When a Mississippi Senate subcommittee met recently to discuss the proposed state Department of Labor, Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson was armed with a binder of documents as thick as a Sears catalog. Inside, the contents included almost 700 faxed responses from members that opposed the idea.
“It was about as thick as the Manhattan phone book,” said Wilson, with a laugh. “But it was effective.”
In January, MEC began faxing The Weekly Legislative Insider to its members across the state, alerting them about key legislative activity that could affect their businesses and allowing space for member responses. The system took almost two years to set up on computers MEC purchased from Laurel-based Howard Industries.
“It’s not scientific research, but it gives a good gut check of what business people are thinking,” Wilson said. “It was meant to be a proactive tool for helping members give input to legislators in a positive manner and to eliminate the concept that we’re fighting with the Legislature. That’s the whole key.”
Almost 7,000 members have signed up for the weekly faxes, Wilson said.
“Our vision is to build a sense of a statewide business community,” Wilson said. “The challenge any business leader has is that he cannot be standing in the Legislature whenever it’s in session. What we’ve done is come up with a way a business person could have a meaningful voice in the Legislature without ever leaving his or her desk.”
An excerpt from the March 3 issue proclaimed MEC members did not want a state labor department. “In preparation for the March 7 legislative action deadline, MEC president Blake A. Wilson is in the process of sharing with elected officials bound volumes of comments by Mississippi business leaders from every corner of the state, opposing a new state department of labor. Each volume weighed almost five pounds and was more than two inches thick. The responses were a result of MEC’s Weekly Legislative Insider and a special Faxgram.”
The March 8 issue’s headline read: “Your voice heard: Labor Dept. Bill Dead.”
“Even the formal study committee option for the labor department is dead, too,” said Wilson. “When we took these fax alerts over to some of the legislative leaders, we organized them in county order so immediately legislators could flip over and see how many responded from their neck of the woods. It really gives legislators information about what business people back home are thinking on a specific issue. It does it in a way that builds a partnership with the Legislature rather than an adversarial relationship. This provides input in a positive fashion that a legislator normally wouldn’t be able to get so quickly, and does it in a relatively short period of time. The faxed responses came back in less than four working days.”
The largest response was on the proposed labor department, when about 10% of MEC’s membership responded from all but 11 mostly rural counties, such as Covington, Issaquena and Perry, he said.
“We’ve heard a lot of positives on economic development,” he said. “We’ve heard a lot on the highway issues.”
MEC members that request additional information are provided with it immediately, Wilson said. “We read every response. If someone wants to know more, we get them more.”
When the gas tax issue was being kicked around, about 70 people from around the state phoned in to a conference call. The automated procedure is manned by two staffers with every response loaded into MEC’s database.
“That’s one of the reasons we brought Heath Hall over,” he said. “Heath runs our grass roots side of the operation. We’re building a profile of what the business community is really interested in.”
Even though MEC hasn’t adopted a position on the teacher pay raise, the state chamber recently requested member feedback.
“By the next working day, we had received 100 faxes, generally from people who are in favor of it and want to see Mississippians up to the southeastern U.S. average,” he said. “Some people want to know how it compares to the overall cost of living. That’s the kind of information that legislators need to see.”
Since Wilson took over as president of the state chamber of commerce in 1998, membership has increased about 10%, growing at an average rate of just under four new members per working day, he said.
“We’ll probably experience our greatest growth this year,” he said. “People like the idea of feeling that they’re involved.”
The fax alerts are the first step to an interactive environment, Wilson said.
“We pioneered this system when I was at the Florida chamber and they are beginning to do much more interactive response by e-mail,” he said. “It’s better to get members used to responding by fax because we’re still dealing with mainly a paper world, but we can transition very quickly to electronic.”
Even though 27% of Mississippians have e-mail capability, MEC surveys show that only 17% use it. Even company executives that travel often prefer faxed communication, Wilson said.
“It takes a commitment to do this the right way — to slice, dice, sort and chart responses,” he said. “If we want to get an idea of what region of the state is primarily responding or what types of companies are concerned about certain issues, we can find out.”
The interactive communication system also provides valuable resources for MEC, Wilson said.
“It’s a great way of making sure we’re not moving toward an issue that our membership does not agree with,” he said. “Believe me, if we started getting back a lot of responses from people saying they don’t agree with the position we have, we’d know we were on the wrong track.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.