Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, is regarded as among the most influential people and lobbyists in Pennsylvania politics.
He runs an organization with 9,000 members, ranging from giants such as Walmart and Comcast to neighborhood dry cleaners. He’s arguably the voice of business in the Keystone State.
Barr, 62, grew up in Upland, went to St. James High School in Chester, and graduated from St. Joseph’s University.
His work experience is broad. It stretches from teen years delivering the Chester Times and Philadelphia Bulletin to making cheesesteaks and hoagies at Phil & Jim’s deli (still in business in Delco’s Parkside Borough) to work at the former BP refinery in Marcus Hook.
In his 20s, he served a decade on Upland Borough Council. He then worked for BP in Cleveland and Atlanta, the Associated Petroleum Industries Association of Pennsylvania, and the Harrisburg law firm McNees, Wallace & Nurrick.
He’s been with the chamber since 2003, served on state commissions under Govs. Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett, and has been chamber president since 2011.
He’s so in sync with the state budget cycle that his birthday, June 30, falls on the date of the annual budget deadline.
He’s a huge American history buff and a Civil War reenactor, a hobby that got him gigs as an extra in Civil War films such as Gettysburg (1993) and Glory (1989). He’s also author of A Civil War Captain and his Lady (Sava Beatie, 2016), a nonfiction true-love story.
Political columnist John Baer recently sat down with Barr at chamber headquarters in Harrisburg. These are excerpts from the conversation.
So, from your perspective, how’s business in Pennsylvania?
We’ve made some strides. I think there’s more we can do. I recently returned from a trade mission to Israel and heard about the desire to do more trade with the U.S. But the first names that come up are New York and Boston. What’s wrong with Philadelphia? What’s wrong with Pittsburgh?
Speaking of this commonwealth, it’s about to adopt a new state budget. What’s in it for business, positive or negative?
Well, we expressed concern at the outset. There’s a $3 billion nut (in current and projected deficits) that has to be cracked. The governor proposed $2 billion in consolidations, savings, efficiencies, etc., and we’re certainly appreciative of efficiencies. The problem was the other billion was filled by taxes on business.
So, yeah, there are things we’re keeping an eye on to make sure we don’t harm Pennsylvania’s competitiveness.
Why do so many national surveys — best states for business, best states for job creation — always show Pennsylvania ranking in the 30s or lower among states?
First off, we’ve got the highest effective corporate income tax rate in the U.S. (9.99 percent). That’s always a giant red flag when you’re trying to recruit companies. We’ve also had a reputation of being difficult to deal with in terms of permitting.
What about our unemployment rate? Highest among Northeastern states, higher than our neighboring states, among the highest in the nation. Is that related to the poor showings in national rankings?
I think it is. Capital is going to trace to the path of least resistance. One thing is we have too much local government: thousands of municipalities, plus all the authorities, 500 school districts. It’s problematic for permitting. Talk to companies looking to make investments and they find they have to deal with three different municipalities who can’t get their act together, and that ends that.
Whether it’s perception or reality, people believe Pennsylvania’s too difficult to deal with, therefore they go elsewhere.
How do you fix that?
One big problem is we have people without jobs and jobs without people. Jobs go unfilled because there are not enough trained people to fill them. This includes jobs in the skilled trades. We’ve undertaken a major initiative to educate students and parents about job opportunities that includes working with the Mike Rowe Works Foundation.
We’re the only chamber in the U.S. to partner with that foundation, to offer scholarships to young people and returning veterans to attend trade and technical schools. We’ll award the first of those scholarships this year.
Given what’s become a global economy, can any state really control a state economy?
To some degree. Obviously, a lot of what happens is going to be dictated at the federal level. But for those looking to invest in the U.S., the kind of atmosphere and receptivity you demonstrate toward investment makes a difference. Tax rates make a difference. Permitting makes a difference. And if we do it right, we can make a difference, particularly with companies that are energy-intensive.
Which is why you oppose a severance tax on natural gas?
Yeah, we do. We have one. They don’t want to call it a severance tax. It’s an impact tax. And you can’t look at a tax in isolation. I’ve heard people say Texas has a severance tax. They do. Texas also does not have a corporate net income tax.
States compete. Whatever we don’t give in order to get and keep business, other states will.
Pennsylvania’s always been a strong union state. Is that a problem for business?
It creates issues. I certainly believe everyone should have the ability to join a union. I’ve had union in my family. But people should also have the ability to not join.
We are now in a minority in terms of right-to-work states. Most states are right-to-work. And those states have seen increased investments.
Look, when unions began, there were many more (workplace) abuses. Since then, we have EPA, Labor & Industry, OSHA, etc. You have to have some recognition that maybe the world has changed.