On the Issues By Craig Regelbrugge

At the 2011 Big Grower Executive Summit, we discussed how, in 2010, we saw a "wave" election, brought about by a restive American people worried about Congressional overreach, federal spending and the role of government in our lives. Wave elections are becoming the norm, as politically moderate yet anxious voters opt to "fire" leaders they are unsatisfied with, and take a chance on the other team. President Obama described the election as a "shellacking," yet he recovered quickly, and the post-election lame duck Congress passed a slew of measures ranging from a tax deal to a nuclear arms reduction treaty to repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The 112th Congress was sworn in early in January and got right to work. For a quick refresher, the Republicans control the House of Representatives by a 241-193 margin, while the Democrats retain the Senate at 53-47. House rules favor the majority pushing its legislative agenda; the Senate is likely to become the graveyard for many initiatives. The fact that it takes 60 votes to guarantee passage of legislation means nothing will pass there unless it is reasonably bipartisan.

For the new Republican majority, the focus for now will be on "the three O's": Obamacare, Overreach, Overspending. The House was quick to vote on a repeal of the president's signature initiative, the health care overhaul bill. That vote was largely symbolic, but targeted change is possible. The dreaded form 1099 reporting nightmare passed as part of the health overhaul was just repealed, with a strong helping push from ANLA and the national Lighthouse green industry grassroots network.

Sharp differences over spending nearly led to a government shutdown in early April. A last-minute deal funds the government through Sept. 30, but two more big-budget battles loom — a vote on raising the federal debt ceiling, and work on the 2012 federal budget. This is tricky stuff, politically. The American public has grown deeply concerned. Both parties know spending must be curbed; they differ on how, and how much. Most are unwilling to get serious about the need to address the "big elephants" like defense and entitlements. Much more time has been devoted to debates over the "gerbil" of discretionary spending. Whether you like his plan or not, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) seems to be one of the few who has tried to force the needed debate.

It still remains to be seen how the "Tea Party" phenomenon plays out. Movement candidates are a voice and a force in the House, though the Tea Party has lost popular support among voters. It should still have influence in some Republican primary contests as the 2012 elections draw near. Speaking of 2012, it is too early to place bets and so much can happen. Yet a good bet is that Republicans hold the House and take control of the Senate. One third of Senate seats are up for grabs in 2012, and Democrats are defending twice as many of them as Republicans. Plus, many of those Democratic seats are in conservative states like Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Virginia.

Barring something major and unforeseen, Barack Obama is quite likely to be reelected. His Republican challenger will emerge late from a long, bruising and expensive primary to find Obama sitting on a billion-dollar warchest.

Green Industry Concerns

On the issues, let's spend a few moments on federal spending, and immigration. On the former, the good news is that the green industry operates pretty much in the free market. We are not a "program crop" beholden unto the federal government for price supports. That said, the federal government is still a force in creating the environment for our success. Protection (as in, from invasive pests that affect production and markets) and research and development are two areas where we look to our federal partner. After all, our industry has not (at least yet) figured out how to include the cost of industry-wide R&D, marketing, or government relations in the price of our products and services.

So in the quest to reduce government spending and/or find new revenues, we may see an assault on funding for certain programs that are important to the industry. We may also see efforts to limit what are seen as tax loopholes, such as the use of cash accounting, which is a widespread practice in the nursery and greenhouse industry.

Immigration reform is a huge industry issue that urgently needs thoughtful Congressional leadership. An estimated 70 percent of hired farm, nursery and greenhouse workers lack proper immigration status. Even in the down economy, few U.S. workers have turned to farm work. And the only legal seasonal labor program, which is used by some in the industry, is a bureaucratic nightmare that provides only two to three percent of needed workers. Meanwhile, enforcement threats are real and worsening. I-9 worksite audits are happening at a record pace and have hit many green industry employers. Some states are acting in the face of Congressional inaction, passing bills mandating use of the federal e-Verify program. And Congress itself is expected to debate mandatory e-Verify.

Against this backdrop, ANLA is leading the effort to urge Congress to create a realistic and flexible agricultural worker program. History has shown that legislation must be bipartisan in order to be viable. It must address future needs, and provide some type of work authorization for the experienced workforce. Your support is needed now. Your elected leaders need to hear about the loss of jobs and economic activity if your business cannot find enough workers.

Stepping back from this issue, the challenges facing the industry are huge. It is essential that, as we fight for access to inputs like labor, water and pesticides, we succeed at redefining the industry. To win these and other battles, we must be considered "essential" rather than ornamental. The case can be made if we work hard to make it. Won't you join ANLA on this "essential" journey?

Craig Regelbrugge

Craig Regelbrugge is vice president for government relations for theAmerican Nursery & Landscape Association. He can be reached [email protected]

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