Setting the Agenda


(Moments after Senator John Kerry was announced to have called President George W. Bush with concession, JS reporter Joel Dresang contacted our President for comments regarding impact on business.)

Posted: Nov. 3, 2004


The National Association of Manufacturers has a wish list. So do trade groups for small business, money managers and energy companies.

From drilling for oil in Alaska to policies on stem-cell research, President Bush's re-election helps define the agenda for industry. Companies are hoping for a limit on lawsuits, greater tax breaks and less regulation.

"President Bush understands that the cost of complying with regulations is like a hidden tax on every small business," said Bill G. Smith, Wisconsin director of the National Federation of Independent Business, a leading small-business group.

Tort reform, a permanent tax break for capital investment and incentives for more domestic energy production are at the top of the National Association of Manufacturers' list, spokesman Darren McKinney said.

While manufacturing is important in Wisconsin, the state's growing biotechnology sector faces a challenge from the election after voters in California approved a $3 billion state bond issue to fund biotech companies.

"Many of the Wisconsin researchers who were responsible for many of the breakthroughs in stem cells may be sought to be lured away," said Ron Kuehn, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, a lobbying organization in Madison.

Should Bush maintain the current federal funding restrictions on stem-cell work, the California initiative could become increasingly important as a major source of cash for this research.

Wisconsin officials are considering a response, which might include additional public and private financial backing for stem-cell research, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

"If other states are willing to dig deeper into debt to finance $3 billion in investment, it behooves us to better appreciate what we already have here," Still said.

At the federal level, dealing with the fiscal challenges posed by Medicare and Social Security will be "the 1,600-pound gorilla" of the next four years, said Jay Mueller, economist for Strong Capital Management in Menomonee Falls. "There is no easy way to fix it. If this president can tackle both tax reform and entitlement reform in one term, it will be miraculous."

Smith looks for another push to enact legislation allowing organizations such as his small-business group to sponsor health insurance programs that would give small businesses more purchasing options and cut costs.

On Social Security, Bush has said he favors letting younger workers put some of their taxes into private accounts.

"Conceptually, this is going to be good," said Maureen Busby Oster, president of MBO Cleary Advisors in Milwaukee. "The logistics of figuring out how to make it work are going to be challenging."

The new accounts would be a boon to banks and investment companies that would manage the money, but "even with a sympathetic Congress, it is going to be very, very, very difficult," to accomplish, said Mueller.

Already on Wednesday, forces were gathering to oppose private accounts.

The insurance industry is pushing for reform on three issues: class-action lawsuits, asbestos lawsuits and a cap on "pain and suffering" awards in medical liability suits, said Joseph Annotti, spokesman for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Insurers want to end so-called "venue shopping" by law firms that file their class actions in counties where judges repeatedly are found to be receptive.

A second Bush term also means banks may be able to advance a proposal that would exempt national banks from laws enacted by states and local governments. In recent years, states and communities have tried to enforce localized laws on issues such as ATM fees and predatory lending.

"It's an important safeguard to keep them from having to abide by a patchwork of regulatory requirements," said Kurt Bauer, chief executive of the Wisconsin Bankers Association.

Prospects for expanded oil and natural gas production are enhanced in a second Bush term, analysts say.

"This means the possibility of a broader energy plan mandate," said George Gaspar, an energy analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. in Milwaukee who has called for a fresh look at drilling for oil in Alaska.

Congress has traditionally been split by region rather than by party when it comes to energy policy - and the result has been that no comprehensive energy bill has passed since 1992, analysts say. But some think Bush's re-election could boost chances for an energy bill.

And Bush's win likely will mean less emphasis on energy efficiency and developing electricity from renewable sources, said Charlie Higley, executive director of the Wisconsin Citizens' Utility Board.

Because Bush's second administration should be more geared toward leaving a legacy, Jessica Ollenburg, chief executive officer of HRS Human Resource Services Inc. in Greenfield, said she expects better conditions for employers.

Bush has campaigned for more paid time off and other options as an alternative to overtime.

"I think the message is that the unionized companies need to be more flexible," said Randall Mehl, managing director in charge of the human capital services group at Robert W. Baird & Co.


Thomas Content, Joel Dresang, Jason Gertzen, Paul Gores and Rick Romell
of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

From the Nov. 4, 2004, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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