Obama draws praise, skepticism from Grand Junction audience

Grand Junction residents Jim Haas, center, John Sage, right and few others watch at Weavers Taverns Wednesday evening as President Barack Obama delivers the first Sate of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress.

President Obama’s call for more jobs and help for small banks and small businesses drew guarded applause and skepticism Wednesday night.

“He threw out some good ideas,” said Kris Cox of Labor Etc., an employment agency in Grand Junction. “I’m for jobs. We have quite a few people but no place to send them.”

Cox said he was “kind of impressed” with tax incentives for employers, especially those that keep jobs in the United States instead of outsourcing to other nations.

“If there’s any reality to it, that would be nice,” Cox said.

The president cited nuclear power and clean coal as part of the “clean energy economy” he hopes to foster, a mention “that did jump out at me,” Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President Diane Schwenke said.

Obama also mentioned the Clean Energy Act, which includes cap and trade provisions that businesses would prefer be dropped.

Clean energy, however, struck the right note, almost, for Frank Smith, energy organizer for environmental organization Western Colorado Congress.

“I was heartened to hear the emphasis on clean energy and job creation within a clean- energy economy,” Smith said.

As for whether nuclear power and clean coal fit under clean energy, Smith said he begged to differ with the president on the definition.

“I hope the Colorado delegation (in Congress) come out to the West Slope and tell us how we can get involved” in clean and renewable energy, Smith said.

Obama “painted a pretty-picture puzzle for clean energy, but left out the centerpiece,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, West Slope. “I maintain the audacity to hope that western Colorado’s clean natural gas will remain a central piece of the administration’s vision for a clean-energy future.”

The president’s call for tax cuts for small business and the call for more taxes on oil was “a disconnect” for Kathleen Sgamma, government-affairs director for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

Eliminating tax advantages for large oil companies will harm small energy businesses with an average of 12 employees that supply 82 percent of the nation’s natural gas and 68 percent of its oil, Sgamma said.

Obama’s mention of taking $30 billion from large banks and giving it to small banks for loans to small business sounded good, Schwenke said.

He didn’t, however, say he’d reduce regulatory burdens or the cost of oversight, she said.

When the president stressed that he inherited economic problems, it irritated Alpine Bank President Norm Franke.

“It’s time to get over ‘I inherited this problem,’” Franke said. “That doesn’t work in my boardroom.”

Obama tarred all banks with the same brush as Wall Street brokerage firms such as Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns and government-sponsored Fannie Mae, Franke said.

“I haven’t seen one regional ‘commercial bank’ in our community with a major issue,” he said. “We need to ask him to understand the difference between an investment bank and a community bank. He doesn’t get it.  We have never invested in anything other than what the regulators and our government have encouraged: our communities.”

The State of the Union, Franke said, was “all lip service.”

The president had the “right focus,” said Reeves Brown, executive director of Club 20, the Western Slope promotional and lobbying organization.

“I appreciated him saying that every day shouldn’t be Election Day in D.C.,” Brown said.

Obama promised to renew his bid for health care legislation as part of his effort to revive the economy.

If the president wants to reconnect with the middle class, he should push for a decentralized approach to health care legislation, Rocky Mountain Health Plans President Steve ErkenBrack said.

“At the end of the day, he needs to take a lesson from Mesa County. He can learn from our health care reform,” ErkenBrack said.

Rocky Mountain Health Plans is part of a web of nonprofit organizations in Mesa County that provide medical treatment, hospital care and other health-related services.

Achieving broad goals such as dealing with coverage denials because of pre-existing conditions depend on saving money, ErkenBrack said.

“It all comes back to lower costs” that let more people afford coverage, he said, and the best way to find efficiencies is on a community-by-community basis.

A more focused approach “leads to a healthier population and lower health care costs,” he said.

To help the middle class, ErkenBrack said, “We have to find a way not just to make health care less expensive, but make it affordable.”


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