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CRC Hosts Roundtable

FARMVILLE – “The work that can be done when you work as a region is so much greater than what you can do when you try to do it alone,” said Republican Congressman Robert Hurt during the Commonwealth Regional Council's sponsored roundtable on Friday morning. “Especially with the challenges we've faced in the last 10 to 20 years with the loss of our textile and furniture base and manufacturing and the decline in a lot of the tobacco production. We've all shared those challenges and I think our future success depends on working together.”

There were about 50 stakeholders present for the roundtable event on Friday morning. Those present were representing the needs of the region in this tough economic time.

“The purpose of this meeting was really for me to get to say 'hello' to you all and to get you all familiarized with me and I look forward to working for you all for the next two years,” he said about going to work for the Fifth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

After his introduction, the floor was opened up for questions and comments.

Federal Budget Deadline

The previous Congress left without adopting a budget and the federal government has, basically, been operating on continuing resolutions since October 1, he began.

Those continued resolutions are effective and will keep the government running smoothly until midnight Friday, March 4.

Hurt asserted, “It's fallen on us…to adopt a budget to fund the operation of government for March 4 until September 30 when at that point we will obviously go into FY 2012.”

The House of Representatives completed its version of the budget and sent it on to the Senate at 5 a.m. on Saturday, February 19, said the Congressman about the work conducted in the House last week.

“We finished up during the early hours of Saturday morning and then sent our budget proposal to the Senate and the Senate, as far as I can tell, hasn't done anything on it and I don't even think they are in Washington,” said Hurt on Friday morning in the conference area of the Mill Building in Farmville. “We are advancing quickly to this March 4th deadline and I think we all fear what can happen if we don't have action on the other side of the Capitol grounds-that's where we are.”

The federal government's workforce is not the only driving force behind the government's large budget, he continued.

“It's Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid,” he said about items called entitlement spending.

“We're trying to clean up the mess…in terms of just adopting the fundamental document that every government is required to have to operate and that is a budget. But now we also are faced with working with the President's fiscal year (2)012 budget that he submitted a couple of weeks ago. I have been disappointed to see the proposal… It doesn't propose less spending. It proposes more spending.”

Update: House and Senate negotiators are currently working to find common ground to extend time in order to avoid a government shut down. The short-term solution would extend the continuing resolution until March 18 giving the House and Senate an addition two weeks to work on the budget for the rest of the fiscal year.

Without the deal, the government would have to shut down for the first time in more than 15 years. The budget, addressed by Hurt above, cuts $61 billion from current levels for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on September 30. The two-week package includes $4 billion worth of cuts, according to statements given by House Speaker John Boehner this weekend.

What's Going On In Washington?

The Congressman gave his take on what's going on atop Capital Hill by stating that 112th Congress faces many challenges.

“There is no secret that the biggest issue that I think we face is our financial house-fiscal house-in Washington. That's our greatest challenge,” he said about the country's state of finances and debt.

“You can't blame just Republicans or just Democrats for getting us there-it was a joint effort and it took decades to get where we are but we've got to stop it now,” noted Hurt. “As part of this 112th Congress that is our charge and I'm committed to that… It's going to be hard and it's going to be mighty, mighty difficult.”

The financial situation the country is in currently has a “very real” impact on businesses that have to compete in the global market place, he said.

Another focus, Hurt described, is to work on decreasing the amount of regulations that are placed on small businesses.

“I think for far too long in Washington…we have not had common sense at the root of the regulatory process,” he said. “We need to get back to that and I think, especially, in the last two years there are examples of certain agencies that have been criticized for going over the top that has cost Americans jobs.”

Lastly, Congressman Hurt noted that spending must be cut in order to move the country forward.

But that won't happen, he added, unless the private sector is “healthy and growing at a good rate.”

“That's our task,” he concluded about stabilizing the private sector in order to create new opportunities for the region.

The Region Speaks

Going back to the looming deadline for the federal budget, one question asked if a deal would be struck by that date or would another resolution be the answer or “will we shut down again?”

“There is no reason we should shut down,” voiced Hurt. “…It's not a matter of principal. This deadline was not set by the 112th Congress, it was set by the 111th Congress and it's six months over due-six months of messing around pushing around deadlines. I don't think it's going to be a matter of principal but what I fear is that it's going to be a matter of not getting the work done. We did our work on the House side. We took a vote on that thing at five o'clock in the morning this past Saturday and sent it down to the Senate and as far as I can tell they haven't done anything. We can't make them do anything but my hope and prayer is that they'll get to work-either adopt our proposal as is and get it on the President's desk so we can focus on next year's budget and focus on getting our economy back on track…”

Another question was if there were any tax incentives or plans in the near future for individuals looking to start a new business?

