By Brad Hicks
Lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, dished out information on a myriad of topics during the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast, held on Friday, March 31, in Erwin.
Legislators present, speaking before the crowd packed into Erwin Town Hall, addressed issues ranging from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform to President Donald Trump’s proposed budget and the matter of the state gas tax.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe opened Friday’s breakfast by expressing his concern about the country’s economic growth. He said recent recessions have been followed by job growth. Roe said after President Bill Clinton took office following the recession of the early 1990s, 420,000 new businesses were formed from 1992 to 1996. The nation was also experiencing a recession prior to President George W. Bush’s election, but after Bush took office, 400,000 businesses were formed between 2000 to 2006, Roe said.
However, such business creation was not realized following the “steep recession” of 2009, Roe said. He said between 2010 and 2014, only 167,000 new businesses were formed.
“That’s millions of jobs that never got created,” Roe said.
The congressman added that 20 of the nation’s 3,100 counties accounted for half of the new businesses in the U.S., and 60 percent of counties experienced a net business loss.
But Roe said Trump is looking to “turn over the economic engine.” Roe said Trump wants to roll back some of the regulations that have stifled job growth. He said complying with often unnecessary and redundant regulations costs American businesses $1.9 trillion annually.
While tax reform, which some officials feel may aid with business growth, has been discussed, Roe said the health care debate is not over.
Republican lawmakers have been working to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but a bill that would have accomplished this was pulled last month by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan before it was to be voted upon by lawmakers.
Roe said the ACA was supposed to lower costs and increase health care insurance access, but he said costs have instead “gone through the roof,” adding cost of insurance is the largest hindrance to many maintaining it. Roe said one-third of the 12 counties he represents in the first congressional district have no option to buy health insurance on the current exchange.
“Then what are you going to do? Are you going to fine people to buy something that is not even there? Well, you can’t do that,” Roe said. “Knox County, the third largest county in our state, has no option to buy health insurance on the exchange, so it’s not a matter of do we do something, we have to do something.”
Roe said addressing health care is vital.
“The reason it’s important is by repealing the Affordable Care Act, the Obamacare taxes, you lower the tax base when we do tax reform,” he said. “What that means is we’re not going to make as much of a reduction in both individual tax rates and corporate tax rates if we can’t get healthcare passed.”
Health care was a primary topic of conversation for those present at the Legislative Breakfast. Lana Moore, field representative for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, said continuing to operate under the ACA is a “big problem” for Tennessee, as many across the state have no options to purchase insurance through the exchange.
Last week, Alexander and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker introduced the “Health Care Options Act of 2017.” This proposed legislation would alleviate the options issues in the interim if no legislation to repeal the ACA is passed, Moore said. The bill would allow those living in counties with no health insurance options on the exchange to use their Obamacare subsidies to purchase approved plans outside of the exchange. The legislation would also waive the ACA requirement that those failing to purchase a specific health care plan would be fined once it has been certified that there are no options on the exchange.
“So that would provide some temporary relief there,” Moore said.
The proposed legislation would provide “temporary authority” and, if passed, would remain in place through the end of the 2019 plan year. Moore said there are approximately 230,000 Tennesseans who purchase their insurance through the exchanges.
“So that’s a lot of people that are impacted very directly by this legislation,” she said.
Jill Salyers, field director for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, said Corker had a conversation with Trump after the repeal legislation was pulled and “stands ready” to work with the administration and colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to “fix the broken healthcare system.”
“Sen. Corker is still committed to resolving the current issues that are driving up healthcare costs, limiting choices and causing the exchange market to spiral downward,” Salyers said. “But, in the interim, in the meanwhile, he believes that we have to take steps to insure people in places, as has already been said, like Knoxville, where more than 34,000 individuals receiving subsidies under current law will have zero options in 2018. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to purchase health insurance off the exchange in the individual market.”
Both Moore and Salyers also advised those in attendance to keep an eye on the federal budget. The president’s currently proposed budget calls for cuts to programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, Impact Aid and Community Development Block Grant funding, which could adversely impact communities like Unicoi County.
“Impact Aid is a big deal for Unicoi County, and Sen. Alexander has been committed to making sure that those dollars are not decreased,” Moore said. “So I’m not saying don’t be concerned, but rest assured that he will be working on that and looking at that.”
Salyers said lawmakers realize the importance of programs such as the ARC.
“Remain concerned, remain vigilant, watch and contact us,” Salyers said. “I encourage you to reach out to us when there are issues that you’re concerned about, and rightfully so on the budget.”
State Sen. Rusty Crowe said Tennessee’s budget is also on the minds of state lawmakers.
“Thank goodness we have to balance our budget in Tennessee,” Crowe said. “And I think Phil would probably support some of this. We’ve voted in the House and Senate to have a Convention of the States, to join those states that want to change our Constitution to mandate that Washington, D.C., has to balance their budget. He fights for that every year. We just can’t get it done unless you have a law that says you have to do it.”
Crowe also said those in attendance should keep an eye on the state gas tax issue. Gov. Bill Haslam is seeking to fund state transportation projects by increasing the taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. Crowe said fuel taxes have not increased since 1989.
State Rep. John Holsclaw said Haslam’s gas tax proposal has seen the proposed increase decrease recently in committee, adding other changes could take place before it comes up for a vote.
Holsclaw said state lawmakers are working on legislation to bring broadband access to Tennessee’s rural areas. He said he and Crowe are also working on a bill that would suspend the licenses of nurses and practitioners who fail drug tests and are unable to quickly provide prescriptions.
Holsclaw’s “hands-free” bill will be back up for consideration this year. Holsclaw said the bill was “massaged” in the State Senate and, if passed, would prevent drivers from talking on cell phones while driving through school zones unless the phones are set to hands-free mode.
“So we’re attacking a lot of different things,” Holsclaw said.
The Legislative Breakfast was sponsored by Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.