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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

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 Administration, congressional speakers dominate NACo Legislative Conference

Attendees at NACo’s 2012 Legislative Conference, March 4–7, had several opportunities to hear administration and congressional officials from both sides of the political spectrum on the pressing issues of the day. Following is a report on their remarks.

Opening General Session, March 5

Rep. Adrian Smith, (R-Neb.)

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith discussed his priorities as Congressional Rural Caucus co-chairman during remarks at the Opening General Session; chief among them is reauthorizing the Farm Bill with a strong bias towards

 

Rep. Adrian Smith, (R-Neb.)
 

international trade. “My priority remains that the Farm Bill must take into account the growing impact of international trade on our economy. Expanded trade remains one of our best tools to generate economic growth and is vitally important to Nebraska’s agricultural producers,” Smith said.

Direct payments, or subsidies, will probably end in the next farm Smith predicted. “I hear from producers back home that they are prepared to move forward without direct payments, so I think this will be one change to expect in the next Farm Bill.”

Other items on Smith’s agenda include the preservation of rural infrastructure in the face of declining government spending at all levels. Essential Air Service (EAS), critical-access hospitals and even post offices contribute to a healthy, vibrant rural America. Domestic spending on programs such as these should not be severely or arbitrarily reduced,” he said. Like NACo, Smith believes there should be a balanced approach when attempting to reduce the nation’s deficit.

 “Make no mistake, our nation’s unsustainable fiscal pattern requires government at all levels to set priorities and to cut spending where it is no longer needed. But our strategy should be thoughtful, and not arbitrarily eliminate things we know work. I think the real question is: ‘How do we make these programs work better, and utilize resources more efficiently?’ Simply put, we need a balanced approach.”

Smith’s balanced approach would include comprehensive tax and entitlement reform, and a slowdown in defense spending.

 

Rep. Kay Granger, (R-Texas)
   

 “County government is the backbone of America’s public service to our citizens. So in the broader effort to reduce Washington’s unsustainable spending, we need to make sure we’re not undermining that basic foundation of American society. We also need to be mindful that domestic discretionary spending is only a small piece of the overall budget pie in Washington. If we are going to be serious about addressing our unsustainable debt and deficits, we need to reform our entitlement programs and looking for reasonable savings in the defense budget.”  

Rep. Kay Granger, (R-Texas)

At the Opening General Session, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, (R-Texas) laid out the tenets of her political philosophy. She focused on what the government should do, what the size of government should be (small), and what the government should supply (infrastructure and defense).

Every partisan discussion on the federal level should focus on those questions, she said. “I think that discussion is appropriate and absolutely necessary,” she said.

She insisted that careful distinctions be made between spending and investment in infrastructure, and warned against cuts in defense spending. She emphasized the job-creating capacity of transportation investment and asked NACo members to “do something to help us” pass transportation legislation.

 

General Session, March 6

 

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.)

 

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)
 
   

In a rare instance of bipartisanship, the senior senators from Illinois and Wyoming, and another eight Democrats and Republicans have teamed up to co-sponsor the Marketplace Fairness Act, legislation that would give states the authority to enforce their own tax and require Internet retailers to collect state and local sales and use taxes.

Both men were shopping for support for the bill from conference attendees at their general session appearance. Durbin, the Senate’s second in command spoke first and before addressing the Fairness Act took the opportunity to defend government with a capital “G.”

“The people who hate governments,” he said, “have got to realize that we’re all in this together.  In a disaster, who’s the first to show up?  Government employees.  We have no need to apologize for what we do with our lives. What we do makes for a stronger America.”

Transitioning to the Marketplace Fairness Act, Durbin recited a litany of sales tax amounts lost to states because Internet retailers, for the most part, do not collect the taxes. California loses $4.1 billion; New York, $1.8 billion; Ohio, $629 million; Oklahoma $296 million. Altogether, Durbin, said, states lose $23 billion annually in uncollected sales taxes.

“This is totally unfair to the bricks-and-mortar businesses who do have to collect sales taxes,” he said.

 

Sen. Michael B. Enzi
(R-Wyo.)
  
  
   

Amazon, the Internet’s largest retailer, endorses the bill.

Enzi, a self-described “accountant and introvert from Wyoming,” picked up the theme of fairness. “It’s a serious monetary fairness issue,” he said. As a former small business owner, himself, Enzi said he understands how important it is to level the playing field for all retailers.

The loophole in tax collecting, created by the Supreme Court’s 1992 Quill decision, creates a distorted American marketplace, he said, “by picking winners and losers, by subsidizing some businesses at the expense of other businesses, and subsidizing some taxpayers at the expense of other taxpayers.  All businesses and their retail sales, and all consumers and their purchases should be treated equally,” he said.

Enzi told the audience that he was not looking to add co-sponsors to the bill, but encouraged them on their Capitol Hill visits, to ask their senators if they intend to vote in support of the bill.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)   
   

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi laid out her ABCs for job creation to the General Session.

“County interests are national interests and that’s why we must renew and strengthen our partnership between America’s counties and the federal government,” she said.

Among the priorities she mentioned are:

American-made products:  Particularly supporting entrepreneurs, thus strengthening the middle class. That includes stopping the  erosion of industrial technological and manufacturing base.

Build America: Investing in infrastructure, specifically public transit, high-speed rail and broadband, plus roads and water and sewer systems.

“Some of our water systems are made of brick and wood — it’s a sanitation concern, too,” she said.

Though the budget crunch and recession engender a lot of resistance to spending, she countered that such concerns did not derail projects historically.

“Everything you can name was not a time when we were flush,” she said, citing the transcontinental railroad, the interstate system and the Golden Gate Bridge as examples.

“We’re delinquent in doing it again,” she said of infrastructure improvements.

She dismissed the House’s transportation bill, though, saying it was bad for jobs and bad for safety, and urged county officials to lobby in support of the Senate’s transportation bill.

Community Recovery: Encourage the movement of ideas from the local level.

“The initiatives toward recovery are best achieved by solutions that spring from the communities,” she said.

She also called for campaign finance reform. “Endless, undisclosed money is not the right way to go.” America’s leaders, she said, should be selected by a vote of the people, not by the vote of the richest bankroll.” And those campaigning for office should “stand by your ad.”

“If we have clean campaigns, we will elect many more women, young people and minorities to office,” she said. “Nothing is more wholesome for democracy.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood

 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood
 

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood emphasized to the General Session that high-speed rail was still a priority for the administration, but its implementation would rely on support from several stakeholders, including governors.

“There’s not enough money in Washington for high-speed rail,” he said. “There’s not enough money in the states for high-speed rail, and there’s not enough money in private investment for high-speed rail. All together, there’s enough money for high-speed rail.”

Citing California, Illinois and the Northeast Corridor, he said emphasis would be put on regions that had articulated plans for how to make it work, where the transportation department feels it has serious partners.

“We’re not going to impose ourselves on states that don’t want to get into the rail business,” he said.

He also said he did not see the gas tax being raised.

“It’s not the resource it once was,” he said, outlining how increased fuel efficiency and an aggregate drop in the amount Americans drive, plus the fact that the tax had not been raised in decades, has led to stagnant revenue from the tax.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
 
 

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack dismissed the notion that the Farm Bill couldn’t be passed because this is an election year.

President Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, he said. That same Congress also passed the Homestead Act expanding America to the West and funded the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

“So don’t buy how tough it is,” Vilsack said to a round of applause. He also spoke about the strong agriculture economy in rural America. America exported $136 billion in agricultural products last year and is running a $22 billion trade surplus.

In an interview after his remarks, Vilsack addressed the fate of rural development in the next farm bill. NACo supports a strong rural development title in the legislation.

He said there may be fewer programs and less money, but available resources will be used to leverage additional private-sector investment.  He said the bill will continue the conversation on the bio-based economy, which began in the 2008 farm bill’s energy title. “We think we ought to expand beyond energy, beyond fuel and look at ways in which we can recapture the chemical industry in this country through bio-based efforts,” he said, adding that currently, there are more than 3,000 companies in the U.S. that are bio-based that employ nearly 100,000 people. “We think that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he added. “So, you’re going to see components of our rural development efforts in that respect in the farm bill.”