Organizers of Small Business Day narrow event’s focus

Small businesses’ big day in New York’s capital is turning into a smaller affair.

Small businesses’ big day in New York’s capital is turning into a smaller affair.

When small-scale employers from across the state descend on Albany Thursday for Small Business Day, they will find a shorter itinerary for the annual lobbying event. Event organizers have nixed mainstay features, such as keynote speakers and seminars, cutting the event’s schedule in half to about two hours.

At a time when both the state government and national economy are undergoing painful transitions, the Business Council of New York State and its organizing partners are focusing solely on health care issues. The business groups usually push a menu of issues, ranging from energy costs to property taxes.

The shift in strategy also reflects changes in the ranks of organizers, many of whom have installed new public policy teams and leadership.

“The point is to get to Albany and get to your legislators,” said Todd Shimkus, the new chairman of the Chamber Alliance of New York State, another Small Business Day organizer. He is also the president of Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce in Glens Falls.

Over the last two years, Small Business Day was “not the most effective tool.” The event this year is expected to attract only 100 people, but the Business Council will have a “much greater presence” in 2009, said Pamela Reese Finch, who in January became the Business Council’s small-business advocate.

“Change doesn’t happen over the year, but we are making progress toward that,” said Finch, who previously worked for the Employer Alliance for Affordable Health Care, a grassroots organization that primarily opposed additional legislative health insurance mandates in New York.

Organizers said they do not want to waste small-business owners’ time by making them sit through presentations. Last year’s speaker itinerary included Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno plus Empire Development Corp.’s upstate and downstate chairmen, Daniel Gunderson and Patrick Foye.

As the national economy careens toward a recession, organizers believe lawmakers can best deliver relief to small businesses by slowing the rise of health care costs.

Between 2001 and 2007, health insurance premiums rose by 78 percent, outpacing the 17 percent in inflation and 19 percent gain in workers’ earnings. The state has 427,000 small businesses that employ 3.9 million, according to the Business Council and National Federation of Independent Businesses, two trade organizations in Albany.

Business owners are expected to lobby Thursday against former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s executive budget proposal to tax health care premiums and to restore the Insurance Department commissioner’s ability to review and approve rate increases for small- business health insurance products. They will also push for eligibility and marketing changes for Healthy New York, a state-subsidized health insurance program for small businesses, said Shimkus.

“We’re making it more of a lobbying day,” said Michael Elmendorf, the New York state director for the NFIB, another Small Business Day organizer.

Elmendorf said the new Small Business Day strategy reflects changes within organizers’ ranks. Elmendorf, a former special assistant to former Gov. George Pataki, joined the NFIB in February 2007. Diana Ehrlich, a former Business Council staffer, last year became the NFIB’s assistant state director.

The Business Council has also recently seen a number of internal changes, starting with Kenneth Adams, who became its president and chief executive officer in November 2006. Adams, the former president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. succeeded Daniel Walsh.

In the past year, the Business Council has seen its director of communications, Matthew Maguire, take a job at the Eric Mower & Associates public relations firm in Albany. David Schaffer, the president of the Business Council’s Public Policy Institute moved on to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany. So did former Public Policy Institute Director of Research Robert Ward.

“We’re trying a few things differently, and the board is fully behind [Adams],” said John Murry Jr, a Business Council director and the president and CEO of the Rose & Kiernan insurance agency in East Greenbush.

Small Business Day’s heightened focus on lobbying might stem from Adams’ experience as a chamber head. By eliminating the event’s seminar, business owners can meet with up to three legislators, compared to one under the old schedule, said Linda Hillman, president of the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s always been lobbying, but there’s more time for lobbying and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Businesses owners will be lobbying against taxes at a time when newly installed Gov. David Paterson is facing a $4.9 million budget shortfall in a budget. He has proposed cutting $800 million, or 2 percent, in agency spending for the coming fiscal year. The budget faces a Tuesday deadline.

“There’s a real sensitivity among legislators and the new governor as to what they can do to make sure they are supporting businesses’ recovery effort,” said Shimkus, at CANYS.

Roger Hannay, the chairman of Westerlo industrial reel manufacturer Hannay Reels, said the leaner Small Business Day schedule does not mean the event is “dying a slow death.” He said the event will have a fuller agenda next year. Hannay also sits on the Business Council’s board of directors and NFIB’s leadership council.

Small Business Day starts Thursday with an 8 a.m. breakfast, followed by welcoming remarks made by Adams, Elmendorf and Shimkus. Business owners will start lobbying at 10 a.m.

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