More than a dozen Jefferson City residents squeezed into U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer's Missouri Boulevard office Thursday and delivered a box of postcards covered with concerns about the tax reform bills working their way through Congress.
During the half-hour protest, organizers said they think the tax bills were written without the input of ordinary citizens. People at the protest also said the changes could harm average Americans, like senior citizens and graduate students.
The House passed its version of the tax reform bill in mid-November. The Senate passed its version early Saturday morning. Both bills advanced to conference committee earlier in the week. Once an identical bill is formed, it would need to pass both houses of Congress before being signed by President Donald Trump.
Michelle Scott-Huffman, a pastor at Table of Grace Church in Jefferson City, asked Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, to vote no on the final bill because, she said, neither bill provides an appropriate way to improve the lives of average residents in the representative's district.
"In a time when more and more people are struggling to make ends meet, we can't afford to shift resources away from programs that help families simply survive and put them in the pockets of those who already have more than enough," Scott-Huffman said. "When we create tax cuts for the wealthy, it doesn't create jobs and it doesn't trickle down."
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In a statement, Luetkemeyer's communications director, Kristina Weger, did not address any of the protesters' concerns. Weger said, however, doors to Luetkemeyer's offices are open and staff members will always listen. She also said Luetkemeyer is active on social media, routinely holds town hall meetings via telephone and takes questions from constituents on live radio shows in the district.
"Blaine has personally held over 1,000 meetings in the district, and he has three district offices with staffers who are regularly out in all 13 counties, attending public events and meeting with constituents," Weger said. "The office has found these are all effective and efficient ways to serve the constituents that live in the 3rd District."
The Republican tax plan would cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. The House tax plan also would cut the number of personal tax brackets from seven to four. The Senate bill keeps seven tax brackets but cuts the rates at most levels and raises the income level to qualify for brackets. Under the Senate plan, the cut to the corporate rate would be permanent, while the rate reductions for individuals would expire after 2025.
Both tax plans would add at least $1.4 trillion to the national deficit, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. Last week, Luetkemeyer told the News Tribune he wasn't concerned by the increase in the deficit because he believes gains in economic growth would more than offset it if spending is controlled.
"The trick is you've got to control the spending side so that you allow the money side to come in to lower the deficit and pay down debt," Luetkemeyer said. "If that happens, which I think is going to happen again, I think we're going to be in good shape."
Under the Senate's plan, U.S. gross domestic product would increase by 0.8 percent over the next 10 years and increase employment by 0.6 percent, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. After tax breaks for individuals under the Senate plan expire, the JCT expects the increase in employment to decline.
The Senate plan would not pay for itself, though, the JCT said. While it would create $458 billion in revenue for the federal government, that would be offset by the increase in the deficit used to pay for the tax cuts. Over the next 10 years, interest payments on federal debt are expected to increase by approximately $50 billion.
Because of the large increase in the deficit, spending cuts could be triggered by the PAYGO — pay-as-you-go — law, which requires automatic spending cuts to many mandatory programs for any bill that reduces taxes and doesn't offset them with revenue increases elsewhere. The Congressional Budget Office said in November the laws would trigger $136 billion in cuts, including $25 billion in cuts to Medicare.
Protesters and other senior groups fear this could lead to further cuts to other entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid.
The Rev. John Bennett, who is retired, used a walker Thursday to go the half-block from the meeting place to Luetkemeyer's office. As he stood in the lobby of Luetkemeyer's office with a sign that read "Kill the bill, not the people" secured with zip ties to his walker, Bennett said he believes the plan will hurt seniors.
"Thousands of the poor will die because of the Medicaid cuts that will result from this," Bennett said.
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The House bill also would change the tax code to treat tax-free tuition waivers for graduate students as a form of taxable income. The Senate bill does not make that change.
Still, graduate students nationwide fear this could raise their tax bills by thousands of dollars.
Tony Smith said students in science, technology, engineering and math fields make breakthroughs that help society. Advanced degrees in these fields might become harder to attain for students like his daughter, he said.
"I just think that's wrong," Smith said. "It's taking us backwards."
Vicky Schildmeyer said this change could make it tough for her daughter, who is beginning her fifth year of medical school, to get a job in rural areas around Jefferson City that need physicians.
"This is hurting people who could go into rural areas, like part of this district. Instead, she will have to go to where she can make money to pay back these loans," Schildmeyer said.
U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, also voted for the House bill. She said Sunday she prefers the final bill does not include the tuition waiver change.
Luetkemeyer said people might lose a few deductions, but that will be more than offset by other changes to the tax code, which will lower constituents' taxes.
"There's a lot of choices that have to be made throughout this bill with regards to all the different deductions that are out there," Luetkemeyer said. "You will find that almost every single person, even though they may lose a deduction here or a deduction there, is going to be better off because of the lowering of the rates and the raising of the level at which you start to pay taxes."