“Maybe I can get some sort of information to tell me about what’s going on or what I need to do,” Vietnam veteran Tim Glancy said about a claim he filed last February. “They don’t really contact you. I found out its something you have to stay on top of.”

“You shouldn’t have to stay on top of it and the VA system is in terrible disrepair and I apologize to you from the bottom of my heart that it’s that way,” Rice responded. “Government has broken down there, and one of the functions of an elected official is to intervene when government breaks down.”

While work is moving slowly in fixing the VA claims backlog that causes veterans to wait 18 months to two years to have a benefit claim filed, Rice said more needs to be done to insure better access for veterans.

“I don’t want to be to hard on them, the VA they are trying very hard to clear up backlog they’re putting in new systems but honestly federal government the behemoth that it is moves far to slow for everybody and we’re doing everything to grease the skids and work more quickly,” Rice said.

Rice fielded a question from Randy Sawyer of Marion who was concerned about the possible phasing out of Social Security and Medicare. Rice clarified the question to discuss the depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund, estimated to be depleted by 2033. He proposed several ways to ensure that money will be there for people paying into it now when they retire.

“One is that we can attack the cost side and that would be by either delaying retirement ages. I’m not saying anything that would affect anybody currently on social security or within nine years of retiring,” Rice said. “For younger people, just like Reagan did back in ‘80s, we’re going to have to do a gradual increase in the age of retirement for Social Security, bump up it two years over 25-year period. Another thing we can do is means test, if you earn over a certain level of income you have to pay taxes on Social Security that means you get less of a benefit if you’re wealthy.”

South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services director Anthony Keck was also on the line to provide specific Medicare or Medicaid related answers. Keck spoke about a new program that will launch next January that will make things easier for joint enrollees of Medicaid and Medicare.

“In January, we will be launching a new program called South Carolina Health Connections Prime which is a program targeted toward 150,000 dual eligible members and those are individuals eligible for Medicare and state program Medicaid,” Keck said. “And for first time that program will actually be managed together so beneficiaries will have a seamless experience between their physician’s office, their hospital, but other services such as long term care waivers that allow seniors to live in their homes and communities instead of having to go earlier than they’d like to a nursing home.”

The town hall teleconference had 4,277 listeners and Rice, along with his district manager Andrew Mims and Keck, addressed the questions of six people on the call, including the last question which came from Richard Ridgeley of Myrtle Beach who asked about the state’s right to work stance.

“Down here in South Carolina they have a law -- a right to work state -- and my question is why don’t they get rid of that because you could be working for someone for 10 years and go buy a new car and go into work Monday and they tell you they don’t need you anymore,” Ridgeley said. “For no reason whatsoever.”

A change of pace from medical issues and VA claims, Rice took a moment to get into his jobs speech and said without a heavy union presence in South Carolina, the state is more competitive for jobs.

“I am actually in favor of South Carolina being a right to work state,” Rice said. “South Carolina is now one of the top states in country to do business; my entire focus since I’ve been in congress has been on American competitiveness.”

“That’s fine and dandy,” Ridgeley said. “My point is if you’re a working person down here with X amount in debt working five, 10 years and they say they don’t need you that is not right, that is not right.”

“If we’re going to provide the same level of opportunity that we’ve had to our children and grandchildren we have to apply that attitude of competitiveness to this country,” Rice said getting into his groove. “I think you’re going to continue to see the states that are right to work thrive and continue to see jobs fleeing those other states.”

BY GAVIN JACKSON Morning Newsgjackson@florencenews.com

The nation's nearly 200,000 middle market companies plan to hire 1.4 million new workers over the next 12 months, which is half a million more jobs than projected at the beginning of 2014. According to the National Center for the Middle Market's (NCMM) latest quarterly Middle Market Indicator (MMI), this resurgence in hiring is being fueled in part by less uncertainty originating in Washington, enabling mid-market executives to shift their focus toward attracting skilled talent, addressing wage pressures, and accessing capital. Based on the latest MMI growth projections, the NCMM estimates middle market firms (with annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion) will create 59 percent of all new jobs in 2014.
 
"These findings confirm that mid-sized companies are the unsung heroes of American business," said Tom Stewart, Executive Director for the NCMM, a collaboration between The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business and GE Capital. "Growing faster than S&P 500 companies and creating more jobs than their small and large business peers, the middle market is a critical factor in stabilizing and growing the U.S. economy." Mid-sized firms represent only three percent of all American businesses, yet contribute one-third of private GDP and employ one-third of private U.S. workers.
 
