U.S. Rep. Bill Owens hopes Congress will reform the tax code in 2013, but he doesn't expect it to happen without a lot of partisan bickering.
Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh, was sworn in to his third term in the House of Representatives on Thursday. He's represented New York's 23rd Congressional District since November 2009, when he won a special election and replaced Republican John McHugh, who left his seat to become secretary of the Army.
On Thursday, the congressional district took on a new number - the 21st - and a new shape after legislative redistricting in 2012. The 21st District includes 12 counties and covers virtually all of the North Country. Owens said in a prepared statement that he plans to open a new district office in Glens Falls soon.
Owens said that although the new district spans some 16,000 square miles, the issues remain the same. He said he wants to create jobs, foster an economic environment to support the growth of small businesses and family farms, and help middle-class families get ahead.
Up until Thursday, communities like Lake Placid and Keene were included in New York's 20th Congressional District, represented by Republican Chris Gibson. That district is now the 19th and no longer includes any territory north of Albany. North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said he's looking forward to working with Owens.
"I have a good relationship with Bill Owens, even prior to him being a congressman when he was a lawyer," Politi said. "I anticipate a smooth transition with no problems. The problems are more what he faces in Congress."
Owens told the Enterprise in a phone interview this week that he was frustrated by the recent talks to avoid the fiscal cliff, which ended earlier this week with a last minute deal to avoid drastic spending cuts and big tax increases. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 passed the House by a vote of 257-167. It extends Bush-era tax cuts for those making up to $450,000 annually, and it delays sequestration - automatic spending cuts included in the Budget Control Act of 2011 - by two months.
"Clearly, I like the idea that we were protecting the middle class in this process," Owens said. "I think that's important because those are the folks who are spending money in the economy, and we clearly need them to keep spending in order to continue the (economic) recovery.
"I didn't like the fact that there was no spending cuts in it, and I didn't like the fact that we included a very poor excuse for a farm bill extension."
Congress didn't extend a 2010 payroll tax cut, however. Owens said a trade-off had to be made in order to extend middle-class tax cuts.
"In absolute dollars, the impact of the long-term income tax reductions are more important, I think, than the payroll tax was," he said. "And we all knew that that was going to revert back at some point because it was put in place to stimulate the economy. I don't think anyone ever intended for that to go on forever."
Owens said the wrangling and last-minute dealing that it took to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff bothered him. He said he thinks Congress could have negotiated a broader, more inclusive bill weeks before the end-of-the-year deadline.
"We could have had spending cuts, we could have had this kind of a tax bill and we could have done the farm bill," Owens said. "Clearly, people are not acting in the best interests of the American public, and I think it's a real mistake. I think that people are very frustrated with Congress. They have a right to be frustrated with Congress. What we need to see happen now is a move back towards the center, where people are willing to compromise to get things done."
The legislation also maintains estate tax exemptions, something Owens said he supported, and it extends some tax credits for businesses and low-income earners. Owens said overall, the bill was a "good piece of tax legislation."
Owens said Congress needs to begin revamping the Internal Revenue Code this year. He said it needs to be made "considerably simpler."
To start, Owens said he'd get rid of many tax credits and special deductions in exchange for lower overall tax rates.
"I think we can lower the rate, simplify the code and generate more revenue at the end of the day," he said. "Many businesses talk about the idea that they would like to see lower rates to be competitive on an international basis. I don't disagree with that. But they can't have lower rates and then special deductions, if you will. I think it's very important that we match those up."
Asked if it's realistic to expect Congress to reform the tax rate, especially given recent squabbles and political infighting, Owens was blunt.
"The only thing that I am confident in is that we will have months of bickering," he said. "That is the only thing I am confident in. Whether or not that ultimately leads to a positive result is a little less clear.
"I do think that there's a lot of pressure on both parties to come forward with a revamping of the Internal Revenue Code. I think that the general public wants it, whether it's a middle-class person or whether it's a middle-class small business owner. I think the people at the high end want it as well. Everyone wants to see simplification, and they understand that when that happens, hopefully rates will come down."
Congress also passed a nine-month extension of the Farm Bill this week, and Owens said he wasn't happy with it.
Owens said the extension didn't include funding for many federal programs and grants, including the Watershed Rehabilitation Program, Value Added Producer grants and the Healthy Forest Reserve Act. Those programs, he said, didn't receive mandatory funding in the 2008 Farm Bill.
Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a national organization that advocates for family farms and rural communities, said the Farm Bill extension "slashes investment in the future of small rural communities and family farming and ranching.
"The message is clear - despite high market prices, virtually unlimited commodity and crop insurance premium subsidies to mega farms remain uncapped, but beginning farmers and rural communities are left twisting in the wind," Hassebrook said in a press release. "And conservation of our precious land and water gets put on hold."
Owens said the Milk Income Loss Contract program - which provides stability to dairy farmers during fluctuations in milk and cattle prices - was preserved at August 2012 levels. That means consumers won't see dramatic increases in the price of milk that had been predicted if the Farm Bill was allowed to expire, Owens said.
"Increases would be more in the normal market swings," he said.
The House Agriculture Committee and the Senate passed versions of the 2012 Farm Bill last year, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, never brought the bill to the floor for a vote. Now that a new Congress has been sworn in, the proposed Farm Bill will need to be reintroduced, Owens said.
"You could probably have a bill ready to go to the floor by March," he said.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.