I support the approach that we've worked out in the Senate, which passed the Senate with the support of 71 senators. I do not believe that the House-approved [bill] is the right way to go because it doesn't recognize that both rural and urban states have vulnerabilities. And it would not bring the entire country up to a certain level of preparedness. A coastal state, a border state clearly has vulnerabilities that a larger, interior urban state might not have. So I think we need a more sophisticated formula...Finally on that we have to remember that terrorists could still attack so-called soft targets [such as] our food supply, malls, and schools in more rural areas in order to spread terror.

Evan Kohn: I'd like to ask one question about energy. Last week I spoke with Senator Snowe about some of the short-term work being done to deal with high energy prices this winter. Bowdoin has taken a number of steps to encourage and establish more sustainable and efficient uses of energy on campus. What are your long-term plans for energy in America?

Senator Susan Collins: First of all, I think we should set a goal of energy independence for our country, and we should [move ourselves away] from our dangerous dependence on Middle East oil. In order to do that, we need to take a number of steps. For example, we need to increase fuel efficiency standards for SUVs and light trucks. If we took that step, we would reduce the amount of oil we use by a million barrels a day, and it would have a very significant impact on energy use. We should also pursue more research and development into alternative energy sources that are not fossil fuel-based. We should work to increase energy efficiency of appliances. There are a lot of savings that could be made in that area as well.

But we also need to take action immediately to help lower-income families and seniors who are living on limited income with the high cost of home heating oil. Along with Senator Snowe and a coalition of senators on both sides of the aisle, I have been working and offering amendments in the Senate to almost double the funding for low-income heating assistance programs. That would make a tremendous difference to people living in need. I'm proposing to pay for that increase by eliminating subsidies in our tax code that very large oil and gas companies enjoy. In a time when they're earning record profits there is simply no justification for providing these very large corporations with tax breaks, which they enjoy now to the tune of billions of dollars.

Evan Kohn: I'd like to ask a question about the Iraq war. The war has been felt at Bowdoin; many speakers have come to campus and one student Marine just recently left for Iraq service. What is the mood on the Armed Services Committee in regards to the Iraq war?

Senator Susan Collins: The Armed Services Committee has been holding periodic public hearings as well as classified briefings since the war began...Many of us are concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq...Some of [it] is due to a slow start, some of it is due to an ill-fated decision to disband the Iraqi army. So, I think you're seeing even tougher questions and more aggressive oversight.

Evan Kohn: Briefly, what are your thoughts on the Higher Education Reauthorization Act?

Senator Susan Collins: I have long been a very strong supporter of higher education and the government's contributions through Pell Grants...student loans, and other forms of federal assistance. The Senate version was included as part of a budget bill that recently passed. It did not include as much of an increase in Pell Grants as I would like to see. I have been the Senate's leading supporter of Pell Grants throughout my nine years [in the Senate]. I worked at Husson College prior to being elected to the Senate, and I saw first-hand [the impacts] of Pell Grants and [other financial assistance]. For so many students, it truly spells the difference between being able to attend college and not being able to attend college.

So, I'm going to continue to work for further increases in Pell Grant awards. I do think that there are a lot of important provisions in the Higher Education Act. The Senate version does not include what is known as a Fair Share proposal, which would have changed the formula for [granting] student loan money to schools in a way that would have been very detrimental for colleges in Maine. So, I'm pleased that we were able to stop that change, which would have been a bad one.

Evan Kohn: In regards to the Brunswick Naval Air Station (BNAS), what specific type of redevelopment do you think would best serve the people of the Mid-Coast region?

Senator Susan Collins: That is really up to the people of the Mid-Coast region. Just as the people in northern Maine got together to decide what kind of industry, government, and business entities that they wanted to attract to the site of former Loring Air Force Base, so should the people in the Mid-Coast region decide what the future of BNAS should be. It is an enormous process for the area. People have proposed all sorts of ideas ranging from a commercial airport to, I think I heard, a proposal for an oil refinery from the local people, though I think there would be a lot of opposition to that as well. And also, proposals ranging from having a golf course and resort to an education entity. So that's really up to local people. My job is to assist in providing federal support for the [redevelopment]...it is my responsibility to try to help them to secure funding to bring the plan to reality.

Evan Kohn: Finally, with so many unknowns about Supreme Court candidates and their judicial philosophies toward important issues, how should dialogues about Supreme Court appointments on college campuses be framed?

Senator Susan Collins: I think the debate in our country and on college campuses on the Supreme Court, on Iraq, on energy policy, on a host of issues, is a very healthy one. I like to see college students getting more involved in the issues. My office provides internships in my [district] offices and in my Washington office, and we've had students from Bowdoin participate in those internships, and I think they're wonderful opportunities.

So, [whether you debate the] judicial philosophy of Samuel Alito, or what our policy should be in Iraq, I think it is great and contributes to the dialogue in this country.

Evan Kohn: Are you planning to run for re-election again in 2008?

Senator Susan Collins: That's quite a ways off, and I haven't made a decision. I've very much enjoyed my time in the Senate, and I think I've contributed a lot. I've certainly noticed that as I've gained seniority...I'm able to accomplish much more for my state and my country with each passing year. But right now, I'm just concentrating on my chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, my service on the Armed Services and the Aging Committee...and I haven't really been thinking about my future plans.

Evan Kohn: And who might you be rooting for in this weekend's Bowdoin-Colby hockey games?

Senator Susan Collins: As with Senator Snowe, I wish both teams well and I won't take a side.

Evan Kohn: Well, thank you for your time, Senator.

Senator Susan Collins: Thank you, Evan.

Look for another Evan Kohn interview with one of Maine's political leaders in the near future.