Imported IT Workers May Grow If Lawmakers' Bill Gets Nod

Imported IT Workers May Grow If Lawmakers' Bill Gets Nod

Barbara Boxer

By Anne Gallagher, Contributing Writer

Pressed by officials in the high-technology arena who are worried about worker shortages, members of Congress are pushing for passage of legislation by mid-March that would increase the number of H-1B visas granted to skilled foreign workers.

The bill, introduced Feb. 9, would raise the existing H-1B visa cap to 195,000 in fiscal 2000 and the two following fiscal years. This year's cap is 115,000 visas.

The bill, S.2045, was sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., chairman of the Judiciary immigration subcommittee, and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

"Worker shortages in the high-tech industry shortchange the entire American economy," William Archey, president and CEO of the American Electronics Association, said in a Feb. 9 statement. "Through this new legislation, Congress can help lift a drag on the very industry that has been the prime driver of the nation's recent high rates of innovation, productivity growth and record prosperity."

A national shortage of information technology workers ? the Information Technology Association of America, Arlington, Va., recently estimated it at 346,000 openings ? has high-tech executives concerned that a major problem could worsen during the next few years unless Congress allows more foreign skilled IT workers into the United States.

ITAA officials also supported the legislation. "This bill will allow companies access to the technical expertise needed in the short term to drive business forward," said ITAA President Harris Miller in a Feb. 9 statement. "We are very encouraged by the Senate's move to take up this important fight."

Miller also noted that H-1B employers pay a $500 fee for each H-1B worker that is to be used to train more U.S. workers, what he labeled a win-win proposal.

Despite the movement, not everyone is applauding the legislation. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers said the bill is the wrong approach at the wrong time.

"Rather than increasing our dependence on indefinitely temporary guest workers, we believe that legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens should be the preferred source of the skilled workers America will need in the 21st century," IEEE President Merrill Buckley Jr. said in a Feb. 9 statement. "We look forward to real hearings in the House and Senate where the alternatives to this fatally flawed guest worker program can be debated."

The visa bill is not the only hot issue on Congress' plate early in the second session of the 106th Congress. Lawmakers are considering new legislation that could halt any movement to impose taxes on Internet transactions, which several lawmakers warn would endanger the country's technology-driven economy.

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Feb. 3 introduced the Internet Non-Discrimination Act, which would make permanent the existing moratorium on new, special and discriminatory Internet taxes.

That moratorium was enacted in 1998 to nip in the bud incipient efforts by some 30,000 taxing jurisdictions to lay claim to a piece of Internet transactions, Cox said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

"The facts are in, and conclusively so: The Internet economy is generating tremendous tax revenue for state and local governments," Cox said. "Making the moratorium on new and discriminatory Internet taxes permanent will help sustain this growth."

On Feb. 1, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called on the congressionally mandated Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce to address the Internet tax issue, which the panel is expected to do in a report this spring.

"I believe that a no-Internet tax policy will lead to greater prosperity for the economy as a whole and have a beneficial impact on revenues of all levels of government," Boxer said in a Feb. 1 letter to Virginia Gov. James Gilmore (R), chairman of the commission.

That panel was established to study the Internet taxation issue when Congress passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act in 1998.

While sales taxes traditionally have been an issue left to the discretion of state and local governments, Boxer said she believes there are compelling reasons for such a prohibition in this case.

First, one of the most significant components of the country's economic prosperity has been technological innovation, which creates high-paying jobs and strong economic growth, Boxer said.

"I do not believe we should risk having this growth stymied by imposing sales taxes on Internet transactions," Boxer said. "The 50 states have greatly benefited from this technologically driven recovery, almost all of them ending 1998 with surpluses."

The rationale for most sales taxes is the cost of providing businesses and citizens with services such as police, fire, sewer and water, Boxer said. Clearly, sales on the Internet do not benefit from those services, she added.

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