U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, convened 11 Clark County business leaders Tuesday in Vancouver to discuss how her office can help them thrive as Southwest Washington struggles out of recession.
The Republican freshman herself set the agenda: She wanted to talk about federal health reform, federal taxes and burdensome government regulations. A member of the House Small Business Committee, she made it clear she sees those issues as a triple threat aimed squarely at the recovery of businesses in the 3rd Congressional District.
“My office is focused on creating a level playing field so small businesses can grow,” she said in opening her hourlong Job Creator Forum at a Port of Vancouver conference room. “There’s a ridiculous disconnect between our legislators and our job creators.”
Some business owners said things are looking up.
“We just added a staff person,” said Kristy Weaver of Pacific Continental Bank.
“We’re becoming hopefully optimistic about our market here,” said Linda McClellan of Hasson Company Realtors.
“I don’t think agriculture has been as badly affected as other businesses, “ said Bill Zimmerman, owner of B-Z Farms. He added, however, that the nation’s debt crisis and the prospect of inflation worry him because, “we buy on the retail market and sell on the wholesale market.”
Cheryl Malfait, owner of Flowers Washougal and two other small businesses, offered a gloomier perspective.
“This last six months has been the worst,” she said. “We’ve been lucky to break even. … The cost of gas is killing us.”
Mike Green, owner of Michael Green Construction, said he’s been lucky despite the collapse of the homebuilding industry.
“We ended up with a decent year, but it’s still pretty scary,” he said. Like others, he said the fast-rising cost of fuel is his biggest problem.
Cliff McMillen, owner of Vancouver Pizza, said rising gas prices have hurt his business, too, because the company has to cover its pizza delivery costs.
“We try to keep prices down. We’re profitable, but last year, we were very challenged.”
He’d like to hire more workers, he said, but his access to credit has been shut off for the past three years.
Herrera Beutler steered the discussion to the 2009 health reform bill, which she refers to as “Obamacare” in press releases and floor speeches. “Have you found it will change your ability to offer health care to your employees?” she asked.
The law is being phased in over several years and won’t offer coverage through health care exchanges until 2014, but some small businesses are already eligible for 30 percent tax credits to help offset the cost of providing health coverage to their workers.
Greg Seifert of Biggs Insurance, who serves as a health insurance broker for small businesses, offered an overall critique of the plan.
“There’s nothing in this bill that’s going to mitigate rates,” he said. “It’s not health reform, it’s insurance reform,” and for many people, he said, deductibles and co-pays will go up.
Bruce Holmstrom, chief executive officer of Vancouver Oil, said his biggest challenge is that he’s forced to offer fewer health coverage options to his workers as insurance rates rise.
“Every year, we have had to go back and raise the deductible for our employees,” he said.
Herrera Beutler offered her own solutions: Association health plans, health savings accounts, a relaxation of state rules to allow people to buy policies across state borders. She also repeated her assertion that Medicare Advantage plans save money and should be expanded, a claim that a national commission on Medicare has refuted.
She noted that she voted for the Republican 2012 budget written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The 10-year budget blueprint would turn Medicare into a voucher program, convert Medicaid for the poor to state block grants, and make permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.
Though she has vowed to oppose raising the federal debt ceiling unless Congress enacts dramatic new spending cuts, she also predicted that the rising national debt “is going to have a significant impact on our economy,”
“We cannot physically raise taxes enough right now to balance the budget,” she said. She also repeated her claim that a large proportion of those who benefit from the Bush tax cuts aren’t billionaires like Bill Gates but instead business owners who choose to file individual tax returns, putting them in the top tax bracket.
On regulatory reform, Herrera Beutler said federal agencies proposed 4,000 new rules last year, and that the Environmental Protection Agency alone proposed 900.
“I’d be interested to hear about regulation that makes sense or doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“Anything they do to restrict carbon, all it’s going to do is drive costs up” and drive jobs overseas, said Bill Byrd, president of Pacific Die Casting.
A good example of overregulation, said Scott Hughes, owner of True Value Hardware in Ridgefield, is the “huge wetland mitigation project” the EPA is requiring as part of the new $25 million Ridgefield-Interstate 5 interchange. “There has to be some common sense,” he said.
Every time government passes new regulations, Seifert said, it costs business owners time to comply — time that could otherwise be used productively .
Herrera Beutler also criticized the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, noting that more than 350 working groups developed new regulations to implement the bill.
“Overregulation can hamper our ability to grow economically because you can’t get a loan,” she said.
Asked later whether she opposed reforms to curb abuses by big investment banks and other financial institutions that led to the collapse of the mortgage lending industry and stymied the homebuilding industry in Clark County, she said her problem with Dodd-Frank is that it imposes 300 new rules affecting local credit unions and community banks.
Herrera Beutler has held no town halls in the 3rd Congressional District during Congress’ two-week spring break to answer questions about her recent votes or other issues. However, she said she did hold a telephone town hall last week.
“We reached out to about 13,000 people,” she said. Asked to characterize the comments she received, she said, “The overwhelming response was, ‘We need to have an adult conversation about the debt and the deficit.’“