JANESVILLE — A select group of small business leaders in Rock County were able to sit down Friday and discuss key economic issues with national leaders, including Vice President Mike Pence along with Janesville native and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Pence, Ryan, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price toured the Blain’s Farm and Fleet Distribution Center, before sitting down with area farmers and business owners. Following the intimate meeting, Pence addressed an audience of over 200 Blain’s Farm & Fleet employees, guests and invited residents.
Outside of the conference hall, around 50 protesters stood across the street in designated areas, voicing general displeasure with Pence and the President Donald Trump administration. No new major policy details came from Friday’s remarks, but the campaign-style event drew polite support from attendees.
Pence, Ryan and Johnson all spoke passionately of the success of Wisconsin industry, while noting the importance of drafting legislation to boost job growth, redefine health care and sustainable infrastructure investment. Price spoke of the need to ensure all Americans could access health care coverage, while paying proportional insurance premiums.
“[President Trump] is going to get the economy moving by passing the biggest package of tax relief since the days of President Ronald Reagan,” Pence said.
Echoes from the 2016 campaign trail rang through Pence’s address, from thanking those present for supporting President Trump to criticizing the Affordable Care Act, and promising a full repeal-and-replace strategy.
“Despite the best efforts of town hall activists, America knows: Obamacare has failed,” said Pence, who later promised a plan would be drafted to lower insurance costs for all Americans, increase insurance competition and allow for more choice of providers.
Ryan noted a plan would be drafted within the coming weeks and be announced as soon as it was ready, to make good on one of Trump’s key talking points during his first congressional address earlier this week.
Pence also stressed the need to boost military spending, another key component of Trump’s recent budget proposal, while also fleshing out the importance of infrastructure improvements for renewing the country’s backbone.
Arndt Farms Inc. partner David Arndt, who participated in the 25-minute listening session, said the access to the upper tier of federal leadership was highly valuable. During the meeting, business leaders discussed problems facing executives, from rising insurance costs for employees to what they view as over-reaching regulation that hurts small business operations.
“We realize it’s an issue that needs to be solved across the country, but it’s a bigger issue for small business owners than it is for larger corporations,” Arndt said. “There needs to be a level playing field for everyone.”
Arndt said farm representatives have traveled across the country and seen area farmers ask about how involved Wisconsin leaders are in policymaking decisions that drive each congressional session.
“It’s wonderful that our national leaders want to come here and listen to us,” Arndt said. “We’ve consistently had people ask about our federal delegation and that they wish they had active leaders like us. We have a strong reputation in Wisconsin because of that. It’s all good.”
Attendee Thomas Gibbons, of Kenosha, said the keynote address was eclipsed by the small business meeting.
“It was an advantage to be here in the audience as a concerned private citizen,” Gibbons said. “Everything has been said around those main talking points, but it was still a spectacle and it was interesting to have leaders here. I’m glad they are picking people out who have skin in the game.”
Multiple attendees at the event said they were surprised the Trump administration was continuing the hold campaign-style events.
“It’s really a different approach from past presidents,” Gibbons said. “It’s like an extension of his campaign.”