Top influential business advocate in the Springs

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Insurance costs are the No. 1 nemesis for the majority of Colorado Springs small business owners who attended an Aug. 18 roundtable discussion, sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business. Health care insurance costs topped the lists of concerns, followed by workers compensation costs and practices, and soaring unemployment insurance costs.

Local concerns mirrored the NFIB’s January through March 2004 survey of 20,000 nationwide business owners. The cost of health care insurance was at the top of the entrepreneurial hit list. Second on the list was liability insurance costs, and the cost of workers’ compensation was third among a list of more than 70 problems that small business owners cited. Federal taxes on business income and property taxes (real, personal or inventory) ranked No. 5 and No. 6, respectively.

Jack Faris, the president and chief executive officer of the NFIB, and Tim Jackson, the NFIB Colorado director, were in the Springs prior to an NFIB/Pinnacol Assurance-sponsored small-business summit held in Breckenridge on Aug. 19 and Aug. 20. Summit topics included tort reform for lowering liability costs, electing small-business-friendly legislators and redefining workers’ compensation.

The NFIB was founded in 1943 as the voice in government for small and independent businesses. Its membership is 600,000 nationwide, with 12,000 members in Colorado. For the past three years, Fortune magazine named the NFIB the most powerful business lobbying group in Washington.

Fortune Small Business magazine graded NFIB’s Faris as the most influential small-business leader in Washington. As the lead death-tax reformist (the death (estate) tax will be eliminated by the end of the decade), the Bush administration appointed Faris to the 2001 National Commission on Tax Reform.

Faris has directed the NFIB since 1992, appearing in print and on television via mega news mediums like The Wall Street Journal and CNN. Small business is in his heart and his blood. His family owned a service station, and for 12 years Faris owned a management and marketing consulting firm. His passion is business; his urgency is to keep small-business needs in front of legislators.

“If you run a business, you’d better get involved in politics or politics will run your business,” Faris said. “What we need to demand from the politicians is truthfulness. Will they stay true to their campaign promises, or will they give it up for the sake of the party leadership?”

The NFIB is a watchdog for the voting records of all legislators. At the Springs NFIB forum at Wells Fargo a week ago, Faris and Jackson presented awards to Sen. Ed Jones, Sen. Andy McElhany and Sen. Ron May for their 100-percent pro-small business voting records.

And Faris and Jackson are hawk-eyeing the U.S. senate race in Colorado.

Faris said post-primary polls indicate that Ken Salazar, Colorado’s attorney general, and Pete Coors, Coors Brewing Co., are running neck and neck.

“Salazar has said he supports small business in Colorado, but in the same breath he defends trial lawyers and says he is in favor of Sen. Kerry’s health plan (Kerry’s health plan allows tax credits for businesses that pay at least 50 percent of the employee premium),” Faris said. “Health care is one of the biggest issues in Colorado, including the mandates. Whenever there is a mandate on small businesses, it never seems to go away.

“Eight percent of the small businesses in this country have 10 or fewer employees, but they account for 51 percent of the gross domestic product.

“Pete Coors has been dependent on small businesses to make his business successful. Of the 12,000 NFIB members we have in Colorado, 89 percent of them responded to an NFIB push for Pete Coors during the primary – that’s a strong statement.”

Faris said employers cannot afford to turn their backs on politics. “You need to get involved whether you want to or not,” he said. “Politics will be dirty if you let dirty people run it – take the time to get involved.”

Tim Jackson is what Faris refers to as the Energizer Bunny when it comes to championing Colorado small businesses. Jackson said the state’s business personal property tax is onerous. “It’s a tax that just keeps on taxing,” Jackson said. “Why should people have to pay tax on a desk or a computer they’ve had for years?” Faris added that business owners should not have to pay a recurring price on something that is not real property.

Faris also talked about big businesses swallowing up small businesses. “Competition in the marketplace is fair, but domination in the market, like squeezing out the competition through price changing is not fair.” He said an unfair practice takes place when a Wal-Mart comes into an area and lowers its costs in the beginning knowing that two-to-three weeks later the prices will go up.

Faris said nothing can be done about volume buying – that’s just the way it is. But he said other issues such as health care insurance create a huge dichotomy between small and large businesses. “There is not a level playing field for small businesses when Sara’ s Hardware store cannot entice the same kind of employee because across the street a Wal-Mart is offering great health care benefits,” Faris said. “Mandates are the problem, and there should be more of a variety of plans.”

After the Breckenridge summit, Faris is on his way to talk to small business owners in the Midwest.

He also keeps a close vigil on budding entrepreneurs. “Seventy-two percent of Americans want to own a business,” Faris said. “We have to keep an eye on new-business start-ups as well.”

In 1993, when Faris and the NFIB waged a fight against government-mandated health care coverage, The New York Times described the small-business advocate Faris as “silver-haired and acid-tongued.”

- Marylou.Doehrman@csbj.com