Business lobby raises voice

Shortly after Nicole and Greg Lukasiewicz opened the Sunrise Bagel Co. in Woonsocket in 1996, they were shocked to receive a “tangible equipment” tax bill of about $4,000.

They had only been opened for the last two months of the year.

Upset by being hit with a hefty tax bill so soon after investing their savings in a small business, the couple complained to Woonsocket City Councilor J. Michel Martineau that the bill was unfair. But Martineau, who lives near them and is a customer, soon realized they’d have to do more than take on city hall – they’d have to amend Rhode Island’s tax code.

But it’s not always easy for small business to take an issue to state government, particularly in state that’s long been considered a bastion for labor. Rhode Island’s reputation, deserved or not, began to change when business owners protested a proposed 154 percent workers’ compensation increase, said Laurie White, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of operations.

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”I think it all started with the march on the State House that the Chamber initiated back in 1990,” White said. “At that point the business community really got mobilized.”

Martineau said he was surprised the Lukasiewiczs were willing to take time and talk with local and state officials, and to testify before a legislative committee. “People often say stuff to me, but aren’t willing to participate in the process,” he added.

Although communities across the state collect the tax, Woonsocket officials needed an amendment enabling them to set it on a pro-rata basis, so new business owners would only be taxed for the actual time they are open their first year.

”It doesn’t make sense that you’d be in business for seven weeks and get a 52-week tax bill,” said Martineau, a three-term city councilor whose brother is House Majority Leader Gerard M. Martineau, D-Woonsocket. “I can see with someone getting whacked with this large bill, that this would precipitate their not making it.”

After about six months of lobbying, the General Assembly voted to change the tax code. This past January, the Woonsocket City Council voted to refund about $3,200 of Sunrise Bagel Co.’s original tax payment.

Some legislators, lobbyists and business people interviewed for this story said the Sunrise Bagel experience isn’t all that unusual now. Business is finding a more receptive audience at the State House. Still, some said, small business owners don’t always make their opinions known. Among the possible reasons: Business owners can’t always afford to take time away from work and some might not think they can make a difference.

Michael R. Marra, president of Cowan Plastic Products Corp. in Providence, serves on a national plastics industry board. “I hear the same problems in states all over the country: Small businesses are just not vocal enough to get their issue put on the table for discussions,” he said.

”Business has to make its case and demonstrate how certain public policy decisions impact jobs and business,” added White, of the Greater Providence Chamber. “I think it’s a challenge, but we’re making headway.”

The Sunrise Bagel example is just one of several recent stories indicating small business owners can get action on Smith Hill – if they try.

Ed Ladouceur, president of Stormtite Co., Inc., in Warwick, was for a time “a one-man band” lobbying to make it mandatory for companies with fewer than four employees to provide workers’ compensation coverage, White said.

Some business people told Ladouceur the bill was bad for business.

But Ladouceur, who bought the roofing and siding company in 1989, said such a law levels the playing field for small businesses like his, which often compete against companies that are exempt from workers’ compensation premiums because they use subcontractors or have only a few payroll employees. In addition, he said, such a law protects all workers and home owners, who might be liable if an uninsured worker were injured on his or her property.

One person who testified on behalf of the bill was a 20-something Burrillville roofer, who fell three-stories, seriously injuring his hip. The man had no health insurance, no workers’ compensation coverage, and more than $15,000 in medical bills, Ladouceur said.

The General Assembly amended the workers’ compensation law last year, but it took nearly three years. In 1996 alone, Ladouceur said he devoted about 700 hours to the cause.

That year he found some supporters in the state Senate, but the bill never made it out of a House committee. That prompted him to visit Rep. Gerard Martineau to tell him he planned to take certain House members to task, Ladouceur said.

”He said, ‘Ed, do you want to come back here next year? My suggestion is to go home and cool off and think about why the legislation didn’t pass this year.'”

It was sound advice, said Ladouceur, who’d never attempted to change a law before. “They weren’t voting against me, they were voting on what they really believed was right. I didn’t prove my case.”

Though the proposal gained more support in 1997, it still didn’t pass.

“I got a little more educated about what is important to them; what’s important to them is facts and figures,” he added.

Then he turned to Dr. Lee H. Arnold, director of the Department of Employment and Training, and asked for research on the number of people not covered by workers’ compensation insurance. That data helped finally get the bill through the legislature.

”I don’t think laws are changed on a whim,” he said. “If you’re willing to put in the time and work with the legislators and show them what you’re saying is right and fair – they’re definitely willing to listen.”

Grafton Willey, IV, a Providence accountant who runs the Smaller Business Association of New England’s local chapter, said, in recent years “the legislature has listened to the concerns of small business and business in general, realizing that they are key to building a strong economy.”

But that doesn’t mean business-backed legislation breezes through the process.

”Getting a piece of legislation through is not an easy process, and it probably shouldn’t be. It probably takes two or three years to get a good piece of legislation through, the first year is planting the idea,” Willey said.

”They have to look to make sure some of the things we’re asking for aren’t detrimental to others,” Marra added. “That’s the reason for the process, the open hearings, the testimony.

”I think the environment is much better than it used to be and it will continue to get better, the more businesses get involved,” said Marra, who helped start the Greater Providence Chamber’s Small Business Council in 1977.

State Sen. William Irons, an East Providence Democrat who owns an insurance agency, said “over a course of time a majority of them (bills) get addressed fairly.

”I think there was a negative attitude historically in the past. Anyone who says Rhode Island is not business friendly today is not paying attention,” Irons said.