Rim Country business leaders offered a sometimes-desperate plea for federal help and leadership on Tuesday in a wide-ranging meeting with an aide to Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl.
But while Regional Representative Clint Chandler offered lots of assurances that the senator understands the problems of rural communities and small businesses — he mostly limited himself to politely criticizing every single major initiative of the current administration.
Chandler met with members of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce board, including chamber manager John Stanton, chamber president and Payson Regional Medical Center CEO Chris Wolf and Payson Roundup Publisher John Naughton.
The conversation ranged over a broad array of topics, but Chandler’s bottom line message came back mostly to a persistent critique of President Barack Obama’s policies — from economic stimulus to medical reform.
For the most part, Chandler threaded the political needle.
For instance, he criticized the $800 billion stimulus package as both spending too much overall and yet not enough on long-term infrastructure projects — like roads, buildings and water projects. However, he also sympathized with Wolf, who pointed out that the lack of state matching funds had cost his small, rural hospital $1.2 million in promised federal support — a chunk of the stimulus package not focused on infrastructure and immediate job creation.
The real news in the meeting came from the efforts by those local business leaders to convey the depth of the economic problems still afflicting the nation — especially rural communities.
Stanton noted that 24 of the roughly 400 chamber members have gone out of business in the past year.
“The feeling at the grass roots is why is this taking so long,” said Stanton, “it’s like – ‘what are these clowns doing?’”
Wolf said his small regional hospital writes off some $2.5 million annually in bad debt and charity care — a chunk of it rendered to noncitizens here because the federal government has failed to control the nation’s borders. Yet because the state is broke, the hospital couldn’t get $1.3 million in promised stimulus funds — part of a $150-million statewide problem.
Wolf said legislative leaders like Kyl “think up these concepts, but don’t know how it’s going to trickle down. So if a senator is looking at an 1,800-page bill — how does he make his mind up? Can you really digest 1,800 pages?”
Roundup Publisher John Naughton said just this weekend, Payson lost the Fireside Espresso coffee shop, a cherished neighborhood institution.
“Payson is at this crossroads right now, we can’t even keep a coffee shop open. In this small town, people are cutting back on everything — from cable TV to elective surgeries.”
He said the school district has reported the doubling of the number of students who qualify for the subsidized school lunch program based on a rise in poverty rates. Moreover, the school district has reported a sharp increase in the number of homeless students enrolled — some living in cars or in the woods.
Yet, Naughton said the stimulus package had provided only modest job growth — although it did provide nearly $11 million to help build the Blue Ridge pipeline, considered vital to the town’s long-term future.
“More and more people are saying ‘where are these jobs?’” said Naughton.
Stanton noted that 72 local business owners crowded into one recent session to learn about a stimulus package program that provides $35,000, no-strings, payment-deferred loans for small businesses. That money could help many businesses survive until the recession eased, he said, but amounted to only $250 million nationwide.
“Small businesses are the backbone of America,” said Stanton.
“You’ve got to stop focusing on these big corporations with numbers that are boggling people’s minds. The credibility factor about elected officials has just gotten more and more serious — because there’s such a disconnect between the problem and the solutions they’re offering.”
Chandler offered many expressions of understanding and sympathy, but few specific suggestions beyond an unbroken criticism of assorted Democratic proposals.
A good chunk of the discussion focused on health care, particularly President Obama’s push to create a government health plan to expand coverage, cut costs and effectively compete with existing private health plans.
Chandler said a Congressional Budget Office study had concluded the Democratic proposal would cost $1 trillion over 10 years while only lowering the number of uninsured Americans from 47 million to 37 million.
“People (on Capitol Hill) were stunned by the price tag and how little it would accomplish.”
When asked to detail Kyl’s preferred healthcare reform option, Chandler provided a press release.
That press release agreed on the need for reform, but criticized a “one size fits all” government system that could create waiting lists and denial of care for many. The press release went on to criticize waiting times to see a specialist in Canada, with a government-funded health care system that costs about one-seventh as much as Americans spend on medical care.
A companion press release described a bill Kyl had introduced barring the federal government from denying health care treatment based on cost.
One element of the reform package suggested by President Obama would set up advisory councils to review the costs and benefits of various treatments.
Independent studies of health care have demonstrated that doctors often prescribe treatments that studies have demonstrated to be ineffective or not worth the potential side effects. Some studies focusing on dramatic regional variations for procedures like cardiac angioplasty, heart surgery and other procedures have suggested that up to 30 percent of the treatments offered probably provide little benefit or do more harm than good.
However, Kyl’s bill would bar the federal government from using such “comparative effectiveness research” to reject requested treatments.
“Americans don’t want Washington-run insurance companies any more than they want Washington-run car companies,” said Kyl’s release. “We should stick to a basic principle that all Americans should be able to choose the doctor, hospital and health plan of their choice. No Washington bureaucrat should interfere with that right, or substitute the government’s judgment for that of a physician.”
President Obama’s preferred plan would set up a government health plan to compete with private health plans. Many private health plans already have elaborate bureaucracies for reviewing and sometimes rejecting treatments recommended by doctors.
None of the materials provided offered health reform proposals except in opposition to proposals by the Democrats.
The same thing happened when the discussion turned to the “cap and trade” approach to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases recently enacted by a narrow margin in the Democratically controlled House.
That 1,300-page bill would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and then attempt to create a market for what amounts to the right to pollute.
Advocates say that the approach would make pollution most costly, but harness free market forces to boost the price of emitting pollutants, while leaving a loophole when the pollution was economically cost effective.
Critics say the measure would sharply increase energy costs and reduce the total number of jobs in the economy and that the bill included many special interest benefits and unintended side effects dropped into the bill at the last minute.
The senate will now take up the measure, which represents the first major effort in years to address rising emissions of greenhouse gases, which critics say have already spurred a global rise in temperatures and health problems.
Chandler said Kyl has “serious concerns” about the cap and trade approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
He said he wasn’t sure whether the senator was advocating any alternative policies to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.