Heather C. Briccetti has led the top business organization in New York state as president and CEO of The Business Council of New York for 16 months. She has been an Albany fixture since serving as an Assembly intern in 1985. A graduate of SUNY at Binghamton, she earned a law degree at the University at Albany and worked at the district attorney’s office there before starting her own law firm. She was appointed the Rensselaer County public defender and later was special council in the office of the state Attorney General under Dennis Vacco. She worked as a lobbyist at Powers and Company before joining the Business Council as VP for Government Affairs six years ago.
What does the Business Council do?
A: We represent about 2,600 businesses, private sector and some universities as well. Our focus is on improving the state’s climate for job creation. We are advocates on some of the obvious issues – tax climate, property taxes and income taxes ... New York is ranked in last place by the Tax Foundation in terms of tax climate, so that is something we advocate on.
We also do advocacy on labor and employment issues, like workers’ comp, unemployment insurance and health care. We are also very focused on educational workforce development.
Are you happy with the latest state budget?
A: We were very supportive of parts of the budget. We are very pleased we have now had three consecutive years of under 2 percent growth in state spending, which is really unprecedented.
There are some downsides to the budget. The minimum wage we opposed. We asked for a youth training wage component. What we got was a tax credit. I think we would have preferred a straight-up training wage. The proposal started off a straight $9 right off the bat. Now it is phased in, which is good.
The other onerous piece of the budget that got enacted is the surcharge on energy.
There is a fee called ‘18A’ on electric service which was originally intended to fund the PSC [Public Service Commission], the regulatory agency. We have never objected to that as a funding mechanism. But back in 2009, there was a surcharge placed on ‘18A’ that generates between $600 and $700 million a year that goes directly the general fund. It’s just a mechanism by which utility companies are forced to collect taxes on behalf of the state. It was supposed to sunset, but this budget extends it. It does phase it out, but we wanted it to end this year.
Does the Business Council work well with the Cuomo administration?
A: For businesses, I think New York has always been a difficult place, but it is an improvement that we have the ability to address our concerns directly to the administration. It’s positive.
What does the Business Council do for education?
A: Even though unemployment is relatively high, there are a lot of open positions but there are not a lot of workers available with the skill set to fill those positions.
We are working with the state Education Department to try to find new models even at the K-12 level to improve outcomes and connecting the business community to public education so that we start to make sure the skills taught in high school and community college are skills that translate to real live jobs in the community. A couple of examples are the P-TECH school (Pathways in Technology: Early College High School) in New York City. IBM is the partner. The kids graduate from high school with an associates degree, so they have a substantially enhanced work skill set.
Anther example is Tech Valley High School in the Albany area. Local districts have the option of sending their students there. They have volunteers from the business community who help teach and build the curriculum and make sure these kids are coming out with a new economy skill set.
How about higher education?
A: New York produces some of the most talented college graduates in the country. Some of them might not be U.S. citizens, and so we need to take a look at immigration policy. If we are producing highly skilled college graduates and telling them they can not stay here. To me it seems like not necessarily the best plan.
What about preparing for a new economy?
A: We need to encourage the innovation economy. We need to learn how to create an environment where we can have another Silicon Valley experience. How do you get them from higher education to commercialization? Our public policy institute issued a report on the importance of bio-science and life-sciences in New York because it has been an under appreciated sector. This is very relevant to Western New York. We need to look at what are the road blocks to commercialization in particular and R&D jobs. That’s not to say we are not looking at traditional manufacturing jobs as well, but you have to go where the economy is going, where job growth is occurring.
Other issues facing business?
A: The elephant in the room is health care. It always is. We poll our members every year, and health care is always the number one concern. There is a lot of concern about implementation of the Affordable Care Act. There is a lot of discussion about how it will motivate employers to drop coverage because people will then be able to go to the exchange, because the fine will be less than actual carrying costs. But I like to remind people that health insurance is an employee benefit, and it is something employers use to lure and attract talent and keep good employees. I expect many employers will continue to provide health insurance coverage and instead will be looking for ways to contain the costs and improve the health and wellness of their employees.
Do you think many companies will stop offering health care to employees?
A: I’m sure some employers will drop coverage. It’s sort of an unfortunate structure. We have a lot of high cost mandated coverage. So I am sure some will drop coverage. However, if you get to a competitive labor market, having good coverage is going to be what it will take to attract workers. A lot of people are waiting to see how it gets implemented.
Is the business climate improving in New York state?
A: Yes, I think so. I think it will take time. The property tax cap is going to have a beneficial impact. Long term I think you will see a benefit in terms of property tax. The largest taxes most businesses pay are property taxes.
We think moving forward with hydro-fracking. It is something that would have a dramatic positive benefit economically in the Southern Tier in particular, but throughout Western New York... There is no reason you have just a state line between the Souther Tier and Pennsylvania, and on one side of the line you have wealth creation and on the other you don’t.
What are the biggest impediments in New York for a business reaching its potential?
A: I think the high cost of energy, and I think that gets unfairly pinned on the utilities. We put out a report in 2010, on what is in your electric bill and the average is 25 percent of your electric bill is state and local government added taxes and fees.
Secondly, the regulatory structure. We need some streamlining of the regulatory structure. And third, property taxes, and I think we are on the road to recovery with property taxes.
What advice would you to a young person considering starting a business. Why do it in New York?
A: You’ve got to best higher education, you’ve got some of the best markets in the world in terms of population. If you are doing retail or anything that needs a customer, there is a good customer base right here. And you have a tremendous amount of resources in terms of higher ed. They will provide incubators and expertise for things like engineering. RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) has a packaging facility that will test every kind of packaging possible, for example. That’s something that I do not think is true in other states.