Thursday, August 21, 2003

Gephardt talks to small business

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

By Anthony Schinella / Staff Writer

This is the third in a series of articles about the Democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

CONCORD, N.H. - A shoe store might not be the first place considered for a presidential campaign stop. But if the candidate is meeting with business owners and activists worried about the survival of small businesses during a down economy, the reason becomes clear.

Seated in front of a New Balance display at Joe King's Shoes in downtown Concord two Fridays ago, Rep. Dick Gephardt made the pitch to a small crowd eager to hear about his proposals for boosting the economy.

"We need your foot size and depth," he joked before meeting the panel. "We'll get you a good pair of shoes here - hopefully made in America - we'll see what we can do."

Despite the humor, Gephardt heard many fears and worries from business owners and residents, all looking for solutions to the economic problems.

Lorrie Carey, the owner of Marshall's Flowers, said her property taxes and electric bills have increased about $300 per month recently, adding that health care costs made it challenging for her to keep employees hired at her store.

"I have never in all my life been this close to the edge," she said. "It has been really tough. We find ourselves losing ground. I liken our economy to a 2-year-old with his shoelaces untied running down Main Street. You know what happens in that situation."

City Councilor Doris Ballard and her husband have owned Ballard's Novelty & Party Shop for the last 23 years in Concord's South End neighborhood. She said she was "very worried for the future" and pointed to rising health insurance costs as one of her biggest concerns. Two years ago, she took a part-time job in order to cover expenses. This year, she was notified that the couple's health insurance had reached $950 a month, and now the company had to consider cutting staff.

"I cannot stay with our company and pay that, and still draw a salary without laying off two people," she said. "I see a drop in business, not only our business, but nation-wide. There seems to be a fear - a lack of confidence in the economy - people are being very cautious on how they are spending their dollars, and the ripple effect is affecting everyone from the top on down. Health insurance is a crisis - the cost is a real crisis."

Community Services Council of N.H. Executive Director Dalia Vidunas said the organization had seen a sharp increase in requests for services since the economy turned but, at the same time, was working with less money than in the past. The non-profit specializes in assisting families with emergency housing needs as well as drug and alcohol intervention.

"It has been on a steady increase for about the last six months or so - we had a 200 percent increase in our hotline," she said. "But the problem is ... we aren't getting more money. The safety net for people in New Hampshire is really falling away."

Gephardt called Bush's economic program "a failure and a mess," adding that "he has declared war on the middle class, through his policies." The candidate pointed to 3.1 million jobs lost in a little over three years which elevated the unemployment rate to 6 percent. He said national deficits and debts have also risen since Bush was elected.

"This is not working," he said. "How dumb do they think we are? We need to get back to a set of policies that will grow the economy, get better paying jobs recreated in this country, and move everybody ahead together."

As majority leader in the Congress in 1993, Gephardt said he was able to get the difficult Clinton economic package passed without a single republican vote. What followed, he said, was "a sensible and balanced" program which created surpluses and a booming economy. As deficits dropped, Gephardt said, people saw interest rates fall and made investments in businesses, and the economy moved forward. During that time, 22 million new jobs were created, and unemployment dropped to its lowest level in decades.

"You, the American people, created the best economy we have had in 50 years," he said. "The combination of actions created a positive psychology in the country."

Gephardt called the health care problem "a moral issue," adding that he would work to insure everyone in the country by requiring every employer to offer plans to employees. At the same time, companies would get a refundable tax credit equal to 60 percent of the cost of the offered plan. The higher coverage offered by companies, the higher the tax credit, he said. Gephardt said his health care plan would do more than the Bush tax cuts to stimulate the economy.

Gephardt also promoted environmental protection and expansion of technology to create a national sustainable energy policy and decrease the country's dependency on foreign oil. On trade policy, Gephardt said he would promote "a free and fair trade policy" which would improve labor standards overseas. He said he would lobby the World Trade Organization for an international minimum wage geared toward each country. Gephardt added that if America didn't improve its trade policy soon, it could lose more software and manufacturing jobs.

"I don't know how we are going to support all these good, small businesses, if people don't have good jobs," he said. "You have to have workers with money in their pocket to make the economy grow."

After hearing from the panelists, Gephardt thanked them saying, "It takes a lot of courage to do this. It helps us all understand what is happening out in Main Street America which is what we need to know."

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