"I try to take a moderate Missouri view that's informed by people like you," McCaskill said. "Tell me what you think I need to know on the job market and the economy; what you think I should do that would be helpful."
The economy, healthcare legislation and the role of the federal government were major concerns.
Roderick Arms and Tool has seen a 51 percent reduction in business, according to owner Harold Schelin. He said he has laid off half his employees. None of the federal stimulus money has translated into jobs reaching Schelin's machine shop.
Scott Beckwith, co-owner of Architectural Systems, said business for his firm is down 40 percent. Architectural Systems makes materials for high rise construction, and Beckwith said the commercial real estate market has not reached bottom yet, despite the upbeat reports coming out of Washington.
Engineer Kevin Sprenkle, with Sprenkle and Associates, said his staff is down 35 percent from 2008. Sprenkle has seen only three stimulus projects in water, sewer and sidewalk construction. Most surveyors do not have enough work to stay busy.
Larry Westpheling, owner of True Value Hardware in Cassville, said his business ventured into a larger project a few years ago and now has substantial debt. He feared rising interest rates could make his debt payments his second largest expense. Westpheling was particularly pleased with the help he has had through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, but getting loans despite his firm's equity has been hard.
Banker Darrin Newbold, with Community National Bank (CNB), said regulators with an eye on big banks have made doing business harder for community banks that were not responsible for the problems.
"I continue to make loans," Newbold said, "but I think about what the regulators will say. If they say it's a bad loan, I have to put more in the loan loss reserve, which takes away from my capital, and capital is what the regulators look at."
Newbold said two-thirds of banks lost money in 2009, though CNB closed in the black. Bankers continue to hold back loans in the face of falling asset values.
EFCO President Mike Farquhar characterized government activity as "sucking the air out of the room," deterring private money from getting back into the marketplace. Farquhar said the stimulus has been tried and now is the time to find ways to stimulate private investment.
McCaskill responded that much of what has been done has been misrepresented.
"A third of the stimulus was payroll tax breaks," said McCaskill. "A big chunk was unemployment benefits. Another big chunk was state stabilization dollars. A relatively small chunk of it is shovel-ready projects. You're right, there won't be more stimulus money. I think the stimulus was important. Now we do need to pivot."
Farquhar asserted no one knows what is in the recently passed healthcare law. Cox Monett Hospital Administrator Greg Johnson voiced concern that in the current economy, fewer patients were going to doctors' offices and putting off healthcare decisions. In Massachusetts, state Medicaid rolls had grown significantly with healthcare reforms.
|Johnson said Missouri could not pay for Medicaid now, and if it got worse, he was concerned about ramifications extending to hospitals.||Dr. Allison Heider thanked McCaskill for her support of heathcare reform and hoped future work would encourage preventative care.|
Objective information about the new healthcare bill can be best found at the Kaiser Family Foundation website (www.kff.org), McCaskill said. The reforms will reduce state Medicaid payments by 3 percent over the next five years. Doctors would be paid the same amount for Medicaid and Medicare patients.
Jack Prim, chief executive officer with Jack Henry and Associates, urged McCaskill to focus on telling the public what is in the reforms instead of attack ads. Prim found the present degree of partisanship "disgusting," along with the lack of leadership in Washington.
Others roundly criticized McCaskill's support for naming law professor Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board, cap and trade legislation and the Employee Free Choice Act. McCaskill said momentum is not behind changing labor laws now, and that the card check portion of the Employee Free Choice Act is "off the table."
McCaskill said only one other senator votes against her party's leadership more than she does. The desire to stay in Washington has become all-important, rather than harder decisions. McCaskill pointed out she is one of only seven senators who refuse to earmark spending, the kind of choice needed to control spending.
At the same time, McCaskill said she has a hard time with her Republican colleagues who declare righteous indignation about spending when they voted for Medicare D, which McCaskill said was "a big mistake, more expensive than the healthcare reform bill."
"We cannot become the economic power we need to be until we start talking about entitlements, Medicare and Social Security," McCaskill said. "We need to tell young people they're not going to start collecting Social Security until they're 65 and a half. We're trying to cap discretionary spending.
"Everybody goes to the source of news that agrees with them," McCaskill continued. "They're not going to a factual source to find consensus. Fundraising and partisanship is broken. America still works and will continue to work. Don't give up hope."