BUTTE, Mont. — U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said Monday that his effort to revamp the tax code helped attract some of the business world's biggest names to Montana for a jobs conference that touched on taxes, energy development and many other issues.
Baucus opened the Montana Jobs Summit in Butte – an old mining town almost a century removed from its heyday – with the leaders of companies such as Google Inc., Facebook, Ford Motor Co., FedEx Corp., The Boeing Co. and others.
Several thousand business people, politicians, academics and others registered to hear speeches and hobnob with the executives.
Baucus, a veteran Democrat, told reporters that he was discussing his longshot bipartisan effort to revamp the tax code with the corporate leaders.
Baucus, with Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., are trying to build on sentiment inside and outside of Congress that the tax code is too complicated for individuals and too onerous for businesses. But significant differences among Democrats and Republicans over how much tax revenue the government should raise and who should pay it threaten to scuttle the effort.
Baucus said the CEOs agree with the mission to reduce tax rates and "broadening the base" by getting rid of exemptions and loopholes, and he expects to discuss the issue with other business leaders at the summit. Baucus said the top corporate tax rate is among the highest in the world.
"There is no question, if we can reform the code it will help American competitiveness in the world," Baucus said.
Business leaders agreed.
"If the people in this audience and the people of Montana and the people of the United State want to invigorate the American economy, there is a very straightforward path to do so and that is get with Sen. Max Baucus and reform the tax code," FedEx CEO Fred Smith told the audience.
He said the country needs to "get rid of all these special deals" in the tax code that he believes inhibit business-wide investment.
Ryan Lance, CEO of ConocoPhillips Co., cautioned policymakers against doing anything that would reward favored sectors or punish others.
"It is important to be industry blind," Lance told reporters. "Don't pick our winners and losers in the process."
Other issues that came up at the conference included gender equity; balancing risk when building a company; and the role the booming oil fields of the eastern Montana and western North Dakota region can play in energy independence,
Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., said jet fuel is a big driver of its costs and noted fuel prices have quadrupled since 2000. He said the Bakken oil field in the region is incredibly important.
"When you think about the importance of what we are doing in the Bakken – and what we need to do – when we talk about pricing, you have to reflect on where fuel prices have gone and the effect on the economy," Anderson said.
Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer told the crowd that in November, energy business leaders from his country with expertise in oil field growth will visit the Bakken field to help with shortages of housing and infrastructure caused by fast-paced expansion.
Lance, who was educated at Montana Tech in Butte before rising to lead an oil giant, said the industry in places such as the Bakken was a big part of fueling the economic recovery. He also said it is important to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline to carry oil from Canada – and a little from the Bakken – to refineries in the Houston area. The issue is awaiting Obama administration approval.
"Just for the energy security of the country it is important," Lance said.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt told reporters before his evening speech that government plays a key role in helping build infrastructure such as broadband internet.
Government policies need to make sure that new, often small, fast-growing companies are allowed to thrive, he said, adding there must be as few barriers to business creation as possible.
"From a public policy perspective, the joblessness issue in America and other countries is in my view the most serious one," Schmidt said. "If you don't fix that problem in the next few years you have a terrible generational problem and one that will affect our economy for decades."
Elon Musk, CEO of electric super carmaker Tesla Motors and SpaceX, touched on alternative energy sources and battery storage. He also discussed his big ideas on space travel and colonization of Mars.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of a book pushing for more women in leadership, said there needs to be policy changes dealing with gender in the workplace.
"It starts from a place of noting we don't have equality," Sandberg said.