INDUSTRY GROUPS TAKE TO CAPITOL HILL

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Industry groups representing both supermarket retailers and food wholesalers took to Capitol Hill last week to remind legislators that there are seven weeks left to the 105th Congress, enough time to work on their agenda.Their efforts included looking for help to defeat certain proposals that have recently gained momentum such as a minimum-wage hike which Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.,

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Industry groups representing both supermarket retailers and food wholesalers took to Capitol Hill last week to remind legislators that there are seven weeks left to the 105th Congress, enough time to work on their agenda.

Their efforts included looking for help to defeat certain proposals that have recently gained momentum such as a minimum-wage hike which Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is expected to attach to an upcoming bankruptcy-reform package. The bankruptcy package is expected to hit the Senate floor with bipartisan support in September.

Thomas F. Wenning, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Grocers Association, and Kevin Burke, vice president of government relations for Food Distributors International, said their groups wanted to remind Congress members that Kennedy's $1 increase idea come on the heels of another $1 hike approved in 1996.

If approved, they said, the new increase would mean minimum wage has jumped by 44% in only four years -- it's biggest jump ever in such a brief period. "We're hoping that people are a little open-minded about this and the impact on business," Wenning said, noting that staffers for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated the legislator would oppose the hike.

Wenning said he's also hopeful that Congress will move soon on additional estate tax reform, especially since House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has expressed interest in passing a tax bill this session. Retailers have been seeking to further progress they made last year in cutting the levy on estates when a principal dies. Several estate tax measures are now pending in Congress, including a bill introduced by Reps. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., and John S. Tanner, D-Tenn., that would fade out estate taxes over the next 10 years.

"There is no other tax level as high or that has as maximum effect as the estate tax," Wenning said. "Our answer is we'll take any answer we can get as long as it leads to repeal."

Another repeat issue for NGA and FDI members was tobacco, even though a plan by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to add a $1.10 pack fee on cigarette-makers died recently on the Senate floor. Like many Congress members, Wenning said, NGA and FDI are both waiting now to see what new bills will be proposed on the issue this month.

But speaking at a pre-Hill briefing session, John Eisen, director of government relations for FDI, said members from both industry groups should encourage Congress members to keep their focus on reducing teen smoking through efforts such as national ad campaigns or stricter punishments on those who sell to minors. "That's the issue we're talking about. Not raising taxes."

Both groups also noted another major concern for retailers and wholesalers this session is health care reform. "I think everyone is waiting to see what they're going to produce and put on paper," Wenning said. At issue right now is how legislators can balance getting more services to patients while not driving up costs for employers.

The key concern for employers is liability, or increasing the ease with which employees sue their health care providers. The industry groups estimated that increasing liability could cost employers an additional 6 to 10% on their health care bills.