By Pete Caster
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, on Wednesday sat across from a semicircle of small business owners and listened to a litany of state- and federal-business regulation horror stories.
Braun and the dozen local entrepreneurs were joined by Patrick Connor, Washington state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and Erin Shannon, director of Washington Policy Center’s Center for Small Business, at the event held at Braun Northwest in Chehalis.
President of emergency vehicle manufacturer Braun Northwest and a state senator interested in labor, budget and economic issues, Braun hosted the event to get a more accurate picture of local businesses’ struggles and concerns, he said.
In an introduction to the program, Shannon described the volume of bureaucratic procedures — some duplicative, others contradictory, many nonsensical — that smother small-business growth.
From 2011 to 2012, during which there was a moratorium on noncritical rulemaking, state agencies enacted 805 new permanent rules and 909 temporary rules, totaling 15,754 pages of text and 10,000 changes in the Washington administrative code, according to Shannon.
“The agencies have the force of law,” she said. “Small businesses have to know, understand and keep track of these changes. It’s on them, otherwise they face incurring significant penalties.”
According to Shannon, several independent polls and studies have ranked Washington’s business climate among the worst in the nation: A study by Forbes magazine, for example, ranked Washington 12th worst, a study by George Washington University placed it 13th.
Stories from local small business owners, shared at the meeting, ranged from comical to devastating.
Holding up a cable cord, Dean Hartman, owner of Thurston County-based Capital Business Machines, said state regulations prevent him from plugging in his fax machine.
For years, Hartman said, he used his fax machine without issue.
“Then L&I decided I wasn’t capable of doing that, and I was going to kill people,” Hartman, the third generation owner of the office supply store, recalled.
To plug in the fax machine, he would have to obtain an electrical contractor’s license. If he didn’t, he’d receive a $500 fine every time he plugged in the machine.
“The funny part,” Hartman said, “is that the customer can plug this in by himself with no problem. No one dies, no one gets electrocuted, nothing.”
“Now, every year I get an extortion fee, and I pay L&I to have the privilege to be able to plug this is,” he said. “One little cord.”
Gordon Johns, an opthamologist with Pacific Cataract and Laser Center in Chehalis, said doctors deal with the dual burden of medical and business rules.
“What we’re up against,” Johns said, “is a culture of regulations.”
Because regulators — even at the top of agencies — are never held accountable for their actions, business owners have no recourse, according to Johns.
“They are never allowed to use any common sense whatsoever,” he said. “A rule is a rule.”
Electing business-friendly legislators can help create sensible laws, the eye doctor said, but business laws tend to be very general, allowing a wide range of, possibly unintended, enforcement policies.
Braun, as a business owner, also chronicled his struggles with state and federal regulation, including: wastes of time and money, stacks of needless paperwork and unnecessary rules.
“All to no good end. It didn’t make us stronger as a company,” he said. “It just caused problems.”
“They’re saying you’re not smart enough to think for yourself. We’re going to think for you. And that’s wrong, it’s just wrong,” he said.
Braun in his first year in the Senate, was named chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development committee, vice chair of the Commerce and Labor Committee and a member of the Ways and Means Committee.