Business

Business leaders to Trump: Tweak Obamacare, trade is huge and don’t wall off immigrants

Greg Betts unloads empty bottles from a truck into Norco’s Boise plant to be refilled with gas in this 2015 photo. The company’s medical supply division is growing rapidly, and top executives do not want President Trump or the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal Obamacare.
Greg Betts unloads empty bottles from a truck into Norco’s Boise plant to be refilled with gas in this 2015 photo. The company’s medical supply division is growing rapidly, and top executives do not want President Trump or the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal Obamacare. jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

Norco President Ned Pontious said he didn’t think Trump had a chance but voted for him in hopes that “a proven CEO” could speed the nation’s tepid economic growth. He and Jim Kissler, the CEO of the Boise company, were pleasantly surprised by Trump’s victory and think it portends good things.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do as CEO of our country,” Pontius said.

The CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, Idaho’s largest private-sector employer, said the force of the GOP wave took him by surprise, too.

“I don’t think I ever suspected ... there would be both a Republican president and a Republican majority in both Houses,” said David Pate, who considers himself a conservative.

One result of the election, Pate said, is that any possibility of expanding Medicaid in Idaho to working-poor adults is all but dead.

Here are five things some Idaho business leaders want from the new administration:

1. TWEAK OBAMACARE, DON’T REPEAL IT

Trump has promised to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act law also known as Obamacare and to replace it. His proposals include “health savings accounts, the ability to purchase health insurance across state lines and [letting] states manage Medicaid funds.” He would speed regulatory approval of 4,000 drugs and cut “red tape” at the Food and Drug Administration.

Pate said that although Obamacare did not go “to the degree it needed to to fix health care,” it provides much-needed medical care to millions of people. He wants the law to stay, with some tweaks.

He thinks that may be the ironic outcome after Trump and Congress try to create a repeal-and-replacement package.

“If the savings in the repeal plan don’t match what the savings are that we have already projected [from the existing law], I don’t think any of the Republicans are going to want to increase the deficit,” Pate said. “The mantra right now is ‘repeal and replace,’ but I think the new president and Congress are going to find that’s a little more tricky than perhaps they contemplated. And as those realities play out, we may see that all of a sudden, that replacement plan looks a lot like the Affordable Care Act, but with tweaks.”

People complain of rising premiums, higher deductibles, narrow provider networks and other costly and inconvenient changes to their insurance coverage, which they now are mandated to buy, he said.

“But then, when you ask them, ‘Do you want to repeal the law that insurance companies have to insure you whether or not you have a pre-existing condition, [cover children to age 26] and end annual and lifetime caps?’ ... People would say, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that.’” Pate said.

Norco, which specializes in industrial welding, gas delivery containers and safety, also is a major supplier of wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other medical equipment to patients. Norco would benefit from raising Medicare reimbursements.

Pontious, the company president, said he does not want Trump to scrap the Affordable Care Act. He, too, wants it tweaked.

“There’s so much invested in it,” Pontious said. “I don’t think they can yank it completely.”

2. ‘TRADE IS HUGE,’ SO KEEP FOREIGN-TRADE DEALS

Trump made attacking trade agreements — the Trans-Pacific Partnership in particular — a centerpiece of his promise to bring back jobs that were lost overseas. His 100-day plan includes withdrawing from the partnership.

But killing trade agreements could hurt Idaho companies that depend on exports, said Bill Connors, president and CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“Trade is huge in Idaho, and if the new administration can negotiate better terms, all the power to them,” Connors said. “But hopefully there will be cooler heads, in terms of not just ripping up all of the trade agreements.”

Idaho agriculture is particularly reliant on trade deals, said Garth Taylor, an agriculture economist at University of Idaho. While the TPP reduces most export tariffs by a few percent, it lowers the tariffs paid on Idaho farm products shipped overseas by more than 30 percent, Taylor said.

Japan, the fifth-largest importer of U.S. agriculture products, would eliminate its 40 percent tariff on cheese in 16 years under the agreement. Dairy is Idaho’s largest ag sector and exporter.

“For everybody else, the lower tariffs are nice,” Taylor said. “For agriculture, they’re critical.”

42% The share of U.S. agriculture exports sold to the 11 nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement

$63 billion Value of those agriculture exports

As for potatoes, Idaho’s iconic crop? The National Potato Council is urging Congress to pass the trade agreement before Trump takes office, saying the lower tariffs would allow expansion in Japan and Vietnam.

Said Taylor: “We can’t eat our way to agricultural growth. It has to be from international markets.”

3. DON’T WALL OFF IMMIGRANTS

Trump vowed to limit immigration from Mexico, calling for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and to step up deportations of undocumented immigrants.

His 100-day plan promises to “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won’t take them back,” among other proposals.

Such promises concern Idaho dairy operators. They rely on immigrants — including workers whose visas expire and other undocumented workers who may face deportation — as a low-cost workforce, Taylor said.

“With the exception of low milk prices, immigration is all they talk about,” Taylor said. “They’ve got to have that labor.”

Reliable numbers for immigrant workers do not exist, and dairy operators do not like to talk about it, Taylor said. But immigrants make up a large chunk of the dairy workforce. In recent years, some dairies have hired entire crews of Guatemalan women, he said.

During his campaign, Trump said he would return jobs to American workers, saying they have been sent overseas or given to immigrants who are in the country illegally. That appealed to some members of Idaho’s labor unions.

“I think that has been a natural fear for working people for the last 30 or 40 years, since free trade agreements were first instituted,” said Aaron White, president of the Idaho AFL-CIO.

4. BOOST SOME SPENDING, CUT SOME TAXES

Connors, of the chamber of commerce, said he hopes the Trump administration will persuade Congress to increase spending on infrastructure.

“Hopefully a Trump administration that wants to supposedly put people back to work would be interested in highways, airports, roads and transit,” Connors said. “That’s important to commerce.”

Connors and Norco’s Pontious hope Trump will follow through on campaign promises to roll back corporate income taxes, too.

“We all have limited resources to reinvest in our businesses,” Pontious said. “Dumping so much into taxes makes it harder and harder to reinvest.”

5. LET THE DOLLAR WEAKEN

Uncertainty in the U.S. economy could benefit Idaho farmers if the dollar loses value, Taylor said.

The strong dollar has exacerbated agriculture’s tariff problem, making produce from countries with weak currencies more affordable. For example, America had a record-high corn yield this year but still imported the crop from Brazil because the imported corn was cheaper, he said.

“The strong dollar makes our exports terribly expensive,” Taylor said. “Anything that weakens the dollar makes us more competitive in the world.”

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey

What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

The TPP is a trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries, with Japan and Vietnam being the largest trade partners. China is not included in the deal.

Supporters say lowering tariffs and streamlining a process for complaints to reach quicker resolution through international courts would stimulate economies. By strengthening trade with surrounding countries, the deal is designed to serve as a safeguard against China’s growing economic power.

Opponents say the document lacks transparency and will encourage U.S. companies to move operations overseas or to buy from foreign sources instead of producing domestic goods.

President Barack Obama has been unsuccessful rallying support for the agreement.

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