Local Chamber of Commerce has wrong priorities
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

There is something very wrong with the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce: It has forsaken its original mission of leveling the field for businesses and instead lobbies for higher taxes and corporate welfare for big-industry special interest groups.

The Chamber’s stated mission is to “actively foster a better business environment”. Unfortunately, the Chamber now believes that a “better business environment” means higher taxes for infrastructure and special interest handouts, not the traditional low-tax, less-regulated environment that is truly business-friendly.

This became clear when the Chamber came out in support of the recent SILO sales tax increase – their subcommittee decided that the increased tax wouldn’t hurt local businesses. A sales tax not hurt sales? Interesting.

They justified supporting the tax increase because “good schools” supposedly attract businesses. But businesses are attracted by our already-high student achievement, not by fancier school buildings and the higher taxes they necessitate.

Yes, infrastructure is important for businesses – it’s hard to do business when roads are crumbling or basic city services aren’t working. However, there are enough interests lobbying for increased government spending on those things. The Chamber is supposed to work to keep taxes in check so that businesses can thrive.

The Chamber’s 2007 Legislative Agenda is illustrative of the wrong turn it has taken: They are lobbying to increase big business handouts such as Tax Increment Financing, Economic Development Funds like the Iowa Values Fund (remember the Rainforest boondoggle?) and a Destination Attraction Fund.

They also want more tax-financed research facilities and support Iowa’s ambition to become the nation’s renewable fuels leader. This is a fine goal – for private industry, not taxpayer-subsidized ones. Government-funded research often wastes huge sums of taxpayer money on impractical technologies (like ethanol), simultaneously discouraging investment in other technologies and thereby hampering real scientific progress. Lower taxes statewide and fewer repressive regulations (such as those on stem-cell research) would better encourage productive private research here without burdening taxpayers.

The Chamber also supports transferring financial responsibility for employee health care and training costs from businesses to taxpayers. These corporate welfare programs mostly benefit large employers and are one of the reasons many people hold a negative view of business in general.

The Chamber has even come out against eminent domain protections, an issue that directly pits big business interests against individuals and small businesses. The ability of developers to lobby local government to condemn and take private property for their pet projects is reprehensible and was rightly limited by the Iowa Legislature last year.

However, the Chamber disagrees with the legislation and sides with developers, asserting that we should trust local officials to know the best use of our own property. The Chamber should be called on the carpet for this outrageous position.

All of these policies tilt the field toward businesses favored by local officials. But most business owners want only to play on an even field. They don’t ask for special handouts and want to do right by their employees, customers and suppliers.

Instead, they (and regular citizens) end up paying higher taxes so that the favored few can get their handouts.

The national-level Chamber of Commerce is still pro-growth, working toward free enterprise and lower taxes. But most local Chambers have given up the good fight in favor of trying to get their share, according to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. Our local Chamber’s corruption is just part of a trend.

A look at the Chamber Board of Directors illuminates the corruption: Nearly half of the Board members are government, non-profit and University officials. Is it any wonder that the Chamber is pro-tax when the leadership has been so heavily infiltrated by employees on the tax dole?

Perhaps most small business owners (including myself) do not join the Chamber because we do not see any benefit from spending $300 a year. That is only partly right: the Chamber is not just irrelevant, but actually harmful to most businesses.

Local business owners who believe that businesses shouldn’t be part of the welfare state should communicate their displeasure to the Chamber at the wrong turn it has taken. It’s time our Chamber of Commerce got back to its original mission: leveling (not tilting) the field for businesses.