Staff members from the local offices of U.S. Rep. Jason Smith and U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley (all Republicans) spoke to area business people May 13 at the Jackson Civic Center. It was the first Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce Business Leadership Series meeting since COVID-19 shut most things down last spring.
Chamber President Brian Gerau moderated the event. He began by asking each representative how 2021 has been going so far.
“The Democrats have complete control of Washington, and the radical part of their party is in control right now,” began Debbie Colyott, field representative for Smith. “It’s kind of scary, but there is a silver lining in that they do have a very slim majority, so they don’t have room for error. It helps keep them in line a little bit. But it’s very difficult right now in Washington.”
“In Sen. Blunt’s office, what we’re grateful for is, we’re able to reap the rewards of the work that we did — that the Senator pushed hard for — in 2020,” said Lesley Rone, southeast field representative for Blunt. “What he pushed for was ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ pushing federal funds to vaccine development; pushing federal funds to testing capabilities. And now, whoever is in the presidency, it doesn’t matter who’s taking credit for it, we know that didn’t just start in November or in January. It took a lot of time in 2020.
“We’re just really grateful we’re able to reap some of those rewards and sit here without masks on. … A return to normalcy, that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Matt Bain, southeast district office director for Hawley, also praised Blunt’s efforts in the battle against COVID-19.
“The fact that we’re all vaccinated who wanted to be here today and able to be maskless, Roy Blunt was one of the most instrumental people in this nation to make that happen.
“If you look at 2021, I think you have to compare it to 2020,” he continued. The economy was going full steam in January and February 2020 until COVID-19 hit in March. People were sent home to work and tele-commute, which was “very strange,” he said. “This year has been more back to normal in our work flow,” he added.
Hawley attracted a lot of national attention in January as he objected to the Electoral College’s results of the November presidential election. “We averaged about 8,000 calls a day in January and early February, between our seven offices,” Bain said. That took so much staff time, it made it difficult to work on other issues. “But now, we’re really getting back out and going. … Things are getting back to normal now.”
Looking ahead at the rest of 2021, Colyott said it’s scary what the Democrats plan on spending, with $2.3 trillion slated for “infrastructure” projects and another $1.8 trillion for what they call “human infrastructure” or social welfare programs. Smith is head of the budget committee for the GOP, “so he’s on the front line fighting this constantly,” she said.
Rone says when she looks into the future, she sees “the return to normalcy.”
She stressed that she and the two people beside her are back in the office serving constituents. “Know that we’re here. And when you have projects coming up and you have a hang-up with the FTC or something like that, make sure you call us,” she said. Rone is also looking forward to “losing the masks.”
“This is the first meeting that I’ve gotten to attend that everyone does not have on a mask,” interjected Colyott. “This is a return to normalcy. Our staff in D.C. is only allowed so many people in the office; at times we can’t have visitors; it’s sad that people can’t come to their Capitol and visit. We hope we’ll see that normalcy someday.”
Bain agreed that legislation being proposed in Washington is “very scary.” Back here at home, his office is focusing on economic and social recovery from the pandemic. He wants to make sure Hawley is aware of successes and triumphs that occur, but also Bain wants to be sure that no one fell through the cracks. He wants to track “the good, the bad and the ugly” of how COVID-19 has impacted this area. “We won’t know the impacts on our society of the last 18-20 months for some time to come,” he said.
Looking at challenges down the road, Smith will be fighting to try to keep Democrats from reversing many of the tax cuts he helped implement, Colyott said.
She also noted that some federal agencies, such as the IRS and Small Business Administration do not yet have all their employees back to work. For example, only 25 percent of IRS employees are back at work. Colyott said it will be a “huge challenge” to get them back to work so people can get their tax refunds.
Rone said with a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, there is a different approach to legislation proposals. Blunt will try to propose legislation that Democrats will see as a priority, so they will jump on the bandwagon and support it.
Bain said federal grant applications have been the same for the past four years, but with a new administration, there are changes. His office tries to help applicants with those changes. Hawley will continue to work toward “trust-busting” legislation, which will promote small and midsize business growth and prevent a few big companies from taking over.
Another challenge, Bain said, is for federal agencies to get caught up on the work load. There is a back log of cases because of the pandemic, and if someone brings in a problem today, it may be six to 10 months before anyone can work on it, he said.
Colyott added that an agency in St. Louis that handles records for veterans to get their VA benefits is 507,000 requests behind.
Gerau asked what the message is from these elected officials to their constituents.
“Our message is that we’re taking a novel approach by listening to you all, and listening to what you tell us are your priorities and the things you are concerned about,” Bain said. This confounds the Washington elite and major media folks, he added. Speaking of Hawley, Bain said, “He’s going to keep doing that.”
Bain added that his personal primary role in the Cape Girardeau office is to be “a microphone” for constituents so that Hawley hears our concerns.
“If Sen. Blunt were here, the message he would have is that we have 18 months left [until Blunt retires],” said Rone. “Our foot is on the gas, and we are finishing as strong as anyone would ever expect anyone to finish. We have a lot of projects that have been in the works for many years that we are trying to finish. We have new projects we are tackling. We are here. We are engaged. If you need something, just because Sen. Blunt is retiring, does not mean we are not there answering the phones.
Colyott said, “Jason will continue fighting for Southeast Missouri values and common sense, which is what you don’t see in Washington, D.C.”
Although no decision has been made, Smith is “strongly considering” a run for Blunt’s seat when it is vacated, and is being encouraged to do so by former Pres. Donald Trump, Colyott added.
John Thompson asked what can be done to provide a work force for local businesses. So many businesses are seeking employees now.
Rone said Blunt is encouraged by Gov. Mike Parson’s announcement that Missouri will end the COVID-19 unemployment benefits as of June 19. Blunt also is pushing for apprenticeship programs to help people get into welding, pipe-fitting and these types of jobs.
Bain added that Smith, Blunt and Hawley are aware of the employment situation. While the pandemic was a unique situation that required unique solutions, going forward, “we cannot have any policies that disincentivize work,” he said to applause.
Hawley is working on legislation to help small businesses to pay higher wages to attract workers. There also is a proposal in the works to help pay childcare costs so parents have the freedom to work while children are young. There also needs to be continued emphasis in public schools that graduates do not have to go to college; they can learn a trade and make a good wage. “There is dignity in all work,” Bain said.
Rone said it was incredibly important that, at the local level, we graduated students who could go into the work force. For example, the Cape Technical Center graduated respiratory therapists during the pandemic who went to work in the local hospitals where there was a shortage of respiratory therapists.
Charlie Glueck made the point that we need a technical college built here in Southeast Missouri. People are working to make that happen, and he sought the help of our elected officials.
Dave Soto brought up concerns regarding the real estate and property management business. Problems were created either during the pandemic (people delinquent on rent or mortgages could not be evicted) or by the new administration (taxes may be increased when property — especially farms — are sold). He was told that these concerns will be forwarded to the Treasury Department.
Legislative support for the chiropractic modernization act was also sought.