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Change, but no revolution, at the Chamber of Commerce

James E. Rooney, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.John Tlumacki /Staff/File 2015

Backing a bill to prevent transgender discrimination? That’s easy.

Backing new taxes? That’s hard.

If James Rooney, CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, really wants his organization to be more cutting edge — as he told the Globe’s Jon Chesto — he should cut against the grain of classic, antitax thinking in the business community.

That’s the difference between the Chamber’s admirable support for transgender rights and the promotion of truly progressive economic policy. From that perspective, Rooney has a long way to go before anyone confuses him with Bernie Sanders.

With Rooney at the helm, the new face of the Chamber looks a lot like the old. A nationwide search to replace longtime Chamber head Paul Guzzi ended up with another longtime Boston establishment figure. Rooney, 57, took over as executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority in 2003. Before that, his employers included the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the Big Dig, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

OK, so he doesn’t look like a revolutionary. But Rooney could still lead like one. So far, he’s not.


Take his reaction to the so-called millionaire’s tax — a proposed income tax surcharge that would raise taxes on income over $1 million by 4 percentage points. Proponents, who are aiming to get it on the 2018 ballot, say the surcharge would affect 14,000 individuals and generate between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion in additional revenue.

“We get the fact that proponents are trying to create a revenue stream for much needed investments in education and transportation,” said Rooney. But “this is an example of a form of tax that we need to be careful of,” he said, sounding the usual business community warning that if Massachusetts levies such a tax, it risks losing companies rather than attracting them — like Connecticut did with tax policies that drove out General Electric.


Yet this proposed income tax surcharge is supported by the Alliance for Business Leadership, a more progressive business group that is attracting a younger, more diverse constituency. “It’s less about the source and more about where the money is going,” said Jesse Mermell, the group’s president. “Few things would drive businesses and their leaders out of Massachusetts faster than a poorly educated workforce and a further deteriorated transportation system. We risk that outcome if we fail to invest in education and transportation, the keys to our economic future.”

What about the effort to add a 1 percent surcharge to Boston property tax bills (with exemptions for seniors and lower-income homeowners)? Proponents say the surcharge would raise $13 million in new tax revenue, plus an additional state match of at least 25 percent, to be earmarked for affordable housing, parks, and historic preservation. To raise the money, Boston voters must embrace a law called the Community Preservation Act. The Boston City Council is expected to put the measure before voters on the November ballot.

The Alliance has not taken a stand on it. Neither has the Chamber. However, Rooney said he recently discussed it with Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who hasn’t taken a public stand on it either.

Creating affordable housing is critical to the business community because if talented, young people can’t afford to live in Boston, “that’s a problem,” said Rooney. On the other hand, increasing the property tax for business and residents could affect Boston’s competitiveness.


There’s nothing revolutionary about that analysis.

So maybe it’s good news that the Chamber, under Rooney, plans on getting braver about staking out political positions, and maybe it’s not. Activism in itself doesn’t represent change — not if it promotes the same old knee-jerk response to the same old taxing questions.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.