Author Archives: goldham

Immigration Reform for the 21st Century Global Economy

Congress is busy working on an immigration overhaul that, if passed, will usher in the most dramatic changes to the nation’s immigration system in more than two decades. While much of the focus and attention is on issues of border security, enforcement and pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the legislative overhaul now in progress presents an opportunity to advance issues important to the business community.

One key issue facing businesses in the Bay Area, and across the nation, is the inability to access top international talent, particularly in the areas of science and technology. In fact, demand for the 85,000 H-1B visas available for the upcoming year outpaced supply in the first week.  As a result, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will run a random lottery to award this year’s allocation. According to the Brookings Institute, employer requests have exceeded demand every year except 2001 to 2003, when the annual cap was temporarily raised.  Clearly, we need to increase the availability of temporary, skilled foreign worker visas to meet current market demand.

Opportunities also exist to improve visa access for foreign job creators. Each year, thousands of foreign students come to our country for an advanced degree from our world-class academic institutions. Today, one out of every three Ph.D. recipients and one out of four Master’s degree recipients in science and engineering in the U.S. are foreign born. Yet, when these talented individuals graduate, they must return to their home countries because employment-based visas are not available.

Creating a new, permanent resident visa or green card for foreign graduates and other entrepreneurs who launch businesses in our country will surely have a positive impact on employment and the economy. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, every foreign student who earns an advanced degree from a U.S. university and stays to work in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) occupations creates an average of 2.62 jobs for American workers. Immigrant-launched businesses also employ one out of every 10 people working for private companies. In today’s global economy, we must do more to compete for these jobs, or they will be created outside our borders.

Legislation introduced this week in the U.S. Senate addresses these issues and charts a new course forward for American immigration reform.  Increasing the availability of visas for highly-skilled workers, graduates and entrepreneurs is a key priority in the Chamber’s 2013 Advocacy Agenda. We join with employers across the nation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and local chambers from across the country in urging Congress to act so that our nation’s immigration system better meets the needs of American employers and the 21st century global economy.

The Chamber invites you to join us in the March for Innovation and Take Action on immigration reform.

Bob Linscheid is President & CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce

Time to Act on CEQA Reform

San Francisco’s planning approvals process is notoriously difficult, often taking months – and sometimes a decade or more – to approve a project. The city’s lengthy process can add significantly to a developer’s costs. These costs are impacting both the pace of development and the type of projects that get built in the city.

While several factors can impact the length of time it takes to get a project approved, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is often a major obstacle. CEQA was intended to ensure analysis and disclosure of environmental impacts of proposed projects prior to construction. Unfortunately, it is frequently misused by anti-growth and Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) activists to extract concessions and kill projects for reasons that have little to do with the environment.

One needs only to look at the lengthy list of worthwhile projects that have been delayed by CEQA in our city to understand the pressing need for reform. The economy-boosting Treasure Island and Parkmerced redevelopments are just two recent examples. And it’s not just large-scale development that is being held hostage. Even small, community projects like the North Beach Library and Lafayette Park are being held up by CEQA.

Governor Jerry Brown and Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg have publicly proclaimed CEQA reform as a priority. The Chamber applauds their efforts and is working with a broad coalition of business and civic groups from across the state to urge reforms that preserve CEQA’s intent, while preventing the abuses that are jeopardizing job creation and economic growth.

While statewide CEQA reform will take time, San Francisco has the opportunity to drastically improve its planning and approvals process today. Supervisor Scott Wiener has put forth sensible legislation to streamline the city’s interpretation of CEQA and the approvals process for local development. Specifically, this proposal increases public notice requirements at the start of the process, establishes more uniform protocols for certain types of CEQA review documents, and shortens the window for appealing a project’s approval to up to 20 days after the first set of approvals is granted.

These practical reforms will go a long way in creating a more clear, open and predictable process to vet proposed development in San Francisco and resolve CEQA disputes in a reasonable timeframe. Shaped through a lengthy public process and numerous hearings, Supervisor Wiener’s legislation has the full support of the Chamber and many transit, bike, affordable housing and good government organizations.

