At a presentation to a group of business leaders last month, Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley delivered a stern message: "If you want to make doing business in Illinois easier, you’ve got to be noticed in Springfield and Washington, D.C." It’s a message we’ve all heard before, but Whitley’s candid appraisal of the lack of business involvement in the Illinois legislative process was an eye opener.
Whitley has been on the job about five months, and in that time he’s concluded that, with a few exceptions, businesses are disengaged from the political process. He went so far as to say legislators essentially discount the potential effect of legislation on business because they’re simply not hearing from business leaders on a routine basis.
Locally, businesses have a conduit to the legislative process through their industry associations, or through membership in the Chamber of Commerce. Many of these groups make their constituency aware of legislation or ordinances that will have adverse or positive affects on business, and provide them with the messages, tools and contacts to help influence those decisions. The Peoria Area Chamber, for example, recently rallied businesses to help reduce the proposed 1 cent sales tax increase that was being considered by the Peoria City Council to 1/2 cent. The Chamber also endorses candidates for local elections that will best represent the interests of businesses. It’s a politically risky venture for an organization that works with elected officials on a daily basis (just ask some of the elected Council reps to whom the Chamber turned thumbs-down). Business advocacy is so important to the continued growth and success of businesses, the Chamber consistently sends federal and state legislative briefings via e-mail, and is forming its own Political Action Committee.
The Peoria area is fortunate to have a strong pro-business state legislative contingent—dubbed the Central Illinois Seven. This group has often joined forces to push legislation or secure funding for numerous business projects. The $10 million state grant loaned to Keystone Steel & Wire (with repayments to Peoria County) is an excellent example of the benefits of a group of legislators working together on an important, non-partisan issue—1,500 jobs and the economic well being of the community. There are many reasons businesses need to get involved in the legislative process. We recently became aware of one important communication effort that’s underway statewide, being orchestrated by a group hit particularly hard by foreign competition, price pressures, quality demands, and accelerating technology: small and mid-sized manufacturers.
Much to the surprise of the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC) and the 1,500-plus manufacturers IMEC has assisted, the administration’s FY 2003 federal budget essentially eliminates funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). This federal funding enables IMEC and other manufacturing extension centers throughout the U.S. to reach out to small and mid-sized manufacturers and provide affordable, high quality assistance. The MEP is a network of 400 centers providing technical assistance and business support services to America’s manufacturers.
Smaller manufacturing companies make up the supplier-foundation upon which America’s major manufacturers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are built. Larger manufacturers—Caterpillar, Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Motorola, Deere, and Boeing—rely on smaller suppliers for the majority of their parts and subassemblies. IMEC’s services help these manufacturers be more productive, competitive, and profitable. This means more jobs; more tax revenues at the local, state and national levels; more export and trade activity; and a more secure supply chain for consumer and defense goods. The MEP program has enjoyed strong bi-partisan support in Congress, but it will take an intensive effort to get the money restored in the final budget.
We’re also encouraged that Mayor Ransburg recognizes the value of a strong legislative presence in D.C. The only way Peoria and other downstate communities will get funding support for needed infrastructure and business improvements is to participate in the process.
There’s a few open seats at the legislative table. Let’s hope groups like IMEC and others are successful, and let’s make a commitment to get involved in legislative issues that can affect the future of the community. Each year in March, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce hosts a legislative reception attended by our local senators and representatives in hopes of improving the lines of communication between the business community and our state elected officials. It’s our responsibility as citizens and as corporate and community leaders to participate in the governmental process. Be involved. IBI