Another way for businesses to shape public policy | Arkansas Blog

Monday, January 4, 2016

Another way for businesses to shape public policy

Posted By on Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 6:52 AM

Interesting reading in the New York Times about a consensus-building big business and philanthropic coalition in Minneapolis, the Itasca Project, that works to better the community, with a focus not solely aimed at increasing business profits by tax cuts and deregulation.

What makes Itasca unique, participants say, is a commitment to hard data and McKinsey-style analysis, as well as a willingness to depart from the script that drives many private sector lobbies.

“We’re not just asking for lower taxes and less regulation,” said David Mortenson, the current chairman of the Itasca Project. “If we’re taking on education or income disparity as a group of business leaders, we want to be able to break some eggs.”

The group has no staff. It gets no public support. It's flavored by progressive politics, as Minnesota always has been. The area is booming.

Existing groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership were focused “on lower taxes and less regulation,” he said.

“We were not addressing other issues like income disparities,” said Mr. Campbell, who served as chairman of Itasca from 2003 to 2008, and helped initiate the Working Team breakfasts on Friday mornings in conjunction with the McKnight Foundation and Mr. Welsh of McKinsey. “The chamber didn’t want to touch that.”

Nor was the business community focused on areas that were crucial to long-term economic development, like transportation and infrastructure. “What were we going to do about job growth?” Mr. Campbell said he wondered at the time. “What about marketing ourselves?”

Instructive, and Arkansas relevant, is the story's account of the group stepping up when a governor vetoed a tax increase for highway improvements. It rallied Republican legislators — yes, Republicans — to override the governor's veto.

While the case for better infrastructure is straightforward, other Itasca initiatives will take much longer to show concrete results. One major focus of the group is income inequality, as well as the high dropout and unemployment rates among minorities.

In Arkansas lately, by contrast, the governor is pushing for a "revenue neutral" highway program, which will mean inevitable cuts in government support of other programs. The record indicates little consideration will be given the lower end of the income spectrum. The 2015 administration tax package gave tax cuts to everyone but the bottom 40 percent of wage earners in Arkansas. Continuation of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion seems likely to be built on the selling points that the poor will have to pay more and meet more government requirements to participate. Rather than encourage higher education in this sector of the population, the state lottery college scholarship program has been reshaped in a way that will inevitably favor higher-income students with its greater emphasis on standardized test scores as a qualifier.

No, we are not Minneapolis.

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