The question of how do we — as a country — create more jobs came to Brookfield Tuesday afternoon as 15 small business leaders from the Milwaukee area met with Republican U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner.
Sensenbrenner and several Republican state lawmakers who represent southeastern Wisconsin spent most of the hour-long session at the congressman's office listening to suggestions for growing business in the nation and region.
The overall message was clear: lower corporate taxes; ease government regulations; get tough on illegal immigration while expanding the number of visas; change the college-focused culture; and reduce unemployment benefits.
Mary Springer, vice president of Therm-Tech of Waukesha, opened the discussion by telling the legislators to reduce unemployment benefits, and to require training and drug testing for those receiving the benefits.
“We are growing rapidly and need skilled workers,” Springer said. “But the long extension of unemployment is a problem. It makes people unemployable.”
Springer's sentiments were shared by a representative of The Mark Travel Corporation, who said training needed to be mandatory. An employer from Germany said the United States needs to adopt his county’s policy, which requires individuals to undergo skills training in order to receive unemployment benefits.
Jeff Hamilton, president of Sprecher Brewing in Glendale, said he has trouble finding employees willing to work in a factory. He said schools need to have more non-college programming — in areas such as trades, safety, food processing — to develop the workers needed in today’s businesses.
State Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) said the problem has been growing over years, as school districts have ended shop classes and technical education.
“Seventy percent of the jobs in Wisconsin only require a two-year degree,” he told the group. “But our school guidance counselors and parents push four-year colleges.”
Instead, he pointed to the Waukesha School District, which is starting to promote the trades and technical jobs as early as kindergarten. Kapenga added that he is working with the Kettle Moraine School District to enact a busing program to take high school shop students to area technical colleges for coursework.
Immigration reform was the issue of a staffing agency owner, who said illegal workers make it difficult for him to place legitimate employees. He understood the need for field workers, apple pickers and menial laborers, but said immigration needs to be reformed with an Internet verification system and increased visas for skilled machinists.
Sensenbrenner said there is legislation pending that would expand the numbers of H-1B visa for foreign workers who have master’s and doctorate degrees from U.S. universities. The business leaders liked the idea, but said the visa should be open to skilled workers who may have honed their craft in apprenticeship programs or technical colleges overseas.
Machining company owners asked the government officials to reduce mining, energy and air quality regulations, which they described as squeezing businesses out of business and forcing layoffs. But a representative of Cooper Power Systems in Waukesha said the standards on electrical efficiency were helping his business. He just wanted to see Department of Energy guidelines to remain reasonable and open for discussion.
Finally, the talk moved to taxes — corporate, income and excise. To a person, everyone felt taxes were too high. They also decried the practice of allowing large multinational corporations to park income and assets in foreign subsidiaries to avoid taxes while they had to absorb federal rates up to 35 percent with no shelters.
“We don’t have offshore divisions to hide money,” Terry Welch, president of Prime Coatings said. “It’s discouraging to pay federal corporate taxes and then add state, local and fees onto that. Now I’m paying 50 to 60 percent to the government. It is really hard to grow when you only have 40 to 35 percent of your money.”
Sensenbrenner said tax reform is a big issue for the U.S. House, but believes a standalone bill addressing it would never see the light of day in the Senate. Instead, he would like to see corporate tax rates more in line with the rest of the world, which could make U.S. companies bring those hidden dollars home to invest in jobs and workers.
State Rep. Bill Kramer (R-Waukesha) said the one-hour listening session told him that the state Assembly and Senate are on the right track.
“I’m hearing that taxes are too high, regulators need to get out of the way and that businesses don’t want incentives to hire,” Kramer said. “They want government out of their way. The Democrats would use taxes, incentives and regulations to create jobs and that is not what businesses want.
“These people want confidence; they want to know what is going to happen next so they can plan,”
Gary Laev, of Electrical-Mechanical Drives in Grafton, summed up the feelings of his colleagues gathered around the table.
“If I could speak to (President) Obama for 30 seconds I would tell him to lower my taxes so I have more money to hire workers," he said. "When you take more money from me, I have less to put in someone else’s pocket.”