Today we talk with Jason Zacher on the Greenville Chamber’s role in policy and advocacy in Columbia. We discuss the significance of community involvement in policy-making and the importance of personal advocacy in informing legislative decisions and how small businesses are often on the front lines of understanding pain points for residents and the business community at large.
The Greenville Chamber’s mission is to lead, convene and mobilize the business community to drive regional economic growth, and the Chamber accomplishes much of this work through advocacy. Today we talk with Jason Zacher, Senior Vice President of Business Advocacy & Upstate Chamber Coalition Executive Director about how the Chamber sets its advocacy agenda and the impact of businesses and residents in letting their elected officials know the impact of policy on their lives and businesses. Jason covers challenges with child care, liability, the state pension system and more, and gives great insights into advocacy and the legislative process.
Jason is interviewed by Derek Lewis, Executive Director of Greenville First Steps and our Greater Good Greenville advocacy roundtable chair.
In the show notes, we’ll put a link to the Chamber’s legislative agenda along with a previous episode for which Jason joined us.
Jason, thanks for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
Thanks, Derek. It’s great to be here.
This is the busy time of year for you guys. Chamber’s got a lot going on, and there’s a lot happening in Columbia.
You want to give us just kind of a little update of kind of the state of the chamber and advocacy work?
Sure. Yeah. So, you know, this is the second year of a two-year session down in Columbia.
And so this is sort of the last chance to get a lot of things through before things have to be refiled for next year or we have to start over again on a lot of pieces of legislation. So it’s also an election year for both the House and the Senate.
So you never really know what’s going to happen. Either they’re going to try to get a bunch of things done so they can run on them or do nothing so they don’t do anything controversial.
And so we’re trying to still get a sense of what they’re planning on doing.
And right now they’re moving on some things, but we’ll see what happens if it actually gets all the way across the finish line.
But, you know, the Chamber spends a lot of time this year working, again, on behalf of not only the Greenville Chamber and our businesses here, but along with our 13 members of the Upstate Chamber Coalition.
You know, we work with, in Greenville County, we work with Travelers Rest and Simpsonville, Fountain Inn, and Greer, along with Spartanburg and, you know, over eight counties is what we work more.
So we have a lot of interests and a lot of discussions with members across all of those chambers to figure out what are the consensus items that we need to deal with at the Statehouse and in Congress, but how do we move forward?
We’ve been able over the last 10, 15 years to move forward together on a lot of critical items, and we’ve had a lot of success over that time.
Yeah, I think about that area of the county and state, like the needs of someone in Greer or downtown Greenville versus the needs of someone in Townville or Westminster.
I mean, how does the chamber balance all of those voices that might be asking for conflicting things?
A lot of it, again, comes down to consensus agenda. So there are a lot of interesting things, but a lot of those differences really wind up being local.
It’s not really so much of what we want to do in Columbia, right?
So when we’re talking about our agenda for this year, we’re looking at liability reform, right?
We’ve heard a lot about that, primarily from the hospitality industry, but it’s really impacting everybody now in a lot of different sectors.
You’re looking at childcare availability.
You’re looking at how do we get a small business bill of rights to help small businesses across the county deal better with the state and get out of the way so they can get back to what they do best, which is running their business.
That’s universal, no matter whether you’re in Traveler’s Rest or Fountain Inn, or Spartanburg or Seneca, same issues.
And so we hear that from everybody. That’s why when we work on these things, we work on a consensus agenda.
Now we have a lot of people that do a lot of things. They want to do something crazy on one side or the other or whatever that just is not going to be something that I would say the supermajority of our businesses would want.
And so I help them. I tell them that this is how you do that.
And one of the things that we do at the chamber not only is advocate for you, but also teach you how to advocate for yourself.
The teach a man to fish thing, I think, is what we try to do a little bit of.
And so, you know, whether it’s in our policy guide that has a lot of tips on how to talk to your legislators or your public officials or our advocacy 101 classes that we run every few years, I mean, those are the kind of things that we try to teach folks how to advocate for themselves because you’re your best advocate.
It’s one thing… I tell people this all the time. It’s one thing for me to go to Columbia and talk to a legislator.
It’s something totally different when the business owner calls the representative for their area.
You have 10 times the power that I have. And everyone thinks that the lobbyists have all the power, but it’s really opposite.
It’s just that people don’t have that in their head.
But if you go down to Columbia, you sit in the House member’s office or senator’s office and say, look, I employ 30 people and we live in your district.
They’re going to listen and they care. They really, the vast majority of legislators care deeply about what you think.
