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Chamber Is Urged to Join Poverty War

Sen. Alarcon demands that the state business group pitch in to abolish poverty. An official says lawmakers first should lobby local units of the association.

June 13, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A Democratic lawmaker called on the California Chamber of Commerce on Thursday to join an ambitious legislative campaign to abolish poverty in California.

The challenge came during a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Ending Poverty in California.

The committee intends to write a "master plan" to resolve an issue that has evaded a permanent solution.

"I want you to know that I absolutely expect the Chamber of Commerce to be a partner in this endeavor," said Sen. Richard Alarcon of Sylmar, committee chairman.

Dominic Di Mare, a chamber representative who introduced himself as "the voice of business in California," agreed that everybody favors eliminating the "huge issue" of poverty in a state whose economy is rated the fifth-largest in the world.

But he did not answer directly when Alarcon asked if the chamber, one of the most influential employer trade associations in Sacramento, plans to adopt a policy of "corporate social responsibility" that would include a commitment to eradicating poverty.

Di Mare said that the organization of nearly 16,000 members, including businesses large and small, had given "preliminary discussion" to the issue but suggested that lawmakers should concentrate on lobbying local businesses and chambers of commerce to approve them first.

"The onus is on you and your colleagues," Di Mare told Alarcon -- to persuade the locals to include an antipoverty mission in any statements of corporate social responsibility.

He said the notion of ending poverty was not ordinarily an issue that got the chamber's attention because "we traditionally are an organization that is dedicated to advocating on behalf of business issues."

But Alarcon said he thought the chamber should involve itself, noting that 40% of Californians have no job-based health insurance. He asked whether there was something the chamber could do "that gets us down to 35%, 30% or 25%?"

"Some people question whether ending poverty is achievable," Alarcon said. "We ended it for the early Italian Americans in California. We did it for the Okies and Arkies.... We've had experience at ending poverty."

But Di Mare testified that employers, particularly small-business operators, would devote more time and effort to worthwhile community activities if they were not so tied down by government regulations.

"People have their time consumed with compliance and record-keeping ... and reporting back to the state and federal government," he said.

Alarcon said avoidance of corporate social responsibility had forced government to regulate business activities, such as imposing national and state minimum wage rates because businesses underpaid employees.

The chamber also was attacked by Jamie Court, a consumer advocate and author of the new book "Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom."

In testimony, Court charged that the California Chamber of Commerce regularly abuses democratic processes that put the "commercial gain of a few large corporations over the interests of the individual, society, small business and ethical companies."

Court said the Legislature must enact reforms that would hold the Chamber of Commerce accountable.

Alarcon said that he might agree with Court's allegations, but that they were not connected to the issue of ending poverty. Di Mare did not respond to Court, but he said chamber members care for their employees.

At another point, committee member Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) disagreed with the testimony of another witness, Richard Abrams, a history professor at UC Berkeley, and walked out of the hearing.

Johnson indicated that Abrams' testimony was trivial and off the mark, complaining to Alarcon that he would rather hear from small-business owners.

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