Performance gains accelerating
 
According to the latest MMI survey of 1,000 middle market executives, strong employment and revenue performance are driving increased confidence and growth projections for the year ahead. Revenue growth over the past 12 months was 6.5 percent, which represents a 1.5 point increase over last quarter's results and is significantly higher than the S&P 500's growth rate of just 0.5 percent during the same time period.
 
Mid-market executives also report a 1.2 point gain in employment growth over last quarter, to 3.7 percent. By comparison, small and large companies grew employment at 2.1 percent and 2.6 percent respectively, according to the ADP Jobs Report. Lower middle market firms (with annual revenues between $10 million and $50 million) report particularly notable employment growth, from 2.2 percent last quarter to 3.6 percent this quarter.
 
Optimism for 2014
 
Confidence among mid-market executives is increasing alongside accelerating gains in revenue and employment growth. In its ninth edition, the MMI finds that confidence in local economies reached an all-time record at 81 percent, while national and global confidence at 64 percent and 57 percent, respectively, are significantly higher compared to the same time last year.
 
Executives' growth projections for the year ahead give reason for optimism as well. Mid-sized firms are projecting 4.5 percent revenue growth for the next 12-month period, a modest increase over last quarter's projection at 4.3 percent. When it comes to job creation, middle market companies project growth at 3.2 percent, which is a full percentage point higher than last quarter.
 
What's more, nearly two out of three mid-market executives plan to invest in their businesses. Forty-eight percent of mid-sized firms expect to introduce a new product or service, and 23 percent plan to add a new plant or facility.
 
Stewart said, "The middle market's encouraging projections for 2014 continue their trend of robust growth. Year after year, mid-sized firms increase revenue projections and hit their targets, showing how strong these companies are."
 
Shifting views on Washington
 
Middle market executives have consistently cited government uncertainty and health care costs as top concerns, with 34 percent and 46 percent, respectively, citing them as highly challenging this quarter. While still big numbers, these challenges have declined double-digit compared to last year.
 
Instead, middle market firms are confronting challenges associated with business expansion rather than issues arising from Washington politics. For example, 75 percent of mid-market executives identified the ability to attract, train and retain talent as highly or somewhat challenging. In addition, more than half of surveyed executives identified access to capital and labor difficulties as barriers to future growth.
 
At the same time, DC is also taking a greater interest in the importance of middle market firms. "We are encouraged by the formation of the Congressional Caucus for Middle Market Growth, recently announced by Congressmen Steve Stivers, Jared Polis, Tom Rice and Brad Schneider," said Stewart. "This critical initiative serves the dual purpose of recognizing the role of the middle market in catalyzing growth nationwide and providing a policy platform in the halls of Congress to discuss the needs of this sector going forward."
 
About the Middle Market Indicator
 
The MMI surveys 1,000 executives (CEOs, CFOs, and other C-Suite executives) from the middle market's nearly 200,000 companies, focusing on their business capabilities and performance, growth drivers, and economic outlook. This quarter's MMI was fielded March 10 to 20, 2014. It is weighted to accurately reflect the size and geographic distribution of this sector, which includes companies with revenues between $10 million and $1 billion.
 
The quarterly MMI tracks responses on the following topics: Gross revenues performance; Overall company performance; Employment performance; Expected 12-month gross revenue and employment growth; Confidence in the global, U.S. and local economy; Key business challenges; Top areas for investment dollars; Perceptions on topical issues and challenges relevant to the U.S. middle market.
 
The survey is conducted by the independent research firm RTi on behalf of the NCMM.
 
About the National Center for the Middle Market
 
The National Center for the Middle Market (NCMM) was founded in 2011 in partnership with GE Capital and is located at The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business. The Center is the nation's leading research institution dedicated to helping middle market companies be more competitive through impactful research, thoughtful advocacy, and educational programs. To learn more about the Center or the MMI, visit www.middlemarketcenter.org.

By Congressman Tom Rice (R-SC)

Our nation’s ports and waterways are vital to American competitiveness. They employ more than 13 million people and transport millions of products to markets across the globe.

But, America’s water infrastructure is rapidly aging and its upkeep is paramount to maintaining our trade dominance. While our ports deteriorate, our competitors are investing billions to strengthen and grow their countries’ water infrastructure.