There is some real power to that kind of local voice. I know like in the child care sector, even as we talk about liability reform, like there was, there’s just some real power to a child care owner talking about the impact that’s going to have.
Let’s talk about liability reform a little bit, just because I know that’s one of the chamber’s priorities.
So kind of paint the picture for like, why, why does this matter as a, as a policy issue?
So I was on this podcast a couple of years ago and I think we talked about this.
You know, this comes back to the Smith v. Tiffany case in front of the state Supreme Court almost a decade ago.
And where we overturned our… the idea of if there are multiple people in a lawsuit because of some tort actions, so some injury or someone was wronged, right? And you go to court over that.
The courts had a way at the time, a decade ago, they had to say, okay, you’re 40% at fault, you’re 30% at fault, you’re 30% at fault, you all get to split the bill.
$10 million, now it’s $4 million, $3 million, $3 million.
It changed with Smith v. Tiffany. So now they can only consider who is actually active in the lawsuit.
So what’s happening is, oh, well, the guy that’s 40% at fault doesn’t have insurance, so we’re going to settle out of court with him.
The guy with 30% has terrible insurance, so we’re going to settle out of court with him. But, oh, look, this business is the other 30, so we’re going after them for 100% of the damages. And it happens. It’s happening a lot.
And so one of the things that we’ve warned people about for years was this is coming.
Eventually, the insurance companies are going to get tired of paying this, and your rates are going to go up, or they’re going to pull out of the state.
Sadly, and I spoke about this to a bunch of groups in the last few weeks, has been it’s hitting the hospitality industry first.
Part of that is because of a separate liquor liability law that was passed a few years ago, but the base of it is this joint and several liability issue.
And so you could have one drink at one bar, one drink at one bar, one drink at one bar, and they’re coming after all of you for the DUI.
Really, it’s nobody’s fault. Or we’re not arguing that a business should be held completely not liable for things, right?
There is a liability issue that… but if you’re 10% at fault, you should not have to pay a hundred percent of the, of the potential liability on those things. I don’t think that’s fair.
Now people deserve, if they’re wrong, they deserve to get the judgment that they need and be made whole, whether it’s medical bills or whatever else, you know, and if you are negligent or there’s gross negligence, then a lot of this goes out the window.
That’s your fault. You, you injured them. You have to pay.
But I think the idea of judgment shopping and looking around at who’s got the biggest insurance or who has a logo, I mean, a lot of small businesses are one lawsuit away from going out of business.
And I think we’re starting to see that. They’re one insurance premium away from going out of business.
And we’ve seen plenty of that now in the upstate over the last six months.
And we’re definitely seeing that more in the child care sector, where they’re now starting to learn that either their rates are going up or just or just cover carriers just won’t even insure them anymore.
So when you look at a big lift like that, like how does the chamber get from this is a problem to this solution is going to require multiple parties to all kind of come together?
How do you get those big lifts accomplished?
Well, so, you know, it is a lot of… very little legislation. We all think there’s a problem, they pass a bill, it’s solved.
It takes years for a lot of these things. I like to say there are multiple steps into this process.
One is you have to convince them that there is a problem, which was hard to do. Now the General Assembly’s convinced there’s a problem.
Then you have to convince them what the solution is. And sometimes they don’t go there or they disagree. The House will say there’s a solution.
The Senate says, I got a different solution.
In this case, the House has passed this bill. They’ve done it before, but it sat and died in the Senate. And they’re waiting for the Senate to pass it and send it back.
And I understand that from their perspective. And then you get to the point of okay, now we all agree and we agree there’s a solution here.
And then you got to actually pass the solution. So there’s four or five steps along here of how we get there.
We’ve now convinced them that there is a problem. I think even the folks who are adamantly, the trial lawyers who are in the Senate who are adamantly opposed to this bill, understand there’s a problem because their local bar and restaurant now is the one that’s got a problem.
It’s not just the insurance company. It’s not State Farm eating this whole thing anymore. It’s now their problem.
So now the question is, what do we do about it? And we’ve been very consistent over years, not only the chamber, but other local chambers around the state, the state chamber, NFIB, the Manufacturers Alliance, the Trucking Association, et cetera, have all been screaming about this for a long time.
Unfortunately, I think with a lot of small businesses, it has to hit them first.
It has to hit them in the pocketbook.
And I apologize when speaking to a group. I said, I’m sorry it happened to y’all first and the hospitality industry.
But the Chamber’s concern about this goes far beyond individual bars and restaurants who we have their members and we have a whole lot of sympathy for them, obviously.
This is a huge portion of the upstate economy now. This isn’t Myrtle Beach or Charleston.
