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At the table, or on the menu: R.I. businesses form new group to influence policy

Rhode Island Business Coalition has organized itself as a 501(c)6 as it seeks to have a stronger voice on Smith Hill

PROVIDENCE — For a few years, a business group has been working to advance its interests through an informal umbrella called the Rhode Island Business Coalition.

It’s getting more formal now: The group has organized itself as a 501(c)6 nonprofit, picked a president who will draw pay for the first time, and is charging its roughly two dozen members dues as it seeks to have a stronger voice on Smith Hill.

“It’s not just one particular industry. We are buying into it as an association,” John Simmons, the group’s new president, said in an interview. ‘That’s where we feel we have the strength.”

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The coalition is made up of chambers of commerce around the state, and industry-specific groups like the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, and the Rhode Island Society of Certified Public Accountants. Particular businesses won’t be involved, but their trade associations will.

The move comes amid broader shifts in the General Assembly. In the 2020 election, progressives made major inroads in the Democratic Party-dominated Legislature. Some in the business world see a shift against their interests.

Among the issues the newly rejuvenated business group is looking to lobby on: Paycheck Protection Program grants, which Governor Dan McKee wants to tax; what employer protections will come along with marijuana legalization legislation; and a pay equity bill that would add new pay structure restrictions on employers in an effort to close the gender wage gap. They’re not going to fight everyone on everything, Simmons said, but want to help shape laws that will affect them.

The group was originally formed about 15 years ago when Simmons was the head of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. But it’s been informal and ad hoc. Its website, for example, still talks about its priorities in the 2018 legislative session, with information on the 2019 session coming soon. They’ll do a website refresh as part of the reboot.

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In the meantime, the General Assembly has moved on to other things. For example, McKee signed a climate bill, making carbon-reduction goals mandatory. Simmons said the bill “didn’t have enough input from the business community.”

In explaining the philosophy behind the group, its chair, Dave Chenevert, cited a piece of wisdom he’d first heard from House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi: You either have to be at the table, or you’re going to be on the menu.

Chenevert, who is the executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, said it’s been harder to be at the table lately, especially with the COVID pandemic cutting down in-person opportunities. But he’s hoping this group is the start of some change.

“It’s important to the business community to be a voice to be reckoned with at the state level,” Chenevert said.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.