China has invested $10 billion dollars to build a port in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, ramping up trade between China and Eastern Africa. The port is expected to handle 20 million containers a year, transforming it in to a hub for shipments in the Indian Ocean.

Panama has poured billions of dollars into its Panamax project to upgrade the Panama Canal’s lock system. Once completed, the deepened canal will be able to accommodate the largest container ships in the world. Large Post-Panamax container ships currently make up 16 percent of the world’s container fleet, and this number is projected to increase to 62 percent by 2030.

Post-Panamax ships require a port depth of 50 feet. Currently, only seven U.S. ports can accommodate ships of this size. Of these seven U.S. ports, none are located on the South-Atlantic Gulf.

Government regulations and the misuse of water infrastructure funds have stalled port projects in the South-Atlantic Gulf and across our country for decades. Consequently, our ports have begun to silt in.

In 1986, Congress levied a Harbor Maintenance Tax on all imports brought on to our shores. Each year, our shippers pay more than $1.7 billion dollars in import taxes. This money is pooled together into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is intended to be used to deepen and modernize American ports of all sizes. Instead, the government has dipped into the fund and used the money for non-infrastructure projects.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is not solely responsible for our infrastructure issues. Congress has not passed a Water Infrastructure bill since 2007. Prior to 2007, similar legislation was passed every two years.

My district’s port in Georgetown, S.C., has fallen victim to government abuse, inaction and overregulation. The Georgetown Port must be dredged to its authorized depth, so it may see the volume of ships it once did. However, it is currently ineligible for federal funding to dredge until it can prove that it meets a tonnage requirement. But, the port cannot reach the required tonnage depth until it is dredged. This is a classic “chicken and the egg” problem.

Georgetown willfully collected an import tax to raise the funds needed to deepen the port, generating more than half of the funding needed to dredge. In 2007, the port received the authorization it needs to move forward, but has been stalled due to the aforementioned tonnage requirement.

Fortunately, both chambers passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act this Congress. WRRDA authorizes 26 port projects, increasing our country’s number of Post-Panamax ready ports. This legislation addresses absurd government regulations that have created senseless bureaucratic traps, like Georgetown’s “chicken and the egg” predicament.

WRRDA also restores the Harbor Trust Fund, ensuring that 80 percent of its funds are used for our country’s ports by 2020. It is imperative some of these funds are used to dredge South-Atlantic Gulf ports. This large region of our country cannot be left out of the Post-Panamax trade game.

We still have work to do, but this a good start in the right direction. Full capacity and full functioning ports result in full pockets for consumers, employees, contractors, shippers, and businesses that depend on water trade. I am committed to doing all that I can to restore our country’s competitiveness.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Several Republican members of the South Carolina congressional delegation gave their opinions on a variety of topics at a South Carolina Chamber of Commerce town hall meeting Wednesday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham along with Congressmen Mark Sanford, Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Mick Mulvaney and Tom Rice (who represents much of the Pee Dee and Florence County) took questions from an audience.

The most frequent questions from the business crowd of some 200 attendees focused on issues in the business environment, such as infrastructure funding, offshore oil exploration and the economy.

To improve infrastructure in the state, a priority among state lawmakers, Rice said that improvements could be funded through oil and gas exploration off the coast.

“Unfortunately those alternative energy sources are not ready yet. We still need to use fossil fuels,” Rice said. “So if we are going to use fossil fuels, we are far better off as a country if we use our own and retain our wealth in this country and use that wealth to build own infrastructure rather than sending it overseas and allowing other people to build their infrastructure with our wealth.”

Graham said funding the Highway Trust Fund, funded off gas taxes, needs to be redesigned due to higher mileage and alternative energy vehicles. He believes that if some of the $2 trillion in overseas earnings by American corporations are repatriated and taxed, money could go toward infrastructure —with bipartisan support.

“I believe there is growing bipartisan support to bring some of that money back into the country and dedicate the revenue to be generated for infrastructure,” Graham said. “Roads, bridges and ports and some of that money may go into the Highway Trust Fund.”

Graham, who is facing a field of six Republican challengers in the June 10 primary, noted that defense cuts under sequestration — the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts designed by a deadlocked Congress in 2011 — would drastically affect the military, which would see $1 trillion cut from now through 2021, according to a new report from the Pentagon.

“The consolidation required by sequestration of reducing overhead through bases is BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) on steroids,” Graham said. “You will be absolutely gutting the defense infrastructure in this country and South Carolina will pay a heavy price, because there is no way to avoid our bases being affected.”

