Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce members hoping for some encouragement on the prospect of more jobs in Southern Nevada got it in small portions today from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But they did get a healthy dose on the importance of the new health care legislation regardless of the cost, why tax reform is essential and how frustrated he is going toe-to-toe with Tea Party Republicans on several issues.
Employment help could be on the way as early as next week, when the Senate takes up the extension of a transportation bill that could put thousands of contractors to work on highway projects nationwide, Reid told a lunch gathering of about 450 people.
He warned that passage wouldn’t be easy, noting how lawmakers couldn’t even agree on funding improvements within the Federal Aviation Administration, so they merely extended the agency’s budget for a year.
“The FAA bill would create within a matter of three months 270,000 jobs,” Reid said of the importance of an upgrade in the nation’s air traffic control system.
“We use the same technology that was used in World War II: radar,” he said. “You can go to Nepal, Mongolia, anyplace that you would want to go with rare exception, and they use GPS and a modern way of moving (aircraft). We don’t.”
Some kind of major infrastructure project would go a long way toward fixing unemployment problems because not only would construction workers be put to work but various suppliers in the pipeline, including small businesses, would benefit, he said.
But Reid said Republican colleagues who have made the defeat of President Barack Obama in the 2012 election their primary goal have continuously frustrated him.
Other prospective infrastructure projects, he said, were discussed in this week’s National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas.
“That (the summit) was all about economic recovery,” Reid said.
Reid said exploiting the nation’s clean energy potential could result in 2.7 million jobs.
Another potential infrastructure development project Reid addressed is the DesertXpress high-speed rail project between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif.
He is confident the DesertXpress will succeed because Las Vegas businessman Anthony Marnell, a major investor in the project, has studied the ridership potential, he said. Construction could begin as early as next spring and with it, bring 40,000 construction jobs, mostly to California, and at least that many spinoff jobs.
In a short news conference, Reid said he had no update on the status of DesertXpress Enterprise’s request for a $5 billion federal loan under review by the Federal Railroad Administration.
“I signed onto this and am doing everything I can to make it a reality and I would think that everybody should weigh in on this,” he said. “This is something that’s important to Nevada.”
Las Vegas Chamber Chairman Michael Bonner relayed questions from the 6,000-member business organization. When he told Reid that small businesses are uneasy about hiring people because of the cost of providing health care to employees and whether rolling back the minimum-wage law would be a possible option, the senator had a long answer and a short answer.
He defended the passage of health care reforms.
“We really didn’t have much choice, we had to do something about health care,” he said.
Lawmakers started by finding $500 billion in fraud and waste, he said, extending the life of the Medicare program. They also had to “rein in the insurance industry because they were so unfair in many instances.” Constituents, he said, were appreciative of the effort.
“Is the bill perfect? Of course not,” Reid said. “We’ve already made some corrections in some of the things we’ve found. The transition is always hard and it’s going to continue to be that way until about the year 2014.”
He promised to bring Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to Las Vegas to further explain the benefits of the legislation and offer suggestions on how small businesses can cope with the additional expense.
On minimum-wage rollbacks, Reid suggested businesspeople first approach state lawmakers for relief, since Nevada has a higher wage rate than at the federal level.
Reid also addressed tax policy, saying there’s no need to raise taxes on individuals, but to reform policies on taxing businesses.
“There’s lots of revenue there, waiting to be distributed more fairly,” Reid said in the news conference. “Exxon just made a deal with Russia for drilling in the Arctic. Should they be getting (tax) subsidies from us? Of course not.”
He also said farmers are making more money than ever because of loopholes in the nation’s tax codes.