Opponents are concerned that the proposed changes will “weaken CEQA” and complicate state-mandated Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). These claims are simply untrue.  The legislation does not amend CEQA in any way – only the State Legislature can do that. Additionally, the legislation does not affect EIRs, which are also governed by state law and our city’s planning department.

An opportunity to improve San Francisco’s cumbersome planning and approvals process is now in front of us. The Chamber joins the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and many others in urging the Board of Supervisors to approve Supervisor Wiener’s legislation.

Bob Linscheid is President & CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce

Advocating for San Francisco

Last week, over two dozen Bay Area business and civic leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to make their voices heard on issues important to jobs and commerce in our region. This year’s CityTrip DC delegation met with more than 15 top lawmakers and administration officials to express support for critical infrastructure projects, clean and green energy investments, disaster preparedness and many other legislative priorities.

According to our delegation, there is wide recognition in Washington that the San Francisco Bay Area is a leader in economic recovery. During last week’s meetings, lawmakers and federal officials acknowledged the significance of the regional economy and expressed interest in supporting knowledge-based sectors – such as technology, research and medicine – to help bolster continued recovery efforts.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the Bay Area “a model for California” and stressed the role of innovation in creating jobs and reducing the deficit.

Skilled Worker Immigration Reform is one key area where lawmakers and the Chamber are aligned. Congressional leaders and representatives from the Department of Labor and the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness indicated that comprehensive immigration reform is imminent and will include Chamber-supported programs to expand the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and enable more college graduates to stay in the country to develop new technologies and industries in the United States. National immigration policy has proven inadequate to address the needs of companies competing in a global economy, and these actions will greatly help encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Lawmakers also remain committed to California High-Speed Rail – a key initiative championed by the Chamber. From the Department of Transportation, to the Federal Railroad Administration to Congressmembers Barbara Boxer, John Garamendi, Jackie Speier and others, policymakers are putting their full support behind the nation’s first High-Speed Rail project. While Congress awaits President Obama’s budget, administration officials signaled confidence that the first phase of the project – soon to begin in the Central Valley – will be constructed and remain committed to partnering on future phases. Administration officials are also optimistic about funding for key local projects such as the Central Subway Expansion and the Transbay Transit Center.

Attended by San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, Supervisor Malia Cohen and several other local leaders, this year’s CityTrip DC included a tour of the Red Cross Operation Center and meetings with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials to discuss building safety incentives, security communications such as the Chamber-supported BayWEB and other programs to promote disaster preparedness. The Chamber continues to work with SPUR and other organizations to help strengthen the region’s structural and economic resilience following an earthquake or other disaster.

The Chamber thanks our city leaders, members and sponsors who joined us in advocating for our city in Washington, D.C. last week. We also thank the lawmakers who met with us to hear firsthand about the challenges and opportunities facing our region and its businesses.  And we again pledge our commitment to advancing our agenda for economic success throughout the year ahead.

Click here to learn more about CityTrip DC
Click here to view photos from this year’s trip

More Optimism for San Francisco

San Franciscans are optimistic about the future and they should be. Unemployment is down to 6.5 percent. The local economy is growing. And the World Series Champion Giants are gearing up for another exciting season. As a newcomer to this great city, I am energized and honored to be able to play a role in helping to keep San Francisco on a continued path to economic success.

Like the business community, voters are pleased with the city’s recent progress. According to the Dignity Health CityBeat Poll released last week at the Chamber’s annual CityBeat Breakfast, 60 percent of voters believe San Francisco is moving in the right direction, up from 44 percent just two years ago. An increasing number of people also feel that the quality of life is improving, and the majority of city voters are pleased with the work of our elected officials and public servants.

