MUNSTER | Creating jobs, reducing the deficit and bringing troops home from Afghanistan rank among U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly's top goals for the year.
Donnelly, D-Ind., visited The Times of Northwest Indiana newsroom Monday to reflect back to his first year in office and talk about his aims for the year, including investing in infrastructure, promoting job training and lowering the unemployment rate to at least 6 percent by the end of the year. He said he has tried to work on such priorities by reaching across party lines, such as when he was one of 14 senators who put a stop to the government shutdown in October.
"When we sat down, we were told we were on a fool's errand, that it was a spitball," he said. "I don't really care. I was hired to do work. I'm not going to sit around looking out the window when we're moving backwards. A good friend of mine, Susan Collins (R-Maine), and I looked at each other on the floor and said, 'This is crazy. We need need to end this. We need to stop this.' We were told by the leaders of both parties to mind our own business. Well, this is my business. This is what I was hired to do."
Attitudes in Washington have changed in the wake of the shutdown, Donnelly said. Lawmakers are more inclined to sit down to try to get something done, instead of being ideological purists who accomplish nothing.
"After the shutdown, I think there was an understanding by a number of members that people don't want us to be against everything," he said. "They want this country to function and move forward. We want to be fiscally responsible, but we want to do things, grow this country and move it forward."
He believes Congress will soon pass a farm bill that will outline food and agricultural policies for the next five years, and also a five-year transportation bill that would allocate highway funding. The passage of such legislation – which has been difficult in recent years – will give business leaders more certainty, so they can consider making investments, Donnelly said.
Federal lawmakers also are looking at a business tax overhaul that would lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to about 25 percent, but prevent companies such as General Electric from exploiting loopholes to get out of paying taxes.
"I was with the CEO of AT&T, who's now chairman of the Business Roundtable, the other day," Donnelly said. "I want taxes to be as low as him, but I also want basic services. I want the roads to be drivable and I want quality schools. He said, 'Look, what we want is certainty for a couple of years. Right now there's more cash on the sidelines with American businesses than in any time in history.'"
Congress needs to focus on creating a climate that favors job growth, and a big part of that is job training, said Donnelly. The average age of ArcelorMittal employees for instance is 57, and younger workers need to have the skills to replace them. They have terrific opportunities, such as to make $90,000 a year as a maintenance technician at the mills, if they advance their education past high school and get the proper training, he said.
"Indiana, in terms of job skills and training, has been 41st," he said. "We really need to bump that up."
Indiana also lags in many health measures, but could fare better if insurance were more accessible, possibly if the state and federal government could reach an agreement that would combine elements of the Healthy Indiana Plan with an expansion of Medicaid, Donnelly said. He has offered to help the governor's office reach a deal with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"Every state around us now has the Medicaid expansion," he said. "We're the only one that doesn't. I know the governor (Mike Pence) is meeting with Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius. I don't have a crystal ball, but I think it would be in both their interests to work out some type of hybrid."
Improving health outcomes and Indiana's ranking in national health metrics would have economic benefits, he said.
"Employers are not impressed when your state is (No.) 41, 42, 43 in health," he said. "We want to have a good business climate by having the right tax climate, but we also have to have the right educational climate. We have to have the right health climate. All of those things are critical."