“I think it's going to be very difficult to build in new tax incentives in this budget…,” said Hurt. “I think it's going to be difficult to adjust taxes in this budget but I as a matter of principal, or as a matter of philosophy, believe that the federal government taxes too much. So, I would support a decrease in taxes but, politically, I don't think that's a viable option looking at the budget…”

He did state, however, that reducing the corporate tax rate is “critical.”

According to Hurt's explanation, he believes the country's corporate tax rate is the second highest in the world.

“That's ridiculous,” he continued. “I've heard this said that there is an estimated one trillion dollars sitting overseas waiting to come back into this country but will not because of the perverse tax policies we have in this country. If we could change those I think that would allow that investment to come back here and be reinvested here…”

Amelia County's County Administrator Thomas Harris then spoke up and addressed the fact that there needs to be some type of balance or benchmark when cuts are being evaluated and programs eliminated during the budget process.

“When we eliminate a program or funding are we causing other things to happen in the public sector that are really even more damaging?” he asked about when funding is eliminated from localities.

According to Hurt, he does not favor across-the-board spending cuts.

“It's our responsibility as the legislature to make those determinations and those evaluations and then to prioritize what's important and what's more effective and what's the top priority for our country and then fund it accordingly. That's what folks do here…,” he said about local Board of Supervisors and Town Councils.

Sharon Carney, Prince Edward's director of economic development, asked Congressman Hurt about the possibility of extending the new market tax credits?

“New market tax credits are critical to any municipality that can be looking to do a large project,” she said. “I'd like you to take a look at that for beyond next year because we do have some large projects that we may be getting in this area and that could be a potential funding source for that…”

Ms. Carney advised Hurt that she believes that “word of mouth” is the best way to promote the new market tax credit opportunity, which alleviates some of the pressures put on businesses by regulations that banks must follow when making loans.

“It wasn't the Main Street banks in Farmville, in Kenbridge, or in Chatham-it wasn't the Main Street banks that caused that crisis. It wasn't. It was not but they are expected to pay for the bailout for the big boys and then they are expected to pay for all this new regulation that is coming down the pipe…,” explained Hurt about the impact that the bank crisis had on local banks in the Fifth District.

Lee Minix was next to speak up and explain his position as a banker with Benchmark Community Bank. He addressed the federal regulations that impair the local bank's ability to lend.

“All they do is preach cash flow, cash flow, cash flow and if you haven't got those two then they point blank tell us don't make the loan,” he said about problems the local bank faces when working with small businesses or individuals. “It doesn't matter about how much net worth you have or if you have a financial statement three pages long-they don't care.”

Hurt explained that stories like that is what is the most effective when it comes to him making decisions in Washington.

“When I hear somebody who is actually doing it on the street,” he said. “Those are the kinds of stories and questions that we can put to…these people who make these huge decisions and who are in charge of the regulators. We can put these questions to them but I need help from people who are actually in the business and on the ground. I invite you to give me concrete input to specify the kinds of things that need to stop.”

“Sure, not a problem!” responded Minix.

Fifth District

Commonwealth Regional Council Chairman Gary Walker later addressed “earmarks.”

“I feel like our legislatures, like yourself, are closer to the people that know what projects and programs are effective and can get something done,” said Walker about getting funding allocated to the region. “Is there some other mechanism for you as a legislature, who is out here amongst us, to help direct that spending-instead of some guy sitting in Washington D.C. who has never been any place who is directing it.”

According to Hurt, he disagrees with the process of earmarks but knows that Congress still has the responsibility of authorizing expenditures according to what are the top public policies.

“As a member of Congress of the Fifth District, I will always advocate for those things that I think are, in my judgment, top priorities for the Fifth District. But I'm always going to be voting for fiscal responsibility and I think it has to be judged in the context of a balanced budget.”

“Localities and states have to balance their budget and they prioritize what's important. They make those public policy decisions and then they vote on a budget that is balanced and some things make the cut and some things don't. I will fight for those things but I can't promise that they will always make the cut and I think that is one problem in Washington…That's my philosophy and I hope people understand,” concluded Hurt about his stance on spending and earmarks.

Dr. Kitty Smith, executive director of Hope Community Services (a local community action agency that covers nine counties in the planning district) provided information to the Congressman on the impacts that the elimination of the community services block grants would have on the Fifth District.