You know, this is, oh, well, you know, of course, tourism is a big deal.
Tourism is now a big deal in the upstate. It’s a big problem for us.
But it’s not just that. You just said childcare is being hit.
We’ve heard that story.
But manufacturing, if you have one small part of a broader product, you now could wind up, if you’re the last one standing and the other groups go bankrupt, you’re now the one that’s going to get sued.
And that was another part of this lawsuit was exactly that or the Smith v.Tiffany case it was wrapped in.
So it’s product liability. There’s a whole bunch of this that has to get fixed.
When you figure in manufacturing could be impacted and the hospitality could be impacted, I mean, you’re talking three-quarters of the upstate economy probably is potentially, and really every business will be impacted by this at some point.
Either your insurance rates are going to go up or you’re not going to be able to find it. And that’s the bigger problem.
So when you think about these big issues, you know, is the solution for the chamber to find the solution and take it to the General Assembly?
Is the solution for the General Assembly to kind of solve it on their own?
I mean, how do you coach nonprofits or other people who are interested in advocacy in moving a group of elected officials from here is a problem to here is a solution?
There’s a lot of direct lobbying, right? There’s a lot of work.
We have three people on our team, and we go to Columbia, we go to county council, whether it’s there, we go to wherever it might be and work on getting the information out.
I like to joke that lobbyists are teachers, right?
Ultimately, we’re educators in a lot of cases.
You know, the legislators have 4,000 bills in a term that they’ve got, and they have no staff. Most of them have no staff. They can’t read every one.
They have no idea what goes on.
So, you know, the chamber, both the Greenville Chamber side and the Upstate Chamber Coalition for folks that may be members of other chambers, every fall, we go out and talk to people.
I’ve got plenty of ideas of what things we should take on.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s impacting business.
As a lobbyist, I have to hear from you. I have to hear from whatever business.
So now we are hearing directly on this liability issue.
So clearly that’s gotten to the point of where we need folks to do.
Now, again, this comes back to what we talked about a few minutes ago, which was if you are going to talk to your representatives, you mean so much more than if I’m talking to them.
So that’s what we’ve done. And, you know, I was speaking with, I spoke with a business owner just this morning and I said, hey, you need to call X.
You are in his district in the Senate. I don’t know where they are on this bill because they won’t tell me.
You have to call them. You are a constituent. They should take your phone call.
And I think that that’s how the chamber gets there. You know, we do that, we do all these, we do all this planning in the fall. We do these surveys.
We hope everyone takes part in this. We have six or 700 people usually take the survey.
So we get a pretty good sense of where the business community is.
And all of those survey questions bubble up from what we’ve heard in meetings or what I’ve heard in conversations, or they might be something I heard that the Charleston Chamber has to deal with that I think applies to us.
And what does it? What do we think? What do our people think about it?
Because we work closely with Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Charleston, Charlotte, the State Chamber, et cetera, on all those kinds of issues.
But again, it comes back down to we have done enough of our own education now.
People are now angry and now our job has changed to how do we get you mobilized? How do we give you the tools to go lobby?
Because again, it means more if you call than me. They’ve heard from me.
They’re tired of me talking about it.
And you’ve mentioned, I mean, we’ve been talking about this issue for several years.
You know, some of these things take a decade. Some of them seem like they happen overnight, but they didn’t.
I think about paid leave for teachers happened in six months, which seems like a lightning-fast process, but it took us five years to even get to talking about it.
You know, what advice do you have for people who may have less patience than you with how long it takes for things to get done?
I get it. I’m not blaming society for this, but we’re an instant-gratification society, right?
And we want these things done. And I think to a lot of the public, they think these things get done quickly.
You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to keep going. When you have a chance, talk to these folks.
I highly encourage people to know, get to know your legislators, get to know your senators before you need them.
I don’t know a legislator in our delegation who would not take a coffee with a constituent if you called them.
Now, it might not happen when you need it to. It might be six weeks from now, but they’ll be happy to do it. They like doing it.
For most of them, that’s the part they really enjoy.
They don’t enjoy sitting there and arguing in committee meetings, they enjoy talking to people. How do I help you? What can I do for you?
I think that’s almost universal in our delegation and then throughout the upstate of what people want. So get to know them early.
So if you’ve got an issue that may not be on everyone’s radar screen.
Go talk to your senator. Go sit down with Jason Elliott or Adam Morgan or Ross Turner and just talk to them.
Say, hey, I live in your district. This is a big problem.
They may not be able to do anything, but they’ll log that away.
And if they know you, then when you call them next year, they’ll remember.
They will remember that. Remember we had this conversation at this coffee shop and, oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah, okay.
