Chambers Of Horrors

Ed Rendell has done more to hurt business in Pennsylvania than any governor in recent memory. So why do our local chambers of commerce keep patting him on the back?

“The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to promoting regional economic growth…and advancing business-friendly public policies.”

So says the mission statement of Philadelphia’s Chamber of Commerce.

It further states that it is “dedicated to supporting and encouraging the continued growth” of its members by striving “to influence business-friendly legislation in all levels of government, participate in initiatives to improve education and the community.” [SIGNUP]

And its public policy department is supposed “…to address pro-business legislation directly with the policy-makers who can make a difference.”

Wow.

If only the chamber put just a small fraction of that mission into reality, maybe Philadelphia wouldn’t be such a dismal place to live and work.

But the city chamber is not alone in selling out its members.

Last month, the Montgomery County Chamber, in an act that defies belief, issued a “Lifetime Achievement Award” to Governor Ed Rendell at a “Celebration of Excellence” event.

It’s no small point that Rendell, more than anyone, is responsible for the carnage that is Pennsylvania’s economy.

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Chambers of commerce are, and should be, non partisan. They should work with, and support, candidates who advocate pro-business policies.  Even more important, they should be vocal — and unified — in opposing those who favor policies contrary to their mission.

Call me crazy, but Ed Rendell fits into the latter category. Of this, there can be no dispute.

Maybe Rendell’s vision has been shaped by the belief that government knows best, and wealth should be redistributed from those who work to those who don’t.

Or maybe it’s because he’s been on the public dole for virtually his entire working life, which certainly gives one a different perspective from those in the private sector creating jobs, meeting payroll, and growing the economy.

Either way, Rendell’s policies should have been opposed at every turn by the chambers, whose primary responsibility is to fight for a pro-business legislative agenda.

But too many didn’t. And for a chamber of commerce, even one sell–out is one too many.

In the Montco chamber’s case, maybe leader Al Paschall wanted to be liked by Rendell; maybe it was an ego boost to have the governor know his name. That’s fine if you’re a regular citizen, but not if you run a chamber of commerce.

So how could Rendell, of all people, have earned an Achievement Award?

Difficult to answer, given the governor’s fiscal record.  Consider:

– State spending has increased 40 percent under his reign.

– As governor, he hasn’t signed a budget on time. Ever.

– He has advocated tax increases too numerous to mention, including new, expanded or increased levies on: income, sales, natural gas extraction, tobacco, capital stock and franchise, gas, oil company franchises, vehicle registrations, and gaming.

– Rendell has tirelessly pushed for the tolling of I-80, so much so that the budget he signed last year contained accounting gimmicks that factored in $400 million in receipts from I-80 tolls. Even though tolling hadn’t been approved!

So when the plan was killed by the feds, it created a huge shortfall.

– The governor (and legislature) raided MCARE, a fund specifically designed to alleviate the costs of doctors’ medical malpractice insurance premiums. A judge recently ruled that doing so was a no-no, and that the money had to be repaid. Rendell is appealing that decision, but the fact remains that the state is another $800 million in the red.

– Not content with Philadelphia being the most highly taxed city in the country, Rendell supported and signed into law a bill allowing a 100 percent increase in the city portion of the state sales tax, deferring payments on the insolvent city pension, currently funded at the catastrophically-low rate of just 45 percent.

– Philadelphia’s educational system continues its collapse, yet Rendell continues to throw more money at the problem, to no avail.

– Rendell vetoed the Fair Share act (evenly and fairly allocating liability in a lawsuit), despite a campaign promise to the contrary, further reinforcing Pennsylvania’s standing as having the most hostile, anti-business legal climate in the nation.

– And at a time of common-sense fiscal restraint, the governor has proposed significant increases in spending this year, despite declining revenues and nearly $3 billion in federal stimulus money that won’t be available again.

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So why in the world would the Philadelphia chamber, one of the biggest and most influential in the state, deliberately support, rather than oppose, Rendell and his policies?

Two words come to mind: David Cohen.

Cohen is the chairman of the chamber, and clearly calls the shots. And he’s one of Rendell’s closest confidantes and biggest supporters, having served as chief of staff when Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia.

Now executive vice president at Comcast — the same company that employs Rendell as a sports commentator — Cohen has contributed $80,000 to Rendell’s campaigns, and with his wife, Rhonda, donated another $156,000.

Prior to joining Comcast, Cohen served as chairman of the Ballard Spahr law firm, where Mr. Rendell worked while campaigning for governor in 2002.

Ballard, which provides legal counsel to Comcast, has come under intense media and legislative scrutiny for a large number of secretive no-bid contracts it has received under the Rendell administration. In addition, it received almost $800,000 for legal work related to the 2007 Pennsylvania Turnpike privatization initiative without a contract. 
Ballard Spahr LLP has contributed $481,000 to the governor’s campaigns, with its attorneys donating an additional half million dollars.

Also, the Philadelphia Future Political Action Committee (PAC), registered at the Ballard office, pumped $471,000 into the Rendell coffers; Cohen serves as the PAC’s treasurer.

The address on Governor Rendell’s campaign finance reports is the 51st floor of 1735 Market Street in Philadelphia — where Ballard Spahr occupies the entire floor.

Of particular interest is that, while serving in his role as chairman of the chamber, Cohen took no action to defend the Sunoco Oil Company — a chamber member — when Rendell made an unprecedented intrusion into the private sector by blasting that company for its decision to lay off 750 employees.

Rendell called Sunoco’s action “unconscionable,” but was notably silent concerning the 3,000 layoffs — four times the number at Sunoco — that Comcast has executed in the past year.

Since Rendell’s election in 2002, SUN PAC, Sunoco’s political action committee, had contributed $55,000 to Rendell, with Sunoco employees donating an additional $2,650.

During that same time period, Comcast’s PAC, its employees, and the spouses of its top executives donated $634,350 to the governor. Additionally, Comcast spent at least $100,000 on Rendell’s inauguration festivities in 2007, being designated as a “Benefactor” by the governor, the highest level of a contributor.

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Sometimes, the facts in a given situation are so powerful that they don’t need an explanation.  Connecting the dots as to why certain chambers don’t speak out against clearly anti-business policies is simply elementary.

If Pennsylvania is to ever regain its foothold as one of the dominant economies in America, it must reverse decades of decline by rolling back crushing taxes, onerous regulation, and bloated bureaucracy.

A good start would be electing a pro-business governor in November, supported by chambers of commerce whose only agenda is creating a favorable business climate.

Anything less will only cement our position as an economic backwater as we continue to watch Pennsylvania’s greatest export — our children — leave for places that actually understand that businesses, not the government, are the engine of robust economic growth.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.comReaders of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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