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National Restaurant Association - Public Affairs Conference: 'Great reminder of what democracy looks like'

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Public Affairs Conference: 'Great reminder of what democracy looks like'

Several lawmakers agreed to sponsor legislation that would prevent predatory lawsuits against restaurateurs, thanks to grassroots lobbying by members of the National Restaurant Association.

“You feel like you’re making a difference,” said Nick Vojnovic, owner, Little Greek Restaurant, Tampa.


Vojnovic was among the 550 restaurateurs who attended the NRA’s 26th annual Public Affairs Conference last week. As part of the two-day event, delegations from 45 states visited more than 300 congressional offices.


The restaurateurs sought support for bills that would extend the 15-year depreciation schedule for restaurant construction and improvements, require people to notify businesses of alleged Americans with Disabilities Act violations before filing lawsuits, and other pro-business issues. Meeting with lawmakers from both sides of the issues was an opportunity to establish dialogue, said Jeanne Cretella, president, Landmark Hospitality, Trenton, N.J.

Vojnovic and his colleagues discussed how the ADA Notification Act and the ACCESS Act would allow businesses to investigate and fix ADA violations, rather than paying thousands of dollars in court cases filed by unscrupulous lawyers. The ADA’s intent is provide better accessibility for people with disabilities, not to generate revenue for predatory trial lawyers, the NRA believes.


 The meetings with representatives, senators and legislative staff help lawmakers understand how frustrating and expensive some issues can be for business owners, several conference attendees said.


The congressional visits can also change lawmakers’ minds, say Melissa and Scott Plowman, who own the Parkway Grill & Sports Bar in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Last spring, they shared their story about the high costs of interchange fees with their congressman, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). They believe it helped convince him to vote last summer for financial reform legislation that reduced debit card swipe fees for many merchants.




“They want to see your face and hear your story,” Melissa Plowman says.

As a result of the financial reform legislation, the Plowmans say their debit-card interchange fees fell $1,000 a month at their sports bar and $800 a month at their steak house.

That’s money they can use for repairs, salaries and expansion projects, Scott Plowman says. The interchange fee savings also offset increased food and fuel prices that cut into the restaurants’ margins, he says.

“When I’m president [of the Texas Restaurant Association] next year, I will challenge everyone to come to Washington,” says Scott Plowman, who is incoming president of the TRA.


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 In addition to the lobbying visits, attendees networked with lawmakers and top staffers from more than 60 congressional officers at an April 18 reception on Capitol Hill.

They included Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.).

The Public Affairs Conference also featured education sessions, addresses by several lawmakers, an April 17 awards gala and Louisiana Seafood Reception, and a silent auction for the National Restaurant Association Political Action Committee.



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Members of Congress who spoke at the conference included Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner (R-Ohio), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Schilling and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.).

"This Public Affairs Conference is a wonderful example of how a restaurateur from a small community ... can connect directly with senators or congressmen," says Jessica Dunker, president and CEO, Iowa Restaurant Association. "It's a great reminder of what democracy looks like."

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