That’s a big deal. Okay, now you’re two years in. You know, and again, these things do take three, four, five years sometimes.
What I said initially about being in second year of a two-year session, I mean, those are a lot of things that we have going on that we know we’re going to have to refile next year. They’re just not going to pass.
They’re not going to, but we keep working on it. The other thing I’ll tell people, too, is if you’ve got an issue, this is a great time to bring it up.
The entire House, the entire Senate’s running for re-election.
Enough people start calling them about things. They start taking a real close attention to what’s going on because everyone knows if one person’s calling, the chances are a lot of people are concerned about it.
It’s just a question of how many it might actually be. So the more people that call, they listen, despite what you may think.
It is amazing with those calls, you know, as a former and recovering elected official.
I mean, if you got four phone calls in one day, like that was a crisis, even though it could have just been four coordinated phone calls in one day, it felt like your entire constituency was, you know, going to show up with pitchforks….
I remember vividly one of the takeaways in the 10 years I worked at the state house was being in these private meetings and these legislators would stand up at the end.
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker, they’re killing me on House Bill 3942.
And everyone would look around like, what’s 3942? We have no idea what the bill is.
Oh, it’s a, you know, changes the hunting rules in the watery basin or some crazy thing like that, that, you know, people in the upstate have no idea about, like, whatever.
They’re killing me. I’ve been getting calls all weekend. How many calls do you get?
Five, right? I’ve joked that we have 8,000 businesses in our Upstate Chamber Coalition footprint.
And if I could get 10% of them to call, we could change the name of the state because people would be so freaked out that they want to be called North Georgia or whatever, you know, North Florida, whatever it might, maybe not Florida, but you know, we really could because that would be 800 phone calls.
These people would be freaking out about this stuff.
And it’s a little bit of exaggeration, but it’s not much of one.
I mean, you know, four or five, 10 phone calls really matters, especially if they’re constituents.
And you know, to me, that’s one of the powers that I think you’ve helped to harness through the chambers is this kind of collective voice and this idea that kind of creating a roadmap that we can all kind of, all of the chamber members can kind of work towards.
That policy agenda that you guys develop is really thoughtfully done and I think well crafted.
So let’s talk a little bit about how does the chamber decide that child care or homelessness or transportation is a priority?
What’s the criteria that you use to make, what makes the list?
So it’s multiple avenues, right?
I will start with meetings, we will meet with our chamber members, I will meet with… I try to meet with every chamber coalition member, we will meet with folks in Columbia, we will meet with other chambers around the state, I will meet with any industry, our MBA program, minority business accelerator program.
I will meet with any group I can get in front of and ask those questions.
What’s the big deal? Hey, here’s a handful of things I’ve been hearing.
What do you think about those things, right?
And we will end up meeting with three, four, 500 people, depending on how many of those counties I can get out to, right?
And so we’ll sit there and meet with those folks. And then we do the survey.
And again, the survey is five, six, 700 people most years. We’ve had up to a thousand before.
And the survey questions come from those meetings.
So all of those questions are on top of mind for a lot of people.
Sometimes I put a few in that I’ve heard about from other parts of the state that maybe aren’t bubbling up here and get a sense of what people think.
And we don’t have a bright line of it’s got to get to 67% or we won’t deal with it.
But it’s a sliding scale we look at. But again, if I’ve been hearing about it in all these meetings, I usually get 70%, 80% support.
But I also look at how much, how many people click on strongly disagree, because if it’s 30%, that’s a big deal. And I want to look at that and see why.
But, you know, as I, child care being an example, you know, we’ve, we’ve said that, you know, General Assembly need to urgently address the child care situation.
7% say disagree.
Now there’s a lot of people say undecided, right? I don’t really know about that issue. That’s fine. Again, a lot of these issues, you know, may not be pertinent to your business.
They may not have… but when we look at this, We look at these things.
I mean, I’ll look at the joint and several liability issue. 83% strongly agreed.
9% disagreed. Well, might be law firms. There might be other folks that, you know, I get.
Or there are people that just flat out agree that they don’t care, that someone needs to pay and I don’t care who it is.
And I get that. I understand that position. So that’s generally how we do it. It’s consensus.
And again, then we send it out to a lot of that… We send it out to our advocacy committee who votes on it.
It goes to our board who votes on it. So, you know, there’s a lot of places to amend it or get your voice heard.
You know, our advocacy committee meets the second Friday of every month, except for July.
If you are a chamber member, email me, come on out. We’d love to have you.
We’d love, the more the merrier, as far as we usually get a speaker to come talk about things.
