Rick Murray, chief executive officer of the Arizona Small Business Association.

ASBA’s CEO Ready for a close-up

Rick Murray followed an eclectic path to becoming chief executive officer of the Arizona Small Business Association in February of 2012.

After college, he worked as a broadcast news photographer before starting a small advertising agency and production company, which grew into a sports production company before he ended up back in broadcast news, this time in front of the camera as a business and education reporter.

The bonds he developed in journalism led to jobs heading up the community and government relations department for the Albuquerque Public Schools, leading the New Mexico State Fair, working as the executive director of the New Mexico Dental Association, and then growing the Arizona Dental Association by nearly $2 million by developing relationships with businesses for mutual success.

Az Business caught up with Murray to talk about small business in Arizona.

Az Business: What have you learned in your first year as CEO of ASBA?
Rick Murray: What has surprised you the most about your position? The thing that has surprised me the most is how little the business community knows about the Arizona Small Business Association.  We have estimated there are nearly 400,000 small businesses in Arizona. Only 11,000 of them have discovered the tremendous value of membership through discounted products and services like office products, shipping, credit card processing, and health and dental insurance, just to name a few. Businesses are saving thousands of dollars a year using our endorsed programs. These are real dollars that goes back into the pockets of hard working business owners.  We are sort of the AAA of small business. We understand that small business owners rarely have a chance to come up for air so we need to do a better job of reaching out to them communicating the value of the Arizona Small Business Association.

AB: How does ASBA decide what its legislative priorities will be each year?
RM: Our legislative priorities do not change much from one year to the next because our efforts are concentrated on what we have determined are the most important policy issues concerning Arizona small business which are: taxation, regulation, economic development, healthcare and education. Each legislative session is different and not all of our policy priorities will be a priority to the current legislature. Not much happened in healthcare the previous two years for example, while this year healthcare has become the single biggest issue with the governor’s proposal to expand Medicaid. Next year it might be education or economic development.

AB: What are ASBA’s legislative priorities for 2013?
RM: We knew coming into this legislative session that reform of the Transaction Privilege Tax (TPT), Arizona’s way of collecting sales tax, was going to be a major issue which we are strongly advocating for. It didn’t happen overnight either, much work was done in previous years which as lead us up to this point and we are confident we will have some success this year simplifying our complicated tax code. Improving the regulatory environment for Arizona businesses has been a long standing priority for ASBA, especially in the area of employer/employee relations. Unemployment benefits is an area where too many undue burdens have been placed on businesses making it difficult to comply. Bills such as HB 2147 that alleviate some of the burden on businesses and shifts some responsibility on an applicant seeking unemployment benefits, helps level the playing field and makes it easier for businesses to comply with the law. We are also supporting the Governor’s plan to expand Medicaid in Arizona.

AB: How has the Arizona Small Business Association’s focus on public policy changed over the last decade?
RM: The change has been significant. The biggest change has been our renewed commitment to advocating for Arizona small businesses and making public policy one of the major strengthens. We are committing more time and resources to our public policy efforts today than ever before and are in it for the long haul.  The other major change is that we are now concentrating our efforts at the state level and some at the federal level. There was a time we use to get pulled into local policy issues but today you will no longer find us at City Hall or at County Board of Supervisor meetings. We strongly believe that the local chambers of commerce across the state should take the lead on local issues and advocate for their local business community. As a statewide business organization, we are better positioned to advocate for Arizona businesses at the state level where not enough advocacy for small businesses was previously taking place. Each year we are getting stronger as well as our membership/clout grows and our relationship with other business groups and elected officials continues to grow.

AB: Where do small businesses fit into the overall economy of Arizona?
RM: Small business is the economic driver for not only Arizona, but the entire country. Without small business, there is no economy. Never before has small business played such a pivotal role in an election season as in 2012, with candidates of every political persuasion promising their support of and ties to the small business community. But what really matters is what lawmakers are doing to move our economy forward. Between the ever-present economic uncertainty, the failure of Congress to truly address the deficit and widespread confusion over the Affordable Care Act, there are very few incentives to start or grow a small company.   ASBA will continue to encourage government at every level to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of small business owners who must lead, innovate and make tough decisions every day—always with the bottom line in sight.

AB: How friendly is Arizona to small businesses?
RM: On the surface, Arizona is very business friendly. Tax reform has been a priority for Arizona lawmakers for the last decade. Arizona has reduced the personal income tax rate and the tax rates for business property and research and development. Last year, Governor Brewer and legislative leadership passed legislation that reduces taxes to business property, both real and personal, as well as capital gains and corporate income tax. Today we are taking on the biggest challenge in reforming the sales tax in Arizona. TPT reform will make it easier for small business to pay sales tax.  But many cities oppose the move for fear of a loss in revenue and have been fighting it despite the fact that Arizona has the most complicated sales tax system in the country. These cities need to realize who pays the majority of these taxes (small business) and start working to improve the system rather than protecting their bureaucratic kingdoms.

AB: What is your five-year economic outlook for the small business sector in Arizona?
RM: Small-business owners today are feeling less optimistic about the outlook of their own firms and the overall U.S. economy than they did this time last year, according to our most recent economic report. Despite modest gains in the number of small businesses projecting U.S. economic expansion, the overwhelming majority, 86 percent, still believe the U.S. economy will be flat or recessionary in the coming year. Just over one-third (38 percent) anticipate their firms will grow in the coming year — the lowest this indicator has been since the National Small Business Association has began asking this question in December 2009. Additionally, many economists are concerned when the Affordable Care Act in implemented in January, it could add tremendous downward pressure to an already sluggish recovery, wiping out any gains we may have seen. In spite of this, Arizona businesses seem to be ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the country. As we see the credit market lighten up and the real estate market improve, we will see greater consumer confidence which is always a good sign for small business.