Minnesota Chamber makes earlier primary election a priorityMost of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 legislative priorities aren’t surprising.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
Most of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 legislative priorities aren’t surprising.
Lower energy costs. Tax reform. Streamlining environmental regulations.
After all, the chamber represents business interests around the state.
But one of its six priorities — moving the state’s primary election up to spring — is unexpected.
“We want to move the primary up from August to June to increase participation,” said Jim Pumarlo, the chamber’s director of communications.
Fewer than 10 percent of the state’s voters went to the polls for the August primary, he noted. And between the August primary and November general election, there’s not much time for candidates to make their case to voters and for the electorate to get to know the candidates.
“We’re saying have the primary in June and have a longer time to challenge each other,” Pumarlo said. “We would probably get a better caliber of candidate, and voters have a far longer time to get to know the candidates.”
It would also level the playing field for incumbents and challengers, he said. Currently, Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s office.
“This is not intended to give Republicans a better advantage,” he said, noting that the chamber has supported an earlier primary for years. Even though Republicans are more apt to support business interests than Democrats, he said, the chamber would be for an earlier primary even if Republicans were in control.
Pumarlo was in Duluth last week to discuss the chamber’s recently set priorities. The chamber’s 2,400 members include 116 in St. Louis, Lake and Carlton counties.
Among them is the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, one of 280 local chamber members.
“All six priorities are of interest to our members,” said David Ross, the Duluth chamber’s president and CEO. All can encourage job creation and help bring more jobs and investment to the state, he said.
Each year, the chamber compiles a list of priorities, whittling its list of more than 50 policies down to a few they actively lobby for at the Capitol.
“It’s not a business-first, business-only agenda,” Pumarlo said. “It’s about getting things done.”
But this year presents special challenges. With a single party in control of state government for the first time in 20 years, the chamber is adjusting its strategy. It’s preparing to play defense on some issues, such as Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan to cover the shortfall by boosting taxes on the rich.
“We have the greatest concern over the tax agenda of the governor,” Pumarlo said. “What’s critical is strengthening the business environment.”
Minnesota Chamber of Commerce legislative priorities
Education and work force
The chamber wants to better align the worker skills employers will need in the future with post-secondary programs, and to make sure high-school graduates have the academic skills needed to move on to college or more training. This is especially important because 70 percent of the jobs in Minnesota are projected to require some post-high school training by 2018.
The good news is that there already is synergy in the Northland between employers and colleges.
“A lot is happening here,” said Jim Pumarlo, a spokesman for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “Business understands they have to come to the plate.”
Spending and tax reform
The chamber is working on a tax-reform package that would allow businesses to remain competitive in the global economy and to keep and grow jobs in Minnesota. As reason for concern, they cite the projected slowing of average revenue growth from 6.8 percent in 2001 to 3.9 percent in 2033 while health care costs are expected to grow by 8.5 percent in each of those years. That growth can’t be sustained by raising already-high business and personal taxes, they say.
“The main thing is what are we spending on and to prioritize it, don’t just raise taxes,” said David McMillan, a senior vice president of Allete, which supports the state chamber’s agenda.
Adding to the squeeze are projections that dramatically more Minnesotans will require government services in the next 25 years while the number of workers paying taxes that provide the services will decrease.
Business no longer is fighting the federal Affordable Care Act, McMillan says.
“Business is saying, ‘Let’s move,’ ” he said.
So, the chamber wants a Minnesota health-insurance exchange established. Such online marketplaces inform consumers and small businesses on health-plan options. Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, already is on board to author the health-exchange bill, Pumarlo said.
“This is especially important when health care is the biggest cost driver for business,” Pumarlo said, noting there’s an April 1 deadline for such a bill to be passed.
When it comes to energy costs, Minnesota’s businesses are being hurt by rising electric rates, according to the chamber. So, the chamber is seeking fair rates from regulators that better reflect the cost of serving customers. That includes changing state law if necessary.
“We’re losing our competitive advantage,” Pumarlo said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s do what we can to keep rates down.’ Industrial rates are higher than they should be.”
For businesses, navigating Minnesota’s environmental regulations is a cumbersome process. And getting needed permits is so time-consuming that some give up.
“There has been frustration by business by the uncertainty of the environmental review,” said David Ross, who heads the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s important to protect the environment, but the idea is to have the process more transparent.”
The state chamber is among those that plan to lobby for an easier process.