United and Standing
The merger between the Arizona Chamber and the AAI has given business a stronger voice
By Janet Perez
After years of wooing, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry finally succeeded last year in merging with the Arizona Association of Industries (AAI), and the result has been to give a stronger voice to a wider swath of the state’s business community.
“I think the merger has really served to strengthen the business agenda as a whole. (Legislative) policymakers have sometimes been confused in the past about what business needs and what business wants in this state to strengthen the economy, to strengthen the marketplace. I think the merger has allowed us to speak with a more unified voice,” says Eileen Klein, vice chair of public affairs for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and vice president of government relations for UnitedHealthcare of Arizona. “It’s really allowed us to approach the Legislature with more diversity and also with the strength of more business behind our agenda.”
“When (the AAI) board made the decision that we did not see any distinct differences in our policy positions, that was kind of the point that the wedding happened,” says Dobbins, senior vice president of human resources and general affairs at SUMCO, a manufacturer of electronic-grade silicon wafers for the semiconductor industry.
Not surprisingly, the merger led to a major restructuring of the chamber and its members’ functions. One of the first things the chamber did was restructure its board of directors and executive committee, says Ivan Johnson, chairman of the chamber and vice president of community relations and tele-video at Cox Communications. One major change was to put a board member as the chair of each chamber policy committee.
“And what that has done is that it has involved our board in developing the public policy agenda, which I think gives us a better agenda,” Johnson says.
The merger also brought the AAI’s longtime lobbyist, Jim Norton, who now uses his lobbying skills on behalf of the chamber, Johnson says. The changes have allowed the chamber to craft a more proactive public policy agenda.
“This year, for the first time, once we developed our public policy agenda, we presented that to the Legislature at our Legislative forecast luncheon. Rather than them telling us, which we always invite them to do, we said, ‘Here’s our agenda,’ ” Johnson says. “Those are things we hadn’t done historically.”
In addition, key chamber staff members now regularly attend Legislative hearings that affect the business community, as well as meeting with Legislative leadership and giving Gov. Janet Napolitano briefings every few weeks.
“We are more connected to the process at the capitol, and because of that, we have the opportunity to present the recommendations that come out of the state chamber on behalf of the business community,” Johnson says.
These changes allowed the chamber to accomplish something most said would have been impossible to do this year — make changes to the state’s controversial employer sanctions law. The law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, punishes businesses that knowingly employ illegal immigrants. The chamber has come out in force against the law and has even joined a lawsuit to get it overturned.
“Most betting people thought it would be impossible this year to make any significant changes to help law-abiding businesses through the Legislative process,” says Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the chamber. “Through a combined effort, and working with other business groups and chambers from across the state, we were able to make some important changes to that law.”
One of those changes was to make the law apply only to employees hired after Jan. 1, 2008, and not retroactively as it had originally stated.
Another significant change to the chamber has been to create a fiscal task force that formulates policy both on how it thinks the Legislature should spend state funds and also how to allocate those increasingly scarce resources.
“We took about a dozen people on this task force through an education process of how the budget process at the state capitol works and what are the levers the Legislature and the governor have to pull to solve these issues,” Hamer says. “And then we came up with some recommendations that we then presented to both the Legislature and to the (governor). Then we started a dialogue between all of those folks and ourselves, which I think was very productive in terms of trying to come up with solutions.”
While the merger has gone relatively smoothly internally, it did initially cause some confusion within the business community, Klein says. An announcement made in January when the chamber released its Legislative business agenda “really helped to clarify that this is really going to be an entity that is going to speak out on behalf of the statewide business community,” Klein says
Another challenge is to make sure members of the defunct AAI understand they hold a prominent place within the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“We wanted to integrate them into the chamber because we believe that together we are stronger. But we also wanted them to continue to maintain an identity within the chamber, which we think makes us all stronger. They are not losing their identity; we are keeping them visible and their point of view very front-and-center in our deliberations in the things that we advocate for,” Johnson says. “I think the merger has been one of the best things for both organizations.”