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WASHINGTON / CATHERINE COLLINS : Training Bills Aim for Better-Prepared, More Competitive Work Force

CATHERINE COLLINS <i> is a Washington writer</i>

In an effort to retool the nation’s work force for the changing workplace, two congressmen from North Carolina’s Research Triangle area have introduced a pair of bills.

The measures--and the federal government’s role in training and retraining workers--were discussed at a congressional hearing last week. The overriding issue that emerged from the debate was American competitiveness.

Today’s high school graduate can qualify for only 15% of new jobs, compared to 40% two decades ago, said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). By 2000, that figure may drop to 5%, he said.

To address the problem, Price, author of the workplace literacy bill that President Bush signed into law last fall, has introduced the Technical Education and Training Act; Rep. Tim Valentine (D-N.C.) has introduced the National Competitive Industry Workforce Act.

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Price’s bill would strengthen and expand community college technical training by authorizing a new program at the National Science Foundation. Valentine’s bill would address U.S. competitiveness through new training programs in the private sector.

“An undereducated work force deprives our people of the quality of life they deserve, and it deprives our country of its ability to compete in the global marketplace,” Price said. “We need to do a better job of making sure our workers are equipped for the jobs in the factories, offices and labs of tomorrow.”

George Autry, president of MDC Inc., a nonprofit research group in work force and economic development policy, said both bills represent “exactly the kind of initiative that we need to retool institutions designed for the manufacturing economy to meet demands of the 21st Century. Public school reform did not come in time, but we can move community colleges relatively easily, especially with business leadership,” he said.

IRS Wants Breakdown of Child Care Hours

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And we thought we were trying to cut down on onerous paperwork.

The IRS office in St. Paul, Minn., has ruled that all family child-care providers must document how many minutes each child spends in each room of the provider’s house each day. For instance, how many minutes Johnny spends in the bathroom toilet-training, in the kitchen eating snacks and in the playroom building blocks.

Those who care for a small number of children in their own homes are the backbone of child-care services in this country. The IRS action has prompted several members of Congress, led by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), to write the IRS urging simpler rules.

“We want family child-care providers to spend their day caring for the children they are responsible for, not maintaining overly burdensome and bureaucratic records that do nothing to enhance the health and safety of children in their care,” said the letter from Schroeder and the others.

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Computer Donations May Be Deductible

Used computers and other business equipment donated to charitable organizations that train disabled or disadvantaged people for jobs would qualify for a special tax deduction under a bill by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Referring to the 40 million computers that will become commercially obsolete during this decade, Hatch said, “We have a great teaching tool in these old computers.”

Under the bill, a business could donate equipment for training purposes and receive a tax deduction equal to the fair market value of the equipment. The measure has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

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Product Liability Bills Reintroduced

Bills to limit product liability have been introduced again in Congress, this time under the banner of consumerism. Consumer groups are opposing them, with a warning that business is the intended beneficiary.

Supporters of the bills argue that the patchwork of state laws discourages the introduction of new products and drives up the cost of everything, from ladders to airplane tickets, by making it too easy to sue a manufacturer. The bills would replace laws that vary from state to state with uniform federal standards on product liability.

Supporters of federal standards want to place some responsibility on people who are injured after a product has been misused or altered. For instance, someone who was injured while intoxicated or using drugs could not collect in court if their condition were the primary cause of the accident.

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Sen. Bob Kasten (R-Wis.) has reintroduced a Senate version of product liability reform, which was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last year. Joined by a bipartisan group of House members, Rep. J. Roy Rowland (D-Ga.) has introduced the Fairness in Product Liability Act.

Trying to make the changes palatable to consumers, the sponsors are portraying lawyers as the villains who sue too often. Consumer groups say the public distrust of attorneys is being used to push changes that would go too far.

“The proposals are fueled by an intense, maybe somewhat justified, hatred of lawyers,” said Linda Lipsen, legislative counsel for Consumers Union, “but, really, the bills would hurt consumers. Lawyers are just the messengers. If you penalize lawyers by making it harder to sue, you are just taking money from the pocketbooks of consumers who have been injured.”

Rowland denied that the proposals would interfere with anyone’s right to sue and criticized opponents who object to changes.

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“Consumers have to pay the higher costs that result from runaway litigation,” Rowland said. “Frankly, support of the status quo doesn’t make good sense. It’s harmful for the country.”

Product liability reform has been around, in various incarnations, and has languished in a legislative quagmire for more than 10 years. This time, supporters say they may have enough momentum to get something done.

Rowland’s bill already has 100 co-sponsors, including the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). In the Senate, Kasten has the backing of Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.). The Bush Administration also supports both measures.

Still, major obstacles remain. Consumer and labor groups are nearly unanimous in their opposition, and for the past decade they have had the muscle to prevail.

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