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Turlock businessman front-and-center with Obama at bill signing

Turlock businessman Ryan Smith will always have a special place in his heart for the health care bill signed Tuesday morning by President Barack Obama.

Smith played a walk-on part in the signing ceremony, and even earned a presidential shout-out.

Through an unlikely sequence of events, Smith ended up in the White House spotlight for the signature event of Obama’s presidency.

“I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Smith said late Tuesday afternoon.

Smith was one of four non-politicians standing by Obama while the president signed the health care legislation. The president introduced Smith to the audience gathered in the White House East Room, and brought Smith with him for a celebratory event at the Interior Department.

“I’m signing (this) for Ryan Smith, who’s here today,” Obama said. “He runs a small business with five employees. He’s trying to do the right thing, paying half the cost of coverage for his workers. This bill will help him afford that coverage.”

Cue Smith, swelling with pride.

Every big bill-signing ceremony amounts to a theatrical production, complete with script, staging and assigned roles. For the event that began at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Smith was standing in for the small-business community.

The 35-year-old businessman’s path to Washington began Jan. 27, when Smith e-mailed a letter to Obama raising health care reform questions. Smith explained rising costs have threatened his ability to continue providing insurance coverage to the workers at his property management firm.

Smith’s e-mail was but one drop in a torrent. The White House receives tens of thousands of public e-mails, faxes and conventional letters most days, officials say. From this, a White House Office of Correspondence staffer plucks 10 pieces daily for Obama to peruse at night.

Somehow, Smith’s e-mail made the cut.

White House officials first advised Smith that they would like to invite him back for a health care event last week, but that was canceled. Then, at about 11:30 a.m. Monday, a White House staffer called again to say Smith and his wife Kimberlee were being invited to the bill-signing.

“How could I turn that down?” Smith asked.

Smith and his wife, a fifth-grade teacher at Turlock’s Julien Elementary School, wrangled some seats on an overnight flight. When they landed at Dulles International Airport at about dawn, they still didn’t have confirmed hotel rooms.

To flank Obama during the bill-signing, White House staff also tapped an 11-year-old Washington state boy whose uninsured mother died three years ago, the sister of an uninsured woman diagnosed with leukemia and the widow of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

No elected Republican officeholders were present. Business organizations and other skeptics criticize the bill for including several tax increases, including expanding the Medicare payroll tax to include unearned income and a new tax on high-end “Cadillac” insurance plans.

“This tax hike is aimed squarely at small businesses and is sure to result in the loss of even more jobs,” Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, declared during House debate.

Supporters retort that businesses with 10 or fewer full-time employees will get a tax credit covering 35 percent of health insurance costs. The tax credit applies to employees earning less than $25,000 a year.

In California, the Obama administration estimates some 392,000 small businesses will be able to take advantage of the new health insurance tax credit.

By 2014, small businesses will also be able to buy their insurance through small business insurance exchanges to be set up in individual states. These insurance exchanges are supposed to secure better rates than those currently available.

Small businesses, with 50 or fewer employees, are exempt from the bill’s controversial requirement that employers either provide insurance or pay a $2,000-a-head fee.

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