Ryan touts health reforms during visit to Gibbs’ ag forum

Local Ohio Farm Bureau presidents, from left, John Seleski of Harrison County, Duayne Wetherell of Jefferson County and Dave Vollnogle of Columbiana County stand outside the office of U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, in the Longworth office building on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The farm bureau representatives wrapped up a three-day lobbying visit by the Ohio Farm Bureau following the visit with Johnson. — Paul Giannamore

WASHINGTON, D.C. — House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is in the middle of the health care reform storm on Capitol Hill but he wasn’t too busy to answer the call from U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeview, for an appearance at the Ohioan’s annual Capitol Hill agriculture forum for the presidents of the Ohio Farm Bureau.

Ryan, speaking to the group at the Capitol Hill Club, said Wednesday morning that Congress is trying to get big things done this year.

Calling Obamacare “a terrible law that is collapsing under its own weight,” he said the plan to repeal and replace the law is unprecedented and thus causing anxiety.

“We’re taking one entitlement, Medicaid, and we’re block granting it back to the states and giving the states the ability to take it over,” he said. “We’re taking another entitlement, Obamacare, and repealing it and replacing it with Republican tax policy, which we think will work really well.”

Ryan said the idea is to equalize the tax stream so that people who don’t get health coverage from their jobs get a tax benefit, make health care service associations more portable by allowing memberships across state lines (such as allowing an American Farm Bureau health insurance program that could spread the buying power of all farmers across the nation) and to finance risk pools at the state level to deal with catastrophic illness costs.

Ryan said tax reform is a priority, including enabling farmers to pass on their farms by abolishing the estate tax.

“The last thing we want to do is have the government stand between you and your dream and the ability to pass your dream on to the next generation.” Ryan said.

Further, he said, the tax plan would allow full expensing of farm equipment on purchase immediately or allow it to be carried forward until it is a tax on positive cash flow.

As the trip to Capitol Hill wound down, local Farm Bureau presidents shared their thoughts on the trip and its value to Farm Bureau members.

Duayne Wetherell of Jefferson County, said, “We have to make sure that new trade deals don’t leave out agriculture, that agriculture is protected, not only with Mexico and Canada but also with some of the Trans Pacific countries we’re still trying to get into.

“Most of the representatives tell us that if nobody comes to talk to them, they have no idea what is going on back home. They can’t be everywhere all the time,” he said.

John Seleski of Harrison County said, “There’s a new sheriff in town and things are going to change. With Scott Pruitt being in at the EPA, there should be great changes there which should help out the farmers.”

The Ohio Farm Bureau group heard from a representative of the Mexican embassy on trade issues during the trip, and Seleski said it’s clear Mexico does not want President Trump’s border wall.

“I’d like to know what kind of trade does a wall mess up,” Seleski said. “And, we got to see a lot of very good people.”

“People don’t realize that we (farmers) can control the country if we stick together,” Seleski said.

Dave Vollnogle of Columbiana County said he finds more reason to hope in 2017 than in prior visits.

“This year, I have hope there is ultimately going to be some significant changes in regulations, especially with some lessening of some environmental overkill,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to get some meaningful immigration reform and some tax reform to reduce the tax burden on everybody. Time is going to tell.”

Bernie Heffelbower of Carroll County said it’s important to bring the farmers’ message to Washington year after year.

“There is a new president and a new Congress and maybe they don’t know where their food comes from and how farmers are back to 1975 wages on crops and cattle,” Heffelbower said. “Back in 1975 I sold a calf for 75 cents a pound. That’s what we’re getting now at the market. Gas is not at 1975 levels. I don’t think they know that. I think they think we have a food supply that is safe and it’s low cost, but they don’t understand how low cost it really is. It’s hurting the people that are making it.”

He said people might see a new tractor and equipment and think their local farmer is rich, but it’s an investment and a business expense.

Wetherell concluded, “People go to the grocery store and see an unlimited selection. They don’t realize all the manhours it takes to get that selection there. Most people don’t remember a shortage of anything. You can get any kind of food you want at any time of the year now. It used to be you couldn’t get fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter time. Sometimes we take it for granted and don’t realize how close we are to losing that on any given period on all these subjects we’ve discussed. It’s a fine balance.”

(Giannamore can be reached by e-mail at pgiannamore@heraldstaronline.com.)