Jim Tollefson


POSTED: Friday, November 13, 2009

Hawaii can't tax itself out of a recession. That's the view of longtime business executive James C. “;Jim”; Tollefson, who says reducing the cost of doing business in the islands is the best way to attract and create jobs and restore long-lasting economic health.

Tollefson is president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, which, with more than 1,000 members representing close to 200,000 employees, bills itself as “;the voice of business”; in the state.

He's been on the job since 2002, having served on the chamber's board for seven years before that, including a stint as chairman.

Tollefson has lived on Oahu since 1987, when he moved from California to work for Bank of Hawaii, rising to executive vice president during his 14-year tenure. He was born and raised in Kansas and graduated from Kansas State University with degrees in psychology and business administration. The Army veteran is active in a variety of business and community groups, including the Oahu Workforce Investment Board and the YMCA of Honolulu.

QUESTION: What are the top issues for the chamber?




Chamber, education department join in student mentor program

        The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and the Department of Education have a joint initiative to provide high school seniors mentors from the business community.

To be eligible for a Special Recognition Diploma, students must complete a rigorous senior project and there is an ongoing need for professional mentors to help guide their work.


For information about how to get involved, visit helphawaiischools.com/seniorprojects.




ANSWER: As we prepare for the upcoming legislative session, our top issue ... is the impending increase of the unemployment tax, which will take effect after the first of the year. This is our No. 1 priority that we're working on right now.

Q: What is the goal?

A: The business community has enjoyed, in effect, a two-year tax holiday, and preliminary numbers that we've received indicate that the average tax increase will go from about $90 (a year per employee) to about $1,000. So the detrimental impact on the business community will be great. We are working with the (state) Department of Labor, and we've had meetings with legislators, including leadership, as well as senior members of the (state) administration to discuss possible ways to reduce the impact of this increase.

Q: How does the chamber feel about raising the general excise tax (GET)?

A: We are opposed to raising the GET. We feel that the impact on businesses and individuals at this point in time would be detrimental. We know that the Legislature has a difficult task ahead of them as they look at declining revenues, but we believe that now is not the time to increase the general excise tax.

Q: Has the chamber suggested ways to balance the budget?

A: We know it's difficult. We must find ways to reduce the cost of government.

Q: Are you talking labor costs? Program costs?

A: We are having discussions with government officials regarding the various options that could be taken. We need to explore all options.

Q: What are some other goals for the legislative session?

A: Obviously we are seeking ways to reduce the cost of doing business in the state of Hawaii. We currently rank among one of the worst states in the cost of doing business. So as we formulate our legislative agenda, this will be a priority, somehow bringing down the cost. ... We are having a meeting (today), bringing together a wide variety of business organizations focused on creating joint goals and priorities as we move forward. Over 20 different groups are attending — the ethnic chambers, regional chambers, affiliated chambers as well as other business organizations statewide. We've been conducting these meetings for the past four years, but this is the first time we have ... (opened attendance) this broadly.

Q: What about the state's budget crisis and the government's response? Does the chamber support the furloughs, or would it have preferred a different response?

A: We have not taken an official position relative to the state's response to the budget crisis, including the furloughs. ... (Regarding) the teacher furloughs, one of the initiatives that we took was to create a “;Keep Active on Furlough Fridays”; link on our Web site that provides a connector for parents who are looking for opportunities for their children during these Fridays.

Q: What about the deeper impact, not just on those Fridays, but looking at Hawaii's overall educational system.

A: We are very concerned about the longer-term impact of reducing the school year. We have consistently indicated that we are very focused on the educational system here because the students that graduate today are the workers of tomorrow, so it's important for us to have a school system that provides the highest level possible of student competency.

Q: Does the Chamber of Commerce still support Honolulu rail transit?

A: Yes, we still support it.

Q: Nationally, the White House is said to be icing out the Chamber of Commerce as the chief representative of business, angry about the chamber's opposition to health care reform and climate-change legislation. Does that affect your ability to lobby at the state and local level?

A: No, it hasn't, because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a separate entity. ... So from time to time the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii finds itself not in alignment with some of the positions taken by the U.S. Chamber (of which the Hawaii branch is a member). We are concerned about climate change ... So taking the environment as an example, we are concerned, and many of our members are, and we support efforts to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and promote “;green”; business in many ways.

Q: What about health care reform?

A: We are currently in the process of putting together a survey of our members to see what they support. We in Hawaii are in a very unique position because for over 30 years we have had the Pre-Paid Health Care Act. ... So we're asking our members for their opinion on whether they would rather opt out of any national plan, and retain what we have already in Hawaii, or if they would rather participate in whatever comes out of the federal effort. ... We are a member-driven organization, so our position will depend on what our members say.

Q: Locally, the chamber was criticized a few years ago as favoring large businesses over small ones. Do you think you're representing the full spectrum of business interests in Hawaii?

A: I absolutely believe we are representing the full spectrum of businesses in Hawaii. Well over 80 percent of our members are small businesses ... We provide a lot of training, networking and information especially for small businesses. And at the Legislature we are very focused on issues that affect small businesses.

Q: Getting back to the state's budget crisis, what's the best approach?

A: We've got to find a way to do two things: We've got to bring down the cost of government, but we also have to increase our revenues, and not by increasing taxes, but by supporting the business community. The business community is where the jobs are created. And when you create jobs, you create tax revenue. ... One of the solutions that I see is to support business so that we can create jobs and bring back jobs that will then generate the tax revenues that will help support government.