Business Columns & Blogs

Small businesses speak out

In a world in which words are used to obfuscate, cloud, confuse, dodge and obscure, every now and then comes a needed and bracing blast of blunt language.

So we have a small group in Olympia to thank for cutting through the fog and stating with considerable clarity what its position is on closing Washington’s budget gap.

No, not Occupy Everywhere and its accompanying allies and hangers-on, whose disparate mélange of grievances and demands can be summed up with the command, “Gimme!” That’s a message legislators hear every day of every session.

Instead the jolt of refreshingly candid language comes from the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, the organization representing small businesses.

In an op-ed piece written in advance of the special session, NFIB state director Patrick Connor demurred – nope, need something stronger here – flatly rejected the governor’s proposal of a half- percentage-point increase in the state sales tax.

Better still, Connor named names. “Nice that Boeing leaders could fly in from their corporate headquarters in Chicago (wasn’t moving it from Seattle a few years back smart economics, boys?) and join with Microsoft executives to offer support for putting everything on the table (wouldn’t it just be easier to add our state to the Gates Foundation’s list of charities?),” Connor wrote. But wait, there’s more. The willingness to even consider a tax increase means “big businesses and their representative associations are bedding down with politicians for a frolic under the silk sheets of abrogation,” Connor said in a statement posted on the NFIB website.

Connor asked: You want everything on the table, including a tax increase? Fine.

Let’s add to the table the elimination of agencies and programs or devolving them to the private sector (including workers’ comp), and renegotiating tribal compacts and “ending their monopoly on electronic gaming.”

He added, “If Big Business wants the state to spend more, it should step forward and ask that its special tax breaks and other taxpayer-funded perks be repealed. And if Big Labor really believes in ‘shared sacrifice,’ it should re-open public employee contracts and have its members start paying their fair share for health and retirement benefits.”

Connor’s argument is that relying on an increase in the sales tax would disproportionately whack small business at a time when they’re still reeling from the recession; the dampening effect on sales will be one more impediment to small business hiring, he contends.

The important issues here are less the merits of or objections to Connor’s specific proposals but, first, that he’s talking in specifics at all. In other states Connor’s broadsides would not be remarkable. Washington’s political debate, however, tends toward mushy, cliché-ridden rhetoric -- “We need to invest in our future.” “We need to move forward as a state.”

Second, Connor’s remarks illustrate a point that needs to be made frequently because it’s frequently forgotten: Business is not a monolithic community. It varies by size, by types of industry, product and service, by types and location of customers. The competition that businesses carry out in the marketplace shows up in the political arena as well, in the debates over tax structure, over who gets what economic-development incentives and breaks (and why), over regulations, over virtually anything that might involve government.

The Establishment (political and business) may argue that it’s “unhelpful” to have a constituency group raising a ruckus that might hinder reaching a consensus. On the contrary, it’s far more helpful to know exactly where everyone stands than to have them seethe quietly or, worse yet, go along to get along with some bit of policymaking that turns out to be a bad idea – but which, in public, “everyone” professed to love.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at