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Economy is top priority
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U.S. Sen. Mark Warner speaks Thursday at Dyers Store Volunteer Fire Department. Warner presented a grant to Henry County to help hire new first responders. He also discussed issues relating to student loan debt and the Affordable Care Act. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Friday, January 24, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Government gridlock and the federal budget deficit are two of the biggest factors holding back the economy, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said Thursday as he spoke to area officials, educators and fire department personnel at the Dyers Store Volunteer Fire Department.

“The threat of budget crisis after budget crisis has really been a negative,” he said. “At least having a budget in place for two years moves us from the policy standpoint of being negative to at least being neutral. Think about if we actually became a positive in terms of actions. ... The federal government ought to be a partner in helping (Henry County) come back, rather than being a hindrance.”

One of the biggest problems with gridlock between the two major parties, Warner said, is the psychological effect the uncertainty has on business owners.

“If you look at corporate profits, they’ve never been higher,” he said. “The stock market’s never been higher. But people are holding back on investing it back into jobs.”

The recently approved two-year budget extension, Warner said, is a move in the right direction, but he would prefer to see a budget that allowed for “10 years of predictability.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if we actually had a rational tax code that people could understand?” he said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could look our kids in the eyes and say, ‘Not only are we not going to leave you with a pile of debt, but there is going to be a Social Security and Medicare program 30 years from now’?”

Warner said the key to staving off another government shutdown is bipartisan compromise, which would require Democrats to allow for entitlement reform and Republicans to allow for tax reform to generate new revenue.

While many areas, including Henry County and Martinsville, are suffering from a lack of jobs, Warner said he sees the situation improving. For example, he said, America is in a more competitive economic position with China than it was seven or eight years ago.

“Just like anywhere else,” he said, “all those jobs first went to China, and then the Chinese wages started going up as well,” making the transition no longer as appealing.

Also, he said, environmental damage in China has become so great that in many cities, life expectancies have begun to drop “precipitously.”

“In the late 1980s,” Warner said, “people were talking about how America had this horrible debt problem, we were losing our manufacturing, we were losing innovation, and there was an emerging Asian nation that was going to eat our lunch. It was Japan, at that point. The political system made some hard choices and we actually got our debt and deficit under control. Innovation took place. We’re going to do that again.”

One of the keys, Warner said, is to change tax codes and recruitment and training guidelines to make America more appealing for manufacturing, particularly smaller advanced manufacturing firms. The likelihood of large factories returning to the area is small, he said.

“Everybody always wants to fish for the whale,” he said. “I don’t think there are going to be that many whales. Pillowtex, Tultex and others were great, but... you live by the big employer, you die by the big employer. If you’ve got a broader-based economy,” the economy is inherently safer should a business fail.

Warner said that he has collaborated with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Vienna, on a bill called “America Recruits” designed to lure manufacturing back to Virginia by offering companies foregivable loans per employee hired.

The bill “basically would go on top of local and state economic development efforts for any attempt to bring a company from abroad back to America in technology or manufacturing,” Warner said.

Other topics Warner discussed during and after the meeting in response to questions include:

Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre

Henry County and the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. have worked to secure a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for site preparation and grading at Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre. However, the corps, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, has not issued a permit because no company has committed to developing at the site.

Warner, along with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and U.S. Reps. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, introduced language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, which was signed into last last week. The amendment to the bill states that officials cannot deny a permit just because a site lacks a final plan, an identified end user, industry or industrial classification.

“We didn’t get that written in as law,” Warner said. “What we got though was ... in bills there are committee language that appears in a report. And we got committee language in a report that is referenced to in the bill, so we have the ability now to go back to the Army Corps and say, while it is not a law of Congress, it is the intent of Congress that you should grant this application to the county.”

Affordable Care Act

Warner said the debate about the Affordable Care Act should not be to either throw it out or keep it intact, but to keep the parts that work and trim the parts that do not.

“The roll-out was a fiasco,” Warner said, referring to numerous problems with the healthcare.gov website. “As a former technology guy, for a program that was going to be controversial to start with, there’s nothing like doing further damage by not getting your technology right in terms of trying to get this program rolled out in an explainable way.”

On the other hand, the program has made it so people with pre-existing conditions can sign up for health insurance, and preventive care is covered.

“The challenge is, how do you preserve what’s good in this effort but fix what’s wrong,” Warner said. “There are some things, I can tell you, that are pretty darn wrong. If you’re a small business, you shouldn’t have a health care policy that doesn’t incentivize you to hire somebody full-time.”

Warner also suggested that there should be cheaper health care packages available for those who are interested only in “catastrophic” insurance.

“There are going to be some Democrats that won’t want to touch the bill at all,” Warner said, “and there will be some Republicans that say, ‘This is too good a political issue, we just want to repeal it.’ The question is going to be, can a reasonable group of people keep what’s good in it and fix what’s wrong? I think the jury’s out on that.”

Warner added that he and his family signed up for health insurance through healthcare.gov and are paying its cost themselves.

Second term

Warner said he is planning to seek a second term as senator when he is up for re-election in November, because “there’s a lot more to be done, from the budget to making our country more competitive to making sure that the same kind of economic opportunities that I had as a kid exist for our kids coming up.”

Minimum wage

Warner said he anticipates that raising the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour soon will be an issue before Congress, and he is in favor of an increase.

“Sixty-five percent of the people who work for minimum wage are the main breadwinners for their family,” Warner said, “and if you’re working 40 hours a week, you want to be able to feed your family. But at $15,000 a year, you can’t feed your family.”

Education debt

“If you want to see the preview of the next financial crisis, it’s student debt,” Warner said, adding that he is not aware of any viable bills to provide debt relief for students.

“I do think at some point,” he said, “you’ve got to find a way to better align the interests of the institution with the interests of the student long-term. There are a lot of colleges and institutions in Virginia that start kids and never have any intention of having them finish, because they make a lot of their money on the first two years. If they do finish, they don’t do much at all to help them get a job.”

National Security Agency

Warner said he is torn on how the country should proceed regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) phone data spying, “because I do believe these programs have helped make America safer. But I also feel like we’ve got to measure the price. If Americans feel like they’re being spied upon ... you’ve got to get a balance right here.”

Regardless, he said, he believes NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden should be returned to the U.S. and “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“... I think he has hurt America,” Warner said. “I think there’s a legitimate argument that we should have had this debate, but I don’t think this way of putting Americans at risk was the way to have it. I think if he wanted to have this debate, he could have generated this debate in a different way.”

 

 
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