“This particular area has greater than 19 percent poverty, which is perhaps the largest in the state and the most shocking of all is that the cuts would affect many of our residents who don't even have indoor plumbing,” she said. “There are approximately 1,000 families in this area without indoor plumbing…”

Energy Costs

“Is there ever any conversation in Washington in reference to the cost of energy across the country?” asked William G. “Buckie” Fore Jr, Chairman of Prince Edward's Board of Supervisors.

Hurt described that the question was “timely.”

“The leadership is planning to tackle some of the regulatory structures which has implications on energy and our fiscal situations,” he said. “I think energy is going to come up…because of what we are seeing with the unrest in Egypt and in the Middle East. It could catapult that to front and center, right now that we absolutely do need to deal with it in the 112th…when we see gas prices cross $4…”

According to Hurt, the future health of the economy depends on the affordability of energy in order for businesses to succeed and for individuals and homeowners-and the answer, he said, is to increase the supply.

“For that reason, I feel very strongly-the President has made a huge mistake-in suddenly as we were progressing towards common sense resolution on things like drilling off the coast of Virginia and he just shut it down,” Hurt said. “He just totally shut it down in the face of what I think, we all agree, will be hard times when it comes to energy.”

Fore went on to offer that “everyone in this room would agree” that the region's economy won't see much improvement until the cost of energy is reduced “to the point where it doesn't take every penny of discretionary spending from individual households.”

“The whole country is based on retail,” added Fore. “If you don't have the money to spend then where is the economy going? It can't improve. At best, it can stagnant. That's why I asked the question if anybody in Washington realizes that the cost of energy is absolutely robbing our people of discretionary spending that would improve the economy.”

In continuing with the discussion on energy, Ellsworth Bennett, Amelia's representative on the Commonwealth Regional Council, described to the Congressman about a recent trip he took to Alaska.

“Back on our energy talk…,” he said. “I watched the oil go in the pipeline and I watched the oil come out of the pipeline at Valdez-a four foot wide pipe running 24-seven. Ships there at Valdez waiting for the oil to load and go. The flags that were flying over those ships were two out of three the Rising Sun or China. Why do we send oil that belongs to the American people to China and Japan… I asked that question and they said it is money. They will pay more money per barrel than they can get in the United States. We send it over there by the barrel…Then, Japan (or China) turns around and sends it back to us…Why do we let that oil slide through our fingers?”

Hurt said he “assumes” the process has everything to do with the “marketplace” and “supply and demand.”

“They are also in the business of making money…,” advised Hurt. “But I don't know that we want to see our government taking over private companies that provide customers with services but I think we have every interest in increasing the supply,” he said. “And not just the supply of fossil fuels but also the energy that comes from other sources…”

Hurt also noted that coal is also a “top export” in Virginia and rail transports it through the region to be shipped overseas.

Healthcare Debate

“I guess the elephant in the room is the healthcare bill,” announced one lady in the front. “One of the things that I've not heard in the dialogue…is the small business. A business has to start somewhere and I meet up with people all the time and they have a great idea and they want to start a business but they are diabetic or whatever condition and I think the insurance pools are a good start but I never hear anyone say anything about the self-employed person-the person at the kitchen table. I hate the see us close that opportunity for them to feel like they can start their own business…because to them that health insurance is vital…”

Hurt said that he does agree and believe that the price of healthcare “costs too much.”

“I think the fact that you can turn on the television at any given time and see the…competition between those who are seeking customer dollars for auto insurance-why don't we have that same vibrant market for health insurance?,” he asked. “I think that allowing companies to sell policies across state lines would introduce that competition. You are going to have insurance companies then looking after their bottom-line a little bit more because there is no question that they have a lot of blame in this…they are going to be demanding that their cost be brought down and they are going to have competitive premiums and that's a great thing for the consumer and it will lower the price for healthcare.”

The idea of individuals having “health savings accounts,” is also favored by Hurt.

“I think that having transparency for consumers so that they know exactly what things cost is important…,” he noted. “But I think also the bigger picture for things like health savings accounts where you think twice before going to the emergency room for a headache because it's going to come out of your pocket ultimately but still provide for catastrophic illness…But instead, we totally missed them and totally went the other way. Instead we have, what I contend, a government takeover of healthcare. It's not going to reduce costs. It's going to increase it…”

He also addressed the topic of Medicaid and Medicare reform.

According to Hurt, reforming Medicaid and Medicare could also reduce the cost of healthcare.