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January 11, 2021

CBIA’s DiPentima aims to shield, shepherd CT employers as vaccine recovery looms

Chris DiPentima

The recently begun legislative session will be a major test for Chris DiPentima, who left his job as an aerospace manufacturing executive last summer to become CEO of Connecticut’s largest business lobby.

As the policy and budget debates get underway at the Capitol, COVID-19 infections remain elevated, threatening further damage to an economy that’s still limping along from the pandemic’s effects over the past 10 months.

However, with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines now underway, there’s tangible hope on the horizon.

Amid that backdrop, DiPