7 Things We Learned During our DC Fly-In

The saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day” should be rephrased “Our federal issues are not conquered in a year, or two, or three.” What keeps us going, however, is that we do have success over time. Our DC Fly-In always teaches us about the current dynamics on The Hill and legislators’ appetites for issues.  We continue to provide a voice for La Crosse and what is important to us, despite not always knowing that our message has been heard, until and unless legislative action is taken. Here’s what we learned during the 2018 DC Fly-In:

Workforce

Getting Workers to Pass a Drug Test

In a quest to find solutions to the drug problems impacting our workforce, our health care system, and countless lives, Congressional efforts have crossed party lines to an unusual extent. The list of “unheard-ofs” includes 57 bills dealing with opioids, coming out of the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, many of which were in draft format without a bill number, and several passing unanimously. During our visit with Rep. Grothman’s office, we learned about his bill which would restrict opioid prescription lengths, unless there is a long-term illness requiring the medication.

Preferred Payment Approach for Employees With Disabilities

People with disabilities help round out our workforce, and they also enjoy the dignity of employment like anyone else. A divide now exists within the community which supports the employment of people with disabilities: some support the current model in which private businesses receive subsidies for employing people with disabilities, while others support a full minimum wage approach. The view from the La Crosse community groups is that maintaining section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act would allow the greatest flexibility for those in the workforce. Local groups support subsidies, as they believe that requiring employers to pay minimum wage would cause a reduction in the number of people with disabilities in the workforce because those positions would be filled by those without a disability.

Apprenticeships

Several legislators are moving apprenticeship bills forward, including Senator Klobuchar (MN). See “The Governors” section below for examples of model workforce plans.

The National Governor’s Association supports collaborative efforts between states and the federal government to implement apprenticeships.

OSHA Citations

When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issues a citation, it releases that information to the public at the same time it notifies the company being cited. Rep. Grothman’s office is drafting a bill that would require OSHA to give the company 24 hours to correct the issue before OSHA issues a press release.

Our group provided feedback in support of that idea. When asked about OSHA sending out a second notice indicating that the violation has been corrected, some offered the opinion that a company might not want the attention of a second public notice, preferring to have the bad news die after the first notice. Others expressed wanting the notice of correction to be published in the same newpaper location as the original citation and adjacent to the original press release on the OSHA website. The group agreed that OSHA should work with the company on how to handle notifying the public about a corrected violation.

Infrastructure has had its Day

There’s an order to which funding issues are tackled in D.C. Infrastructure had a strong start in 2017, at the beginning of the 115th Congress, with some even teasing that “every week is infrastructure week”. Despite that, conversations on Capitol Hill have moved away from overall infrastructure funding. Few are offering solutions that will advance in 2018.

One exception: WRRDA

When we arrived, the lock and dam in Dubuque had just been shut down the day prior, thereby preventing commodities from making their way down the river. Of course, the capacity of one barge can keep dozens of truck off the road. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop and maintain critical waterway infrastructure. Support seems to be in favor of WRRDA. The biggest question is whether there will be enough time to be voted on in Washington.

Other Infrastructure News

Rep. Duffy has co-sponsored legislation for the waterways.

The Iowa Governor’s office said that a group of transportation and economic development individuals from multiple states is discussing the possibility of the commodities industries paying user fees as a way to help fund improvements to the locks & dams.

We also heard from the Iowa Governor’s representative about how their state successfully passed a gas tax increase in 2015. Governor Branstad moved this forward by persuading a majority from each caucus to support the gas tax, thereby making this a bipartisan effort.

La Crosse Area Flood Insurance

The City of La Crosse is just one municipality whose economic potential is suppressed when nearly half of the city’s north side properties sit in a floodplain. Millions of city tax dollars are spent each year to acquire, demolish, dispose of, fill and redevelop with new infrastructure. Some homeowners are paying the equivalent of a mortgage payment each month for flood insurance despite no flooding in 50 years. The city estimates that residents are paying more than a collective $600,000 annually in flood insurance.

The primary complication is that when it comes to paying into the National Flood Insurance Program, our local and Wisconsin premiums get combined with premiums from other states into a pool of funds. When an emergency strikes, those funds are applied. Of course, some locations/states are at higher risk of flooding than others. By design, the states with fewer flood emergencies subsidize the handful of states at higher risk. Therefore, the states with higher claims oppose changing the current system, under which dollars from La Crosse help to offset the cost of premiums in those states with higher claims.

Still, the House keeps trying. They have passed several bills, many written by Rep. Duffy from Stevens Point. If the Senate does not act, those bills die. Rep. Kind from La Crosse favors privatizing flood insurance, while other offices with whom we spoke support increasing mitigation (efforts to prevent flooding in the first place), which is a better long-term solution. For example, La Crosse’s levee could become compliant and remove the need for insurance. Unfortunately, grants to remove properties from flood plains are considered taxable income. Kind is working with the IRS to change that taxable income designation.

The Iowa Governor’s office stated they are pursuing the flood mitigation matrix that calculates what projects get funded to see if relief can be found.

Tax Reform Thank You

Our Chamber lobbied for years for Congress to revise the antiquated tax codes. We succeeded! We thanked our electeds for their work and shared what we’ve heard from companies, which is being collected by the US Chamber of Commerce on an interactive map:

  1. Companies are encouraging employees to invest more in their retirement accounts
  2. Companies are giving raises
  3. Companies are giving bonuses

Our request this year was to make the individual tax changes permanent, which would greatly help with long-term planning.

The Governors

Washington D.C. is also home to the National Governors Association (NGA) and an office for each state to represent the Governor and state government before the federal government. We met with the NGA, as well as the Iowa and Wisconsin offices. What we heard:

  1. Changing the workforce requirements for people receiving federal aid splits Congress apart. This topic is very divisive right now.
  2. Great models for what works in workforce are coming out of SC, IA, MI, and WA — i.e. they reduce employer paperwork by paying someone else to do it.
  3. States that are making progress on workforce have found ways to bridge the gaps between early childhood, K-12, and Higher Education. States doing well in this are CO, IA, SC. Iowa calls this their “Future Iowa” initiative where everyone gets in the same room to find solutions. Vermeer is a leader in their state on being an employer-family-friendly workplace. Business sets the tone.

 

Marketplace Fairness / Online Sales Tax Collection

In our third year of bringing this issue to D.C., we explained that our brick and mortar stores are at risk of being annihilated by their competition — that is, the businesses not required/enforced to collect sales tax from online sales. Our Chamber received tepid information on this moving forward.

Some offices believe the burden of collecting sales tax is too cumbersome on small businesses. I explained that at the Chamber, we have to pay sales tax on the membership labels we sell. If we can do it as a nonprofit that does not pay sales tax on anything else, anyone can do it. This is reinforced by our accountants who came along saying software exists that makes this collection easy.

Senator Ron Johnson said the sticking point is New Hampshire and other states that do not collect any sales tax. They are pushing back.

With an estimated $1.5 billion loss each year for the state of Wisconsin due to not collecting sales tax from online sales, our Chamber will continue to push for Marketplace Fairness as a way to solve many of our funding issues, particularly infrastructure at the state, county and local level.

 

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