Coeur d'Alene Press - LaRocco Hosts Talk on Economic Woes
By TOM GREENE
Area business owners vent, seek solutions from Democratic candidate seeking Larry Craig's Senate seat
U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Larry LaRocco listened to one business leader after another talk about signs of the times Friday: 401Ks being cashed out, employers paying less into health plans and people maxing out credit cards to pay for gas.
The diverse group of about 20 took part in LaRocco's roundtable discussion on the economy held in the Greenbriar Inn.
"We're in tough shape," LaRocco said. "I'm here to listen."
LaRocco held seats on both the banking and natural resources committees when he represented Idaho in the U.S. Congress from 1991 to 1995. Early in his career, LaRocco worked at a bank in Twin Falls, then as vice president of First Idaho Corporation and as a financial services consultant at several brokerage firms.
LaRocco said he does not believe in the "too-big-to-fail" doctrine for businesses, but "at the end of the day, I did support the rescue plan because I believe the situation is dire."
"We have to readjust here. We cannot have things grow so big that they control our government," LaRocco said.
Michael Grimsley, owner of the payroll company Compuchex, said he is in the trenches in the battle with today's economy, fielding several phone calls from "men, literally in tears" trying to make payroll, cashing in their 401Ks, having their pay checks garnished or shutting down businesses.
"We see it all first-hand because it all goes through payroll," Grimsley said.
He said the Democratic Party needs to own mistakes made during the Clinton Administration that paved the way for lenders to extend credit to people they shouldn't have. LaRocco pointed to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitting mistakes were made during his tenure.
"We got away from basics, we got away from regulation and we got away from capital is king," LaRocco said, adding that personal responsibility for homeownership was also forgotten and that "you have to put some skin in the game."
Builder Art Elliot, owner and president of Shelter Associates, said rising costs, including health care, have forced him to make substantial cuts in staffing.
"It doesn't do you any good to have insurance if you don't have a job," Elliot said.
LaRocco told the group he talked to a woman once who opened her own successful business, but she wouldn't have been able to do that with health insurance because she had the pre-existing condition of cancer. Her husband's insurance allowed her the freedom to be a small business owner, he said.
"I want to eliminate pre-existing conditions (insurance companies use to reject applications) because it stifles creativity," LaRocco said.
He would also like employees to be able to take their health care plan with them when they leave a company -- basically extending COBRA insurance indefinitely. Health insurance companies would have more incentives to provide long-term preventative care for their customers, he said.
Dave Patzer, president of the Kerr Oil Company, called the fees credit card companies charge "obscene" and cost as much as 7.7 cents per gallon at the pumps.
"What I see is a handful of people coming in with a handful of credit cards saying 'Let's try this one, no, this one.' They're all maxed out," Patzer said. He added that even though he makes his living off oil, "We need to make incentives for people to not be as enamored of the automobile."
LaRocco said Idaho is set up to reap the benefits of a switch from gas to different alternatives.
"If we move aggressively toward alternate energies -- biomass, biofuels, solar, wind, we could create 14,000 jobs in this state," he said. "Once we get all the ideology aside, we have a lot of common sense between decent folks."