Delegation addresses biz community at CACI congressional luncheon

Partisan split is obvious as members discuss energy, health care and immigration
The Colorado Statesman

Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation on Wednesday spoke to the state’s business community, covering a range of issues including energy, health care, immigration and regulatory affairs.

The partisan split was obvious — and expected — between the six congressional leaders from the U.S. House who spoke at the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry’s inaugural congressional luncheon at the downtown Westin Hotel in Denver. Despite promising to work together on a range of topics, the ideological gap between the Republican and Democratic lawmakers appeared to run deep.

U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette of Denver, Jared Polis of Boulder and Ed Perlmutter of Golden represented the Democratic side of the aisle. U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton of Cortez, Cory Gardner of Yuma and Mike Coffman of Aurora spoke from the Republican perspective.

Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs was also invited but was forced to back out at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict.

Perhaps no greater example of the delegation’s divide was that of how to craft policy surrounding the energy industry. With the debate around hydraulic fracturing intensifying in recent years, differences over who should regulate the oil and gas industry have grown.

So-called fracking employs the pressure of a fluid — usually sand, water and chemicals — to increase extraction rates. But concerns have grown as the process has entered more populated areas of Colorado’s Front Range that it can contaminate water, add to congestion and air pollution, and drain natural resources.

Moderator Donna Lynne, president of Kaiser Permanente Colorado, asked members of the delegation to explain to the 200 or so business leaders in attendance who they feel should regulate the industry. The question facing Congress is whether rules and enforcement are best left to the states or the federal government.

Polis, who has filed a complaint against an energy company that was drilling close to property he owns in neighboring Weld County, was adamant that his constituents believe the state is not doing an adequate job regulating the industry. In his Boulder County district, voters have already voted for, or are considering, banning fracking, while local governments in the district are passing strict rules and regulations that overstep the state’s authority.

“The people of my district would be happy to not be a hub of the energy economy…” said Polis, responding to earlier comments by Tipton and Gardner in which they spoke of how their constituents in Congressional Districts 3 and 4 would like to expand oil and gas efforts.

“Until the state changes some things, the people of my district, they don’t want to be a part of what may be popular in the 3rd and 4th…” explained Polis.

Perlmutter agreed, adding, “Ultimately, the federal government does have a responsibility… so that we don’t have a tragedy of the commons.”

Gardner does not believe the Environmental Protection Agency, or any other federal agency, has the knowhow to regulate an industry that is often state-specific.

“No one inside the beltway has a better idea of how to regulate hydraulic fracturing than someone here in Colorado,” opined Gardner.

“Regulation should be driven locally and not by people in Washington, D.C.,” he added.

Tipton echoed similar thoughts, suggesting, “Washington should learn from Colorado.

“We have the potential and the opportunity in this country to achieve that goal [of energy independence,]” Tipton continued. “The time is now… Colorado can come away as a national model.”

His Republican colleague Coffman also believes Colorado can lead the way: “I strongly believe that it’s best done here in Colorado,” explained Coffman.

DeGette, who has championed holding the oil and gas industry accountable, said there is still much more work to be done, both at the state and federal levels. She has co-sponsored the so-called FRAC Act, which aims to increase oversight over fracking and its potential impact on groundwater.

“It needs to be done in an environmentally sound way,” DeGette said of the controversial drilling procedure.

She also said she will continue to push for a national energy policy that makes the economy stronger.

“We need to develop the types of energy that will make our economy here in Colorado more robust,” said DeGette.

Immigration

Another economic issue facing the congressional panel was that of immigration, over which Republicans and Democrats are also widely split.

Despite the business community being one of the biggest supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship, Republicans in the U.S. House have refused to budge on offering amnesty.

The U.S. Senate has already passed an immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, while also balancing that with border security measures. But since the House has taken up the measure, little progress has been made, and it is unlikely that a vote on the Senate bill will ever come up, let alone a separate all-inclusive version by the House.

“It is a compromise,” Perlmutter said of the Senate bill facing the House. “There are things in it that I don’t like, and in business there are things in every deal you cut that you don’t like… We are not making deals in Congress… I will be very happy and surprised if we get this immigration bill in front of us.”

“There is the potential for our country to finally get serious about fixing our broken immigration system,” Polis added.

But Republicans say they won’t vote for a reform package unless it includes border security, requirements around the E-Verify system, and reforms to the nation’s guest worker program and visa system.

“Clearly we have something that needs to be done and I believe this Congress has an opportunity to do just that,” said Gardner.

While Gardner encouraged working together to find a solution, he and his Republican colleagues have proposed a piecemeal fix to the troubled system that has caused both sides to draw a line in the sand.

