Transportation top priority for Mass. business leaders this election season

The MBTA Green Line. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

By Ellie French
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – As campaigns barrel toward Election Day, there are a few key issues business leaders in Massachusetts are watching closely, with transportation topping the list.

“While transportation has had a fair amount of attention, it hasn’t felt like enough given the sorry state of our transportation system in all corners of the state,” said Jesse Mermell, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, a coalition of Massachusetts CEOS, entrepreneurs and investors.

It’s been an issue at the heart of the gubernatorial race in particular, as Democrat Jay Gonzalez and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker propose different strategies to tackle what they agree is one of the state’s biggest problems.

“In terms of the broad policy issue I hear most about, it’s transportation,” said JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. “I think they both understand the importance of the issue, and are both proposing ways to address it.”

He said that for business leaders, whether the issue is transportation or something else, the key concerns really aren’t partisan. Though the strategies to address them might be, Chesloff said ultimately, businesses mostly want the same things.

“The economy, jobs, competitiveness, are not partisan issues,” Chesloff said, “they’re just issues that are for the good of the commonwealth.”

Alongside transportation, business leaders are looking at issues like education, housing and climate change this election season.

“At the 30,000-foot level, our members care about how we make significant progress on issues of economic inequality and social mobility, because that’s what is necessary to create long-term and sustainable economic growth for everyone in the commonwealth,” Mermell said. “Specifically, we’re keeping an eye on the way issues like transportation, housing, education, climate change and clean energy, and workplace opportunity are being discussed.”

The specific issues that get the most attention from any particular business vary along with the size and scope of the business itself, Chesloff said.

“The business community is not monolithic, there’s large business, there’s small business, there’s different industries, there’s different challenges in different regions of the state, but I think broadly, there are issues that all businesses can agree to, like the importance of a skilled and trained workforce, the importance of a reliable and efficient transportation system,” Chesloff said.

So how willing is the business community to pay for these priorities? According to Peter Ubertaccio, a professor of political science at Stonehill College, Massachusetts business leaders actually tend to put their money where their mouths are.

“The business community is … much more inclined to seek private initiatives to solve social issues, but in Massachusetts, I find that the business community is open to making investments in things like infrastructure, that they understand the connection between infrastructure projects and a healthy economy,” Ubertaccio said. “Unlike, say, a lot of progressive activists, they also worry a bit more about the impact of high tax rates on the overall health of the economy.”

He said that as a whole, the business community is more conservative than other segments of the population, especially on fiscal issues, tax rates and government spending — ideas that Charlie Baker shares.

“The business community tends to be conservative in so many ways, they don’t like radical change, they prefer incremental change,” Ubertaccio said,” and they’ve got a good working relationship with this governor, who I think fits their world view.”

Chris Geehern, vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said he sees four key issues that businesses care about, regardless of whether it’s election season: talent acquisition, health insurance, reasonable government regulation and keeping costs down. He said those are always issues he’d like to see more focus on, though he knows candidates have a lot of ground to cover.

“If you harken back to either Bill Clinton or James Carville, whoever actually said this, that ‘it’s the economy, stupid,’ and I think it still is the economy if you strip away everything else,” Geehern said. “People really are concerned with having jobs, being able to support their families and having an economy where they have the confidence to go and spend money, buy things and all that, so really these issues are important not just to employers but to the general public and the overall economy.”

But ultimately, Geehern said, talking about the business community as a single entity is a misnomer.

“Employers, like everyone else, are anxious for candidates to really dig in and talk about these issues,” Geehern said. “They affect the ability of companies to prosper, whether they be big companies or your corner grocery store, and they affect people’s jobs and livelihoods, so certainly we would hope that … they really do focus on the economy.”

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