WATERBURY — Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., doesn’t yet have a permanent office in Washington, D.C., so you may have trouble reaching him unless you have his cell phone number.
Even his business cards still say “Attorney General.”
The state’s new junior senator does, however, still have his ears, and Friday morning he used them to listen to the concerns of 16 executives from manufacturing companies as part of his post-election statewide “listening tour.”
The group gathered at Atlantic Steel & Processing at 1875 Thomaston Ave.
Waterbury Industrial Commons. They were the guests of Joseph J. Vrabely Jr., the company’s president and host of “Manufacturing Matters,” a one-hour monthly radio show on WATR-1320 AM with cohost Ricard Strobel of Nasco Inc.
“We all had met with Mr. Blumenthal during the campaign, and he promised to come back after the election,” Vrabely said.
Blumenthal said the earlier meeting helped him determine what to focus on in his new job.
“My feeling is the priorities for the state are jobs, economic growth and help for manufacturing,” he said in his opening remarks, adding, “I should be there for you. ... I’m not going to be a national senator, I’m going to be a Connecticut senator.”
An unofficial survey of the execs present found the majority of companies are doing much better now than they were a year ago. But they all still confessed concern about what Congress, and the state legislature, will either do for them or to them this year.
The topics discussed ranged from free trade and China’s currency manipulation to mandates, energy costs and, not surprisingly, the new health care law. Blumenthal talked knowledgeably on most subjects, and said where he stood on each.
John Albert of Albert Bros. Inc., a scrap metal processing and recycling company in Waterbury, said the country needs to act against China, which is subsidizing manufacturers in various industries and creating an unfair playing field.
“I think that one of the key areas ... that would help manufacturing is enforcing fair trade in addition to free trade,” he said. “Manufacturing jobs are the difference between very solid middle-class wages and working at Walmart.” He suggested imposing tariffs on subsidized products from China.
Blumenthal said he is urging the Obama Administration to use the World Trade Organization to enforce existing laws “that bar a lot of what China and other countries are doing.”
Larry Moon, president of C. Cowles & Co., a 160-year-old engineered metal stamping company in New Haven, cautioned that sanctions from the WTO take time, and could have unintended consequences for companies like his, which has facilities and customers in China.
“We’re in a world market, we’re not isolated anymore,” Moon said. “If we raise the price of our raw materials coming in here, we’re going to be less competitive as manufacturers.” He suggested an alternative would be to provide investment credits to help U.S manufacturers.
Jamison Scott, president of Air Handling Systems in New Haven, said Rep. Rosa L. De-Lauro, D-3rd District, has proposed legislation that might help. The bill would create a “Manufacturing Reinvestment Account,” or MRA, that would function for manufacturers in a way similar to an individual retirement account.
It would allow manufacturers to save a specified amount each year tax-free, and to be taxed on withdrawals at only 15 percent as long as the money is reinvested in the business.
“It’s a way to invest longterm and to help minimize our tax burden a little bit so we can continue to invest in machinery and invest in the growth of our businesses,” Scott said.
Blumenthal said he would fight for the measure in the Senate if it is approved in the House.
One key theme from all the execs was a desire to end the uncertainty caused each year by legislation, both in Hartford and in Washington. Whether it’s legislative mandates, tax changes, proposed environmental regulations, or fixing or repealing the health care law, it all makes it hard for businesses to do long-term planning.
Blumenthal said he understands.
“What I hear a lot is ..., ‘If we just know the rules, then we can follow them,’” he said. “Businesses have to plan five and 10 years ahead. ... They need more certainty on taxes, and on some of the environmental regulations.”
As for the health care law, he said the more controversial provisions don’t take effect until 2014, so “there is time to change the bill. I believe it will be changed, because the challenge will be to reduce the cost.”
Jack Traver Jr., president of Traver IDC in Waterbury, an electrical supply and service company, said anything Blumenthal could do to help manufacturers would benefit the state and nation’s economy.
“Manufacturing is and continues to be the driver of the Connecticut economy,” he said. “There’s still 5,000 manufacturing companies in the state that employ 200,000 people.”
Blumenthal said he will be a “tireless advocate” for manufacturing in the Senate, because manufacturers are “central to the future of our country.”
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