Coffman, for example, says he won’t vote for immigration reform unless it contains a trigger, in which a pathway to citizenship is not offered unless certain border security benchmarks are met.

“We’ve got to have triggers in there that prove the certainty that it’s going to happen,” declared Coffman.

Tipton believes the debate has been focused on worldly views such as what is “comprehensive,” rather than taking a practical look at reform.

“Washington spends far too much energy over a word like ‘comprehensive,’ or ‘staging,’” he said. “Let’s actually fix it.”

But DeGette says that until Republicans move away from a piecemeal approach, little progress will be made because those individual bills don’t address the bigger picture.

“A piecemeal approach is just an excuse for not doing something comprehensive,” she said.

Health care

Just as immigration reform has an economic impact on the business community, so does health care reform. One of the nation’s biggest critics of President Barack Obama’s federal health care law has been the business community, fearful of skyrocketing costs over insurance mandates.

Coffman used as an example how the law defines full-time versus part-time employees. Republicans and other critics of Obamacare are fearful that the law is pushing Americans into part-time work and restricting a company’s desire to grow.

The Affordable Care Act mandates that mid-size and larger employers sponsor insurance for all full-time employees, which is defined as those who work 30 hours per week or more. But the premium hikes may be encouraging businesses to cut employee hours. If employees don’t hit 30 hours, employers would not have to offer health insurance.

Coffman says this is a consequence of the health care law that must be addressed, as some businesses are afraid to expand as a result.

“The message that they’re giving me is that if they’re under 50 employees… they’re going to stay at 50 employees, and if they’re over 50 employees, they’re trying to figure out how to get under 50 employees,” remarked Coffman. “This is the wrong message to send to the economy…”

Gardner said businesses have watched as health care costs have nearly doubled. He said it’s tough for business owners to plan ahead if they can’t account for their budgets.

“Whether you’re in the restaurant business and you’re trying to figure out next year’s budget before it happens, how many of your employees are going to take on these plans? It’s a matter of budgeting,” explained Gardner. “Do you know what’s going to happen? Can you plan ahead so that you know what your costs are going to be into the next year?”

Tipton acknowledged that there are deficiencies in the health care system that must be addressed. But he said when insurance rates spike, business owners reduce hours in order to address costs. He, like many Republicans, has proposed a free market approach that motivates business owners and providers to find cost savings.

“We need to be able to incentivize businesses and individuals to find individual health care savings,” he said.

DeGette acknowledged that everything about the Affordable Care Act might not be perfect. But she said unlike Republicans who simply want to repeal the law, Democrats are working to find solutions.

“It would be much more productive if we all worked together to find how we can implement this so that all Americans can have quality, reasonably priced health insurance…” opined DeGette.

“It is the duty of every member of Congress, this is the law of the land, let’s help our constituents get the health care they deserve,” she continued.

Perlmutter agreed that the debate should no longer be about repealing Obamacare. Instead, he said the debate should be about how to make it better, calling it a “civil rights bill.”

“This changed the lives for so many people and so many families across the country,” he said.

“I’ll keep voting ‘no’ every time the Republicans bring up a repeal measure,” Perlmutter added.

Polis, a millionaire entrepreneur, said most businesses say there is no negative effect to health care reform.

“Most businesses already provide health care in excess of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

Fiscal policy

Rather than blaming business woes on Obamacare, Democrats say there should be more of a focus on fiscal policy issues moving forward.

For example, Polis believes in reducing the corporate tax rate, which is currently one of the highest in the world: “That would allow them to invest more in their businesses,” he said of his proposal.

Perlmutter said the first thing Congress should do to improve the fiscal climate is to stop playing games. He pointed to debates over raising the debt ceiling and sequestration.

“We are playing dangerous games with the full faith and credit of this country,” he opined.

DeGette agreed with her Democratic colleague, suggesting that inaction by Congress only leads to an uncertain economy.

“Businesses aren’t going to want to invest; they’re not going to want to hire new employees; they’re not going to want to do anything if this Congress, our government, is going to come to a screeching halt,” said DeGette.

But the Republican members of the delegation who appeared on the panel said the issue is more about regulatory uncertainty, suggesting that businesses need a road map.

“If it’s broken, let’s fix it; if it’s not working, let’s stop doing it,” Tipton said of federal regulations.

Gardner suggested that the federal government take an approach like Colorado has, which has been to examine all department rules and regulations, and mandate that any new rules be approved by Congress.

“Let’s take a look at certain regulations that have a heavier economic impact than others…” he said. “That’s what we ought to be thinking about, regulatory certainty, tax certainty, and opening the doors for investment.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com