The report, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, outlines a number of weapons systems that will be eliminated or reduced along with reduced troop levels that the report finds will have a negative impact.

“If sequestration-level cuts persist, our forces will assume substantial additional risks in certain missions and will continue to face significant readiness and modernization challenges,” the report reads. “These impacts would leave our military unbalanced and eventually too small to meet the needs of our strategy fully.”

Sen. Tim Scott, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. 4 and Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. 6, were invited but did not attend the Washington Night in South Carolina event at the Columbia Marriott. Every member of the delegation is up for re-election this year.

Rice is facing off against Democratic candidate Gloria Bromell-Tinubu in November. He defeated Tinubu in 2012 to become the first congressman for the newly formed 7th Congressional District.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

“My No. 1 priority is to get Savannah River Site straightened out. It is devastating. The president’s budget to the site, it could stop the MOX program and that’s just an unacceptable outcome.” — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham

“I think the most important issue in my district, the most important issue in this state, the most important issue in the country is jobs and the economy. There are way too many people out of work. We’re now six or seven years after the Great Recession. The economy continues to move slow and unacceptable pace, and I believe the biggest thing holding us back is Washington.” — U.S. Rep. Tom Rice

“The biggest single threat as I see in Washington, D.C., oddly enough, is the balance of power as configured by the Founding Fathers. I think whether Republican or Democra,t you’ve seen editorial edict for a long time, but it’s going to a new level now that is really, really distressing.” — U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford

“The primary function of national government is national defense. We have an extraordinary problem. This administration has reduced the defense budget by $100 billion, then it came back and reduced the defense budget by $482 billion and then with defense sequestration, that’s an additional $650 billion. This will hollow out the military.” — U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson

“South Carolina can be a player in the energy independence realm and I think that is a great way to put Americans and South Carolinians back to work. The first domino is to allow offshore exploration and drilling to happen in South Carolina. The other domino to fall are all the jobs created to support that.” — U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan

“We know what is coming. We know what is inevitable. (Rep.) Paul Ryan calls it the most inevitable crisis in American history. He’s absolutely right, yet we continue to stick our head in the sand and think that growth is going to solve our problems and it’s simply not going to happen. We have to break this addiction to spending.” — U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney

TIMMONSVILLE, S.C. — U.S. Rep. Tom Rice was back in his district Friday to find out what matters most to farmers and others in the agricultural business.

Rice made stops in Nichols, Dillon, Bennettsville, Florence and Timmonsville. He said the concerns he heard on every stop were basically the same.

“Our farmers and producers are concerned about crop insurance and Section 179, which is the depreciation provision,” Rice said.

Section 179 of the federal tax code allows a taxpayer to elect to deduct the cost of certain types of property on their income taxes as an expense, rather than requiring the cost of the property to be capitalized and depreciated.

Rice said the concern amongst farmers involves the depreciation provision, which allows them to write off the cost of equipment.

“Agriculture is very capital intensive. You have to spend a lot up from for a little return,” Rice said. “It’s important that our producers recover their investment in a timely manner in order to stay in business.”

Rice said he tries to visit each county in his district at least once a quarter, but Friday’s visit was all about agriculture. In an effort to make Pee Dee farmers’ concerns known in Washington, Rice brought a special guest on the visit: Congressman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture.

“The purpose of this tour is to get one of the decision-makers from Washington — one who is going to be the next chairman of the House Agriculture Committee — here to see and hear firsthand what our farmers have to deal with so we can better serve their needs,” Rice said.

“I feel like maybe this district has not had quite enough attention in recent years, and we’re trying to make sure Washington is aware of the issues we face here every day,” he said. “We need to do what we can to make this industry efficient and preserve our agricultural assets, and I think the best thing Washington can do is stay out of the way. We need a stable agricultural industry. It’s a matter of national security.”

Conaway agreed and said the farmers of the Pee Dee are much like the farmers and producers in his district in Texas.

“At every stop, we’ve had questions about Section 179 and people asking about the provision extenders. Unfortunately I haven’t had a good answer for them, because the chairman hasn’t announced the schedule yet,” he said. “But I hear what they are saying, and I understand. Folks who rely on it are concerned. They’re concerned in my district, too. I think the best thing we can do is help make sure the industry remains a viable one. We need to remove the barriers and let these producers make a living.”

BY Traci Bridges