Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lehigh Valley Chamber is stretching its wings

This article ran in Sunday's edition of the Morning Call. It summarizes the Chamber's position on Health Care and discussing the press conference we will be having later today on the subject. The article is also copy and pasted below:

Lehigh Valley Chamber stretching its wings
The group is taking a rare formal public policy stand -- against Dems' health care plan

September 6, 2009

For years, the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce has sat out many of the highest-profile public policy debates.

The business group focused instead on expanding its regional influence, providing information and offering networking opportunities and services such as group health insurance.

With a new group of leaders, the Chamber is hoping to raise its public advocacy profile starting Tuesday by announcing its opposition to Democrats' health care reform proposals.

''I'd like to see us move into some more areas of public debate,'' said Gregg Feinberg, a South Whitehall Township attorney and newly elected chairman of the Chamber's public policy committee.

It's a delicate balancing act for the membership-dependent business group, which represents a diverse roster of 5,000 entities that don't always agree on politics or anything else for that matter.

An internal e-mail calling for members to attend Tuesday's event in Easton brought a terse response from Chamber and policy committee member and Plainfield Township entrepreneur Lazaro Fuentes, a longtime Barack Obama supporter who thinks the Chamber is overstepping its bounds.

The e-mail, from Michelle Young, the Chamber's vice president for public policy, asks members to ''PLEASE reply that you will stand behind your colleagues to show solidarity as business peopleÂ…to speak out against the proposed federal health care/health insurance legislation.''

Fuentes said in an interview: ''It's one thing to explain things to people and explain facts, and not provide conjecture and bias based on one or two members who are basically hijacking the agendaÂ…It makes it seem like 500 businesses are behind them on this. They are scaring people into thinking this will hurt their businesses, when in fact it will not.''

At least on the 15-member policy committee, Fuentes may be in the minority. Seven other members contacted said they thought opposition to the Democrats' health care reform proposal would be a stance that would get broad support.

Kevin Dellicker, owner of Dellicker Strategies, a Kutztown communications consulting firm, said the health care plan is ''the type of thing people can rally behind.''

Dellicker said he supports Feinberg's effort to make the Chamber a more relevant and vocal advocate, particularly for the interests of small business.

Without a vocal public policy advocate for businesses in the Lehigh Valley, their interests have sometimes been overlooked, some members said.

There is a call for such leadership, Dellicker said. ''We haven't really seen that much in the Lehigh Valley lately. As a result, I don't think the legislative officials really take us seriously as they would have otherwise.''

One reason the Chamber is able to step out now is that it has consolidated its leadership over the array of local Chambers that used to dot the Lehigh Valley, said Tony Hanna, a member of the policy committee and economic development director for Bethlehem.

''Finally they have an organization that thinks and acts like a Lehigh Valley body that represents a broad cross-section of the business community,'' Hanna said.

For roughly the last decade, the Chamber focused on creating a regional entity, Executive Director Tony Iannelli said. With that accomplished, it is ready to step out of its ''comfort zone.''

''We have decided we are going to take more positions,'' Iannelli said. ''We are large, we should use that size to work for the benefit of the business community.''

But there are pitfalls to taking public positions that don't have universal support. Just ask William Erdman, the last public policy committee chairman.

A civil engineer, Erdman and others tried unsuccessfully to get the Chamber to support raising the gasoline tax to support transportation improvements. The idea could never get wide enough support to make it through the Chamber's various committees.

Erdman said that if Feinberg wants the Chamber to have a stronger voice, he'll have to do it slowly.

Health care, despite its complexities, might be a good starting point, he said.

''If we have successes on some things that are fairly universalÂ…then hopefully when we take a position on something that is not universally popular, those who are not in favor will respect [that] the Chamber has done the right thing,'' Erdman said.

One thing the Chamber still lacks is a good mechanism to quickly take its members' temperatures on developing issues, he said.

Even in the case of the health care debate, the Chamber took months to develop a health care policy, sending it through various committees earlier this year.

The decision to take a formal position against the Democrats' plan was made by committee leaders and Chamber staff after members began calling for it to be addressed as the legislation took shape this summer, Young said.

To effectively advocate for business interests, the Chamber may have to risk alienating and potentially losing a few members, said Scott Allinson, a South Whitehall attorney and public policy committee member.

''I would say that if the public policy committee took the pulse and there was a clear majority voice and they ran it up the executive committee and the board of governors and they adopted a view, that is OK,'' Allinson said. ''If a small slice of the members would be very upset they took a position, then the members vote with their checkbooks.''

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