And then we have a Q&A and then I sit there, I’ll sit there for an hour after we’re talking to members about what issues are important.
And all that feeds in the next cycle, right? What are we going to do in 2025?
Well, all those discussions I’m having now start feeding into what we’re going to talk about next fall.
So 2024, you’re looking towards the next couple of months.
What is the one issue that you think, like, man, I hope that the General Assembly can tackle and resolve this issue this year?
So I’m going to go at you. I’m going to go three of them.
Let’s do it.
Because they’re probably our top three priorities, and I think they can be done. One is liability.
We already covered that. I think they can get something done.
I don’t know if it’ll be the full fix. It might just be a Band-Aid to get us to next year. But I think they will do something on that.
We’re working on a small business bill of rights. And we’re working with the state chamber, with NFIB and others on this.
There’s a whole bunch of things. How do we make state government more friendly?
So, and I’m making this up.
This is not an actual example, but you have 30 days to get back to DOR on something.
Does DOR have 30 days to get back to you?
How do we make sure that you’re not just in purgatory dealing with DHEC or LLR or some of these other things?
And I think that’s a big deal for a lot of businesses because I hear that constantly.
And we’re also working on a business personal property tax exemption.
I know small businesses hate paying that. And it’s a big bill that you bought this table.
And this table now is you pay tax on in perpetuity for your business.
But if this table was at your house, it wouldn’t matter.
How do we exempt some of that? It’s a small fiscal impact, I think, statewide.
And I think that’s going to be something that will have a direct impact.
And then the big one, I think, is still going to be child care.
They have a special committee working on it. We’ve been working with that committee on, really, at this point, they’re taking a lot of testimony.
But our discussions with the committee has been, this is not a one-year solution.
Don’t think you’re going to put a bill out and fix it. This committee needs to meet for years to work on this.
There might be five or six bills over four or five years to try to get something done.
And so that issue is a big deal. We don’t have any specific recommendations on what they need to do, but we’re trying to figure out how to help them increase the affordability and accessibility of child care. It’s a huge problem.
It is one of the biggest reasons why women are not in the workforce, according to the Department of Employment and Workforce and their surveys, and it’s something that needs to be fixed.
Two more issues that I think are long-term, right? These are things that we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do. One is the state pension system.
Huge unfunded liability long-term. Taxes are going to have to go up to pay for it, or benefits are going to have to be cut, and that’s not fair to the folks who are already in the system.
Very, very few employees are staying with state government for 10 years or 20 years anymore, 25 years.
So how do we make sure it’s a 401k style you pay in? You could actually, the state and the people could pay less and still probably get more out of it than they’re getting now.
And I think that’s a big thing. And the last one is something we’re taking up this year, partially through the election year to try to work on.
That’s the benefits cliff.
Again, I’m making the numbers up, but how do you make $39,999 a year and you rightly qualify for housing assistance, you qualify for food assistance, you qualify for childcare assistance.
You took that five hours overtime that week, you’re at 40,050.
And you don’t qualify for any of that. Or maybe you don’t qualify for your food benefits anymore. You didn’t make enough to make up for that.
And it’s an economic problem for us twofold. One is, is that those folks may not be going for that promotion because maybe it doesn’t pay enough to get rid of that, those benefits and that, and you’re making enough money.
So you’re holding onto an entry-level position that someone else needs to come along and take or come back to the workforce who may be out of the workforce. force.
And then making sure that folks want to strive to do better and figure out how to get on. No one wants to be on assistance.
I mean, that’s a popular myth, I think.
But people don’t want to be on assistance. They want to get off it.
You’ve got to figure out how to do that.
That’s one of those, you’re talking about those issues that take five or 10 years. It’s probably what that’s going to be.
Some are state benefits, some are federal benefits, some are, you know, it’s going to be a mess to sort all that out.
But I think both the right and the left are interested in it now.
The right sees it as a way to get people off and graduate people off.
The left sees it as, you know, we want to make sure that people at 45 are still getting the benefits versus just 39 and et cetera, et cetera.
So those are two things that I think will have long-term impacts that added with childcare, huge impacts on the workforce long-term.
I’m glad you brought up the benefits one, because that actually came up in a focus group we did with child care directors.
And that was the specific example a director gave me was, I have someone who is an incredible teacher, and she does not want to be an assistant director because she will make $2 more an hour, and that will make her ineligible for health care benefits that she can’t offer to all of her employees anyway.
Thank you, Jason. Thank you. You’re doing a great job at the Chamber.
We appreciate all your support for our community and come back anytime.
Appreciate it. I’ll be happy to come back.
Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.
Image via the Greenville Chamber.