Legislative topics that must be addressed in 2017

Industry leaders outline what issues to keep an eye on during the first year of the Trump Administration.

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The national election on Nov. 8 surprised many, with Donald Trump (R-N.Y.) coming from behind to beat favored Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the presidency. In addition, Republicans kept their hold on both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Republicans now have a unified hold on the U.S. executive and legislative branches of federal government.

A Trump presidency and the many Republican down-ballot victories have the potential to shake up the green industry.

Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of advocacy and research with AmericanHort, anticipates the election’s outcome will have significant impact — most positive, but with some trouble spots.

“Many have grown weary of eight years of a ‘regulatory juggernaut’ that was especially challenging in the labor and environmental regulation areas,” Regelbrugge says. “Beyond some of the rule changes themselves, we’ve had major concerns with employers being exposed to greater and greater litigation risks by activists.”

On the whole, the green industry should see opportunities for a more business-friendly environment. Don’t expect change overnight, though, especially in the area of unions and unionization, he says.

“The National Labor Relations Board has been hyperactive and hyper-partisan with decisions favoring unions and unionization,” Regelbrugge says. “It will take some time for the composition of the NLRB to achieve more balance, but it will happen.”

Having the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government aligned in the same direction could lead to less gridlock and more movement on traditionally sticky issues. Regelbrugge says that’s a reasonable expectation, especially if House Republicans retain Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House.

“Ryan is ideologically anchored but policy oriented, and will understand the need for balance and avoiding overreach,” Regelbrugge says. “There is still a check-and-balance in the Senate, in that leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will likely have 52 votes, and key procedural motions require 60. So if new minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his 47 colleagues are unified, there’s some firewall there.”

The Trump wild card

Of course, the elephant in the room is President-elect Trump. During his campaign, immigration was one of his biggest focal points, and one of the most divisive planks in his platform. The horticulture industry has been attempting to reform immigration for years, and and if Trump holds to his campaign promises, it could create major labor problems.

“While wide majorities of Americans support reforms consistent with those we have sought over years, the Trump campaign really doubled down on harsh immigration rhetoric, and it will be hard to walk that back,” Regelbrugge says. “The real challenge here is that Trump has surrounded himself with advisors cut from the most extreme cloth on this issue. It’s almost sure to be an ‘enforcement first’ approach — not just walls or barriers on the border and deportation of criminal aliens.”

Regelbrugge says the industry could see an early push to make the E-Verify program mandatory for all employers, and rapid escalation of worksite enforcement. This could take the form of raids, or I-9 audits (“silent raids”), he says. This would be dangerous for the green industry.

“Such an approach could overburden and crash the limited legal visa programs now used by our industry, as demand spikes and outstrips capacity. Maybe Trump won’t go there, but he is surrounded by advisors who will push for it.”

Upcoming issues

Labor and immigration are clearly the issues that will receive the most attention in 2017, Regelbrugge says. Health care is just behind, and will certainly be addressed.

“Whether the push is to repeal the Affordable Care Act or reform it, Republicans will need to have a workable alternative that doesn’t kick 20 million people off the health care rolls,” Regelbrugge says.

The Farm Bill is set to be debated and reauthorized in 2018; it’s become a major source of funding for key research and pest prevention programs. And, whether it comes legislatively or administratively, business owners should watch for regulatory relief from the Department of Labor’s overtime rule that was recently granted appeal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

A Trump presidency and the many Republican down-ballot victories have the potential to shake up the green industry.

Many industry representatives oppose the new overtime rule, which increases the salary threshold for overtime-exempt workers to $47,476, more than double its current threshold of $23,660. Gregg Robertson, who handles government relations for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association, says the issues most frequently brought up in his state include the federal overtime rule, fixing H-2A and H-2B, finding employees and the boxwood blight quarantine.

Karen Summers, executive vice president of the Southern Nursery Association, has a similar view from her members.

“The things that we hear most are concerns on labor issues (H-2B, seasonal workers, overtime rule) and of course ObamaCare,” she says.

The Oregon Association of Nurseries supports comprehensive immigration reform and has a list of current or pending federal legislation it would like rescinded or amended, including the overtime rule, the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard, and the Pesticide Applicator Certification rule. The OAN supports an agricultural worker solution that provides work authorization for experienced agricultural workers, and a more flexible, market-based visa program for the future that meets agriculture’s need for both seasonal and year-round workers.

OAN’s members rely on readily available and quality water to grow their products. Therefore, OAN supports policies aimed at conservation, quality and supply improvements. However, OAN is calling to rescind the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule. That’s because OAN opposes federal expansion of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act and/or new regulations that threaten the state’s ability to deliver water to the agricultural industry.

In 2015, the EPA and the Department of Defense passed the Waters of the United States rule, which defines federally controlled waters referenced in the 1972 Clean Water Act. This piece of legislation, which asserts federal regulatory authority over small bodies of water such as wetlands and some ponds, was called an overreach by industry groups. Later rebranded as the Clean Water Rule after more than a year of evaluation, argument and a presidential veto, the proposed regulation is currently in the hands of the U.S. Court of Appeals. On the campaign trail, Trump said he would eliminate WOTUS.

“Lots of good folks in the industry have disengaged from the political process in recent years, frustrated with the gridlock and hopelessness,” Regelbrugge says. “Given both opportunity and potential trouble spots ahead, it’s time for everyone to suit back up and re-engage.”

Matt is managing editor for Nursery Management magazine, a GIE Media Horticulture Group publication.

January 2017
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