Voters also recognize the importance of economic development and strategic investment on the city’s fiscal health. Seventy-three percent of those polled say they support rebuilding the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) and St Luke’s Hospitals. This should come as no surprise for a development that will significantly enhance healthcare delivery and create thousands of jobs. Similarly, 60 percent of voters support building the Warriors Arena at Piers 30-32 – a project expected to create more than 1,700 jobs and $46 million in development impact fees for the city.

Ranking jobs and the economy among the top issues facing San Francisco – behind only homelessness and panhandling – voters remain concerned about new fees that could slow economic growth. For example, 69 percent of voters oppose the idea of congestion pricing, which would assess fees on motorists who drive into downtown. Fifty-three percent oppose a potential new transit-impact fee on nonprofits. In fact, the only fee polled that voters appear likely to support is the Vehicle License Fee (VLF) – but only if it is reinvested in transit and street improvements.

Mayor Ed Lee remarked at the CityBeat Breakfast that this year’s poll results bear out the hard work that the city and private companies have taken on in recent years.  Collaborative efforts to reform the business tax, invest in affordable housing and support the next-generation of workers are having an impact. As the current Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the California State University System, I recognize the strong linkage between workforce development and sustained economic growth, and I look forward to working with Mayor Lee and the business community to further advance this – and many other – important goals.

This year, the Chamber will put its focus on specific initiatives to catalyze growth and create jobs. We are working to develop a downtown community benefits district (CBD) to improve cleanliness and commerce in the downtown core. We are working to increase city-contracting opportunities for small business. We are calling for legal review of new legislation to be publicly available in order to mitigate costly and unnecessary litigation. We are actively working on these and many other initiatives from our 2013 advocacy agenda to improve the business climate and keep San Francisco on the path to economic success.

Now more than ever, San Francisco is where the world changes. Technology, medical research, cultural and social change begin here. There are significant opportunities ahead, and business and voters are united on many of the key issues and projects that will allow us to maximize them. Now, it’s time to keep the momentum going.

SFO Should Not Be Named for Anyone

The last thing San Francisco needs this November is an expensive, divisive and inappropriate Charter amendment to rename the city’s airport. But that’s exactly what is going to happen unless the Board of Supervisors backs away from a well-intentioned but ill-conceived plan being pushed by Supervisor David Campos to rename San Francisco International Airport (SFO) after civil rights pioneer Harvey Milk. This proposal will do more harm than good and should be stopped in its tracks before it’s too late.

San Francisco International Airport is one of the busiest in the nation and its acronym – SFO – is recognized by millions of travelers and convention planners around the globe. It is a world gateway to Asia and the Pacific Rim and the major gateway into our city. Thanks to continued city investment, SFO recently beat its own record, with 44.5 million passengers passing through its gates last year. Altering the name of the airport in any way will only reduce and dilute the spotlight that “San Francisco International Airport” enjoys on the world stage.

The material costs associated with renaming the airport are exorbitant. While Supervisor Campos first suggested the name change would cost somewhere between $50,000 and $250,000, the San Francisco Chronicle has estimated the price tag to be at least $4 million. And this estimate only includes immediate expenses such as highway signs, airport signage and maps. The costs of rebranding and marketing a newly named airport will be significantly more.

Supervisor Campos says his motivation is not only to honor Milk, but to move forward the civil-rights agenda. But placing this measure on the ballot is risky, as voters will be asked to prioritize and invest in many other important issues like housing and transportation. Even the Bay Area Reporter, the region’s LGBT newspaper, calls the proposal “an unwise move” and “a flight of fancy by one supervisor who seems to be putting his political career ahead of the best interest of the LGBT community – and the city.”

It is not uncommon to name transportation facilities after important civic leaders. For example, the new cruise terminal will be named for former San Francisco Port Commissioner and labor leader Jimmy Herman, but the Port itself will not be renamed. Like the Golden Gate Bridge and other signature city landmarks, SFO should not be named after anyone.

Harvey Milk, like so many others in our city’s long and unique history, is deserving of recognition. But SFO is not suitable for this symbolic gesture. The Chamber urges Supervisor Campos to consider a more appropriate alternative or facility to further his agenda. We encourage the rest of the Board to pull their support so that voters will not have to face this expensive and misguided measure.

