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The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii to Introduce Pro-Business Bills at the Legislature

Instead of just trying to block anti-business legislation, the Chamber is introducing its own agenda

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A lot of changes are happening at the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, but the most important is probably the chamber’s proactive approach to its legislative agenda. This year, for the first time, the Chamber is drafting its own package of bills and seeking sponsors at the Legislature to champion them. “Previously,” says the chamber’s new CEO, Sherry Menor-McNamara, “what we would do was just go over all the bills once they had already been introduced and flag those that affect business in a positive or a negative way. What we’re going to do with this business package is introduce a number of bills that support business.”

“It means being a more Proactive, engaged chamber.”

Sherry Menor-McNamara, CEO, Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii

Some of these bills are modest, including one that seeks to limit “drug repackaging.”

“That’s been a cost driver for business,” says Menor-McNamara. “What ‘repackaging’ means is that some companies and physicians are buying drugs, repackaging them at a much higher rate, and selling them for a profit.” Businesses end up paying for those higher costs through their health insurance premiums. While repackaging makes sense for rural Neighbor Island communities, which may not have easy access to a pharmacy, the chamber wants to limit its use in other places.

The chamber also wants to modify the state’s historic preservation rules. According to Menor-McNamara, the current law requires “any property owner with a building, structure, object, district, area or site over 50 years old” to go through a special permitting process before any alteration or construction. As more of Hawaii’s aging neighborhoods and infrastructure approach that threshold, those permitting costs could become a burden. “We want to amend the law to minimize the impact to homeowners and property owners,” Menor-McNamara says.

One of the chamber’s bills that Menor-McNamara is most excited about is a proposal to create temporary tax credits for the manufacturing industry. “Yes, manufacturing may be only 3 percent to 4 percent of our economy,” she acknowledges, but she views these tax credits as a way to support a Made-in-Hawaii brand, both for new and existing businesses.

“As we did more research, we found there were a lot of manufacturers in Hawaii that we never knew. Just think of the obvious ones: Big Island Candies, Hawaiian Host, Diamond Head Cookies and the whole food industry. Now, we have the fashion industry coming up.” In addition, she says, the tax credits would support training and equipment purchase for up-and-coming technology companies, as well as more industrial mainstays such as Pacific Allied Products, which makes plastic bottles.

“What we call that is ‘import substitution,’ ” Menor-McNamara says. “Essentially, making goods here that otherwise would have been imported.”

The most ambitious part of the chamber’s legislative agenda is a bill asking for funding to support the work of the chamber’s Military Affairs Council (MAC), which has served as the state’s official liaison to the military since 1985.

“What that meant was that the chamber was supposed to establish and maintain relationships with all branches of the military,” Menor-McNamara says. She points out the military is the second-biggest economic driver in the state, with $8.8 billion in direct expenditures and $14.7 billion in overall contribution to the local economy. It also accounts for more than 102,000 jobs. As liaison, the chamber is supposed to promote and enhance the military’s presence in Hawaii.

“The MAC, which is comprised of retired military officials and business leaders, has done a good job of facilitating that relationship,” Menor-McNamara says. “But, with the sequestration budget cuts in the post-Inouye era, we need to step up our efforts. I say that because other states are now competing for the military’s presence – keeping bases or bringing bases to their state.”

That competition not only includes lobbying and advocacy efforts at the Pentagon and Congress, but investing in infrastructure and taking steps to show support for military activities in the state. “Other states are doing that already,” Menor-McNamara says, “so we need to step up our efforts. As a MAC, we need to expand our reach and collaborate with other stakeholders and the community to get them involved in these efforts.”

She cites a public-opinion poll, commissioned by the chamber, Pacific Resource Partnership and Hawaii Business Roundtable, which showed more than 80 percent of the public understand the military is an important economic driver for the state, and more than 70 percent support military training in Hawaii. Given the legal and public relations challenges that often complicate the military’s training programs here, Menor-McNamara views it as the MAC’s job to find those supporters and get them engaged in the fight to maintain the military’s presence in Hawaii.

“We’ll be asking for funding from the state Legislature to support those efforts,” she says.

Of course, all these bills may not make it through the legislative process. As Menor-McNamara likes to point out, the Legislature faces 2,000 to 3,000 bills at the beginning of each session, but only a couple of hundred finally reach a vote. Those aren’t great odds. That’s why it is so important to the chamber and its members to step up their lobbying, Menor-McNamara says.

“It means being a more proactive, engaged chamber. And it means inviting our members to be part of this effort, especially when there’s an opportunity to really come together and implement change in a positive way.”

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