U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton met with around 20 business and political leaders at the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce building on Oak Street early Tuesday. Those at the Government Affairs Committee Coffee, which included Mayor Tab Townsell and state Sen. Jason Rapert as well as area business owners, heard from Arkansas’ freshman senator that the Fayetteville Shale really tells the story of Conway’s rapid growth in recent years.
"I missed all of that. It happened while I was away" serving tours of duty in the military overseas, Cotton observed. Every time he returned to Conway over the past 10 years, there was new evidence of growth, he said.
While in Washington, "I’ve tried to focus on removing obstacles to that growth," Cotton said. Layers of federal regulation have made it harder for local businesses to grow, to hire people and to provide opportunities, he said.
Cotton cited as particular concerns efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to increase regulation of the shale industry; a push by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to increase documentation required for loans; and Department of Labor wage regulations. The latter burden small businesses, he said. "We need to get Washington out of the way of community leaders such as yourself."
Those sentiments were echoed by attendee Eddie Glover, CEO of U.S. Compounding Pharmacy, which employees around 130. Glover urged Cotton to "hang in there" because "we know you get it." "We need overseers, but we don’t need government agencies totally choking us out," Glover added.
Cotton offered the compounding pharmacy as a good example of how a one-size-fits-all, centralized approach to regulation doesn’t work. "Eddie has a small business that serves a very specific niche, providing a good service and good jobs," Cotton said.
The U.S. senator heard from one businessman in attendance that "We’re kind of being held hostage here in Conway" because of failure in Congress to pass a long-term highway funding bill. Because of the stalemate, several Arkansas highway projects have been put on indefinite hold, among them the second phase of a loop around the west side of Conway -- from Highway 365 to an area near Hogan Lane -- that is part of a $30 million Interstate 40 interchange project.
"There were a lot of problems, in my opinion, with that bill," Cotton said, adding that he believes the federal Highway Trust Fund should be limited to covering "highways, roads and bridges" and should not be going to things such as "light rail, urban mass transit, landscaping and so forth."
Townsell spoke up then, telling Cotton that sometimes local needs don’t fit that model. "In our metropolitan areas, road building is just not possible," and the money is needed in other ways, Townsell said. "Maybe not for landscaping, but certainly for those other things."
Townsell and Cotton both addressed the problem of uncollected sales tax for online purchases at sites such as amazon.com. In addition to putting brick-and-mortar stores, where sales tax is paid at the point of purchase, at a disadvantage, an erosion in available sales tax money forces cities like Conway to seek other, often unpopular means of funding, Townsell said. Cotton urged those in attendance to make sure they pay sales tax when they order online. "I don’t think my mom is a tax scofflaw," but even she didn’t realize she wasn’t paying sales tax she should have, he pointed out.
Rapert offered the example of constituents who contacted him because a Department of Finance and Administration audit found that for a year or two they’d been ordering uniforms for their dance students online and had not been charged sales tax on them. "They didn’t know," Rapert said, and now they’re being charged back taxes on the purchases.
Turning to energy, Cotton said that as a minimum he’d like to see the U.S. use its oil and gas resources to promote trade around the world. Eventually, he said, "I’d like us to become the world’s dominant hydrocarbon power."
In answer to a question from business leader Bunny Adcock, Cotton repeated his oft-expressed opposition to a proposed U.S. nuclear agreement with Iran, saying it would put the U.S. "on the verge of a second nuclear age." He urged constituents to contact the offices of undecided senators and representatives before Congress votes on the agreement in the next few weeks. "When the 24-year-old intern can barely keep up with the phone calls coming into the office, it makes a big impression," he said.
Even if the deal goes forward, he’ll continue to fight its implementation, Cotton told the Chamber.
Before the meeting, Cotton was briefed by Chamber executive vice president Jamie Gates about Conway’s business history and its future vision. After the Chamber meeting, the senator walked down the street to meet with executives of mobile app developer Metova. The company, which employs around 160, is an example of the kind of high-paying and innovative company that Conway is becoming identified with, Gates told the senator.