Read the Fine Print on CleanPowerSF

San Francisco’s public power plans appear to be going from bad to worse. Originally promising to provide competitively priced green energy alternatives for local residents, the program has ballooned into a $19.5 million city contract with Houston-based Shell Energy that is poised to double residential utility bills and put jobs at risk – all without any guarantee of a greener future.

While we all support the concept of cleaner power there are some bedeviling details about the city’s contract with Shell that need more exploration.

First, is the extraordinary cost. Last month, the Public Utilities Commission and Rate Fairness Board indicated that participants may now have to pay twice as much as those who stay with their current provider. This means the average resident could end up paying over $250 more per year for electric power. And many homeowners, those with large households, and almost every business will pay substantially more than that.

These cost increases will hurt our economy and put jobs at risk. According a report issued last year by the Controller’s Office, the contract with Shell Energy will cost nearly 100 San Franciscans their jobs. But that report was based on the initial cost estimates, which were much lower. The number of jobs lost, given the now-higher prices, is almost certainly more.

Local jobs will be lost because the higher rates will not be used to build more local green power generation. Under the terms of the contract, no new green power will be built in San Francisco, or even in California. The funds from the higher rates will be sent to Houston, where Shell Energy is based, and to other out-of-state power generators.

Finally, the Chamber is highly concerned about the program’s automatic enrollment, which first enrolls customers and then requires them to opt out during a specific period of time or face financial penalties. Many busy residents might forget to fill out and mail in the paperwork required to opt out, and end up paying dramatically higher bills than they can afford.

When residents pay more for energy it means they have less money available for other goods and services. And that impacts every business in the city along with every family that remains in the CleanPowerSF program.

Clean power is important, and some San Franciscans will be willing to pay twice as much for electric power to stay in the city/Shell partnership. But the Chamber encourages businesses and residents to do their homework and read the fine print as the city moves ahead with the rollout of CleanPower SF.

Message to the Legislature: Keep in the spirit of fiscal discipline

California took a big step forward last week when Governor Jerry Brown proposed a $96.7 billion balanced budget for 2013-2014. After a decade of accounting gimmicks and deficit spending that have masked our states financial problems, the proposed budget requires us to live within our means, pays down debt, and puts our state on the path to fiscal stability.

For the first time since 2007, California is in a position to operate without a deficit. This remarkable turnaround is made possible by a growing economy, voter-approved temporary tax increases and much welcome fiscal prudence built into the budget that aligns expenditures with revenues, sustains past budget cuts and creates a $1 billion reserve to weather the changing economic climate.

Overall General Fund spending is projected to grow by 5 percent, from $93 billion in 2012-13 to $97.7 billion in fiscal 2013-14. Total revenues and transfers are estimated to reach $98.5 billion.  Debt is projected to shrink from $27.8 billion to $4.3 billion over the next four years.

Although we are always concerned over the economic impact of tax increases, the passage of Chamber-supported Proposition 30 allows California to increase its investment in education. Funding for K-12 and community colleges will increase by $2.7 billion next year and $19 billion by 2016-17. Funding for California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC) will also increase 5 percent. Such investments will go a long way in helping to prepare more students for college and career and increase the affordability of higher education for deserving students.

The Governor’s proposed weighted student formula for school funding should have a positive budget impact for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). The Chamber will watch legislation on health insurance implementation and Enterprise Zone reform related to the budget.Governor Brown deserves great credit for putting forth a budget plan that will help keep our state on a path toward economic recovery and fiscal stability. As the budget makes its way through the Legislature in the coming months, there will be many pressures to restore funding to programs that have been cut in recent years. But this will only kick the can further down the road, and bring us back to a status quo of decline and uncertainty.

The Chamber applauds Governor Brown and we urge lawmakers to keep in the spirit of fiscal discipline that will keep California golden for years to come.