Commentary

Repairing the Government-Business Relationship

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Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with dozens of business owners about regulatory reform. The specific issues they highlight vary. Some emphasize the need to overhaul labor laws and worker protection programs that are costly and time-consuming to administer. Some complain that environmental rules are guided more by bureaucrats’ whims than by sound science. Some talk about silly tax policies that discourage them from providing their employees additional benefits, or about unjustified zoning codes that prevent development. Though their grievances and policy recommendations differ, they all share a common concern – that government agencies in Maine view businesses not as valuable allies in promoting prosperity but as malicious entities determined to undermine and ignore regulators’ authority whenever possible.

The owner of a boat-building company recently told me: “If the regulatory bodies looked at business as [a] valuable asset in society…[instead of] wanting to bang down the door and throw fines around and threaten to close doors…it’d be better for everyone.”

This accusatory, adversarial attitude permeates, it seems, every agency and department. According to the Portland Chamber of Commerce, “Employers report too often that regulators can be antagonistic in their interactions. If that behavior was confined to wrong-doers it might be understandable, but it is not.”

Bureaucrats and policymakers need to understand that most businesses want to do the right thing, but many lack the proper knowledge and expertise. Most of the time, businesses that break the law do so involuntarily and unknowingly. The tangle of local, state, and federal regulations has become so impenetrable that small business owners struggle to keep up with the latest requirements. The vast majority of business owners recognize the proper place of government regulation in protecting consumers, workers, and the environment, and are eager to rectify compliance issues and accommodate necessary changes.

There are certainly unscrupulous business owners who would compromise the safety of their workers and customers – and ignore their legal obligations – in order to maximize profits. But they are the exception.

To improve the relationship between government agencies and the businesses they oversee, regulations should be made more user-friendly and readable. When rules are easy to understand, compliance increases, mistakes and misinterpretations decline, and there’s less of a need for strained, frustrating interactions with regulators. Ensuring that bureaucrats understand and appreciate the value of businesses, and demonstrate a commitment to cooperation and restraint, is also critical.

A thriving private sector creates jobs, lifts wages, and grows our economy. Maine needs a small, efficient bureaucracy that helps our businesses understand and apply regulations – not one that generates fear, resentment, and avoidance.

About Liam Sigaud

Liam Sigaud is a former policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. A native of Rockland, Maine, he holds a B.A. in Biology from the University of Maine at Augusta and has studied policy analysis and economics at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. He can be reached by email at liam.sigaud@maine.edu.

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