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By Edward Popper The wisdom in Washington maintains that President Bush's State of the Union address also marked the launch of his 2004 reelection campaign -- and a canny launch, at that. By scheduling the address for the day after the Iowa Caucus, the White House stole some of the thunder, not to mention a broad acreage of front-page coverage, from the field of Democratic rivals fighting for the right to challenge him in November.
For many U.S. small-business owners, the Administration's sense of strategy and timing may have been beside the point, however. Of far greater interest to entrepreneurs was the content of the speech, which many saw as leaving little room to doubt that their needs and priorities will figure prominently in the presidential race.
According to Jack Faris, president of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), one of the country's most influential small-business advocacy groups, Bush hit many of the right notes -- from addressing the need to curtail frivolous lawsuits to hailing the stimulative benefits of permanently lower taxes and rationalizing the health-insurance needs of mom-and-pop outfits.
"President Bush talked about several issues in his address that are vital to small-business owners and their ability to keep the economy growing," said Faris. The loudest applause, he said, "came not from Congressional chambers, but from the 600,000 NFIB members' homes across the country," as the President called for Association Health Plan (AHP) legislation, which would allow small businesses to band together and negotiate cheaper, bulk-rate prices for health-insurance coverage.
TWO VIEWS. "President Bush showed [NFIB members] that he is a strong ally in the fight for AHPs," added Faris. "The White House endorsement furthers the fight to enact this vital legislation that would offer a fair solution to small-business owners and their employees."
Not so fast, responds New York Democrat Nydia Velazquez, the ranking Democrat on the House Small Business Committee. While Bush's speech was larded with references to worthy goals, she says his words will remain no more than an empty catalog of election-year promises unless immediate action is taken to implement them. Like Faris, she also focuses on AHP legislation -- but reaches the opposite conclusion. "Although President Bush has publicly voiced his support for AHP," she notes, "his own party in the Senate has not even held a hearing on the issue."
Faris also cheered the call for legal reforms to protect small-business owners from "out of control" lawsuits, and he endorsed Bush's call that Congress make permanent the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. "Uncertainty in the tax code is unfair to small-business owners," he noted. "We need a consistent tax code that allows small-business owners to plan and fully realize the potential of the recently enacted tax packages."
LEAP-YEAR LUCK? Regarding the President's call to ease regulatory burdens on entrepreneurs and their businesses, Velazquez also begs to differ. Once again, she said, the President's rhetoric doesn't match reality. "Bush also talked about ensuring small businesses are not weighed down by federal regulations. But it was reported that the Federal Register -- the publication listing all proposed and implemented regulations issued by agencies -- increased to more than 75,606 pages in 2002, leaving the Bush Administration holding the all-time record for the number of regulations submitted and issued under any President."
While Faris and Velazquez differ, small-business owners can assuage their own uncertainty with the comforting thought that, since this is an election year, the odds on seeing at least a few positives emerge from Washington are at a four-year high. Popper covers small-business issues in New York