In Politics, Chambers of Commerce Carve Their Niche

The business community has a reputation for being skeptical about public spending and regulations. But on some issues, they're actually government’s strongest ally.
by | September 2015
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is collaborating with government in new ways. (Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce)

It’s basically a no-brainer that states want to improve the quality of their workforces. When Colorado legislators recently decided to create a position that would formally coordinate efforts of industry and educational institutions to achieve this goal, though, they made a surprising choice. They decided the person leading the charge shouldn’t be housed in the department of labor or even the department of education. Instead, the new hire will report to work every day at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “It will be a state employee who will be housed in our space,” says Kelly Brough, the chamber’s president.

This isn’t the first time the chamber has played host to government officials. The 41-member Colorado Metro Mayors Caucus not only meets monthly in its offices, but also receives financial backing from the chamber. That has helped increase communication between the city and businesses when it comes to big projects such as building out the Denver area’s light rail system.

This type of ongoing collaboration speaks to something that, while true in many places, is often overlooked. Chambers of commerce have a deserved reputation for being skeptical about government spending and regulation, but they are not reflexively antigovernment in the same way that some other conservative forces are these days. In fact, chambers are often the strongest allies politicians have when promoting certain programs, particularly when it comes to education issues and infrastructure. “We don’t want to pay a lot of taxes, but we recognize there’s a role for government,” says Trey Grayson, head of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “We recognize the need to make the investments in our schools and our infrastructure in order to make our businesses and region thrive.”

In South Carolina this year, for instance, chambers from across the state put together a coalition promoting the idea of raising the gas tax by a dime or more to pay for better roads. (The effort failed despite broad support, as legislators couldn’t agree on the size of an offsetting income tax cut.) And for more than 20 years, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce has been publishing an education report card, the most visible portion of its effort to support stronger schools.

At a recent meeting with Kentucky legislators, Grayson made it a point to link two seemingly disparate priorities. Area businesses insist that Kentucky become a right-to-work state, he said, but they also continue their support for strong educational standards to improve the workforce, including Common Core. “For the chamber, those are not two contradictory things,” he says. “Those are both important to our members.”