GREENFIELD — The center point of discussion at Friday’s business roundtable between Rep. Luke Messer and county business leaders had little to do with Hancock County business and everything to do with business as usual in Washington.
Messer was at the Hancock County Public Library in Greenfield Friday morning for a dialogue on matters affecting the local business community, and the list was particularly short.
About 14 business owners and civic leaders said, essentially, that health care reform and the Affordable Care Act along with big government regulation, bureaucracy and wrangling were either hamstringing businesses community or stifling it with uncertainty.
And it wasn’t news to Messer.
“We’re hearing that consistently across the district,” he said of the overwhelmingly Republican area, where the Affordable Care Act has not been popular.
Messer’s district is the largest U.S. congressional district in the state, ranging generally from Fortville northeast to Muncie, Cumberland east to the state line and south to include Jefferson County.
Speaking to a largely sympathetic gathering organized with assistance from the Hancock County Republican Party, the freshman congressman reaffirmed his stance on the Affordable Care Act.
“I continue to support a full repeal of (the Affordable Care Act),” Messer said. “It’s the wrong policy, it’s bad for our economy and bad for our workers.”
Though many of the act’s enacting regulations have yet to be written – another aspect of the current business environment that has many employers unsure about the future – local leaders singled out a high-profile component of the act that’s causing consternation and confusion across the board.
In January, companies with 50 or more employees will be required to provide “affordable” health insurance to those who average 29 hours or more of work per week or face a financial penalty. That provision has many employers opting to reduce hours rather than provide additional insurance at additional cost to the bottom line.
“That’s got us shut down on whether to hire more people or not,” said Hancock County Councilman and business owner Kent Fisk.
The uncertain health care landscape along with increasing unemployment fund reserves and rising health care and fuel costs have had a dramatic impact on Fisk’s business, he said.
“We had to drop something, and that meant we had to dismiss some employees,” he said.
Locally, business captains expressed a general malaise about the future with concerns that included potential defaults by local governments elsewhere that could force local taxpayers to share the burden of the rising cost of college tuition and student loans.
“I just see government getting bigger and small business getting smaller,” said Shelley Campbell, vice president of employee benefits for First Merchants Insurance Group.
However, Messer remained optimistic, if not about Washington’s ability to bridge gaps and find solutions, then the country’s as a whole.
“In the long run, there’s great hope for America,” he said. “Although these are challenging times, they are not the most challenging times this country has faced.”
The bottom line, Messer said, is that everyone has skin in the game.
“We need leaders, and I don’t mean just leaders in Congress,” he said. “Representatives respond to those that speak to them… we need leaders here in Hancock County. These changes we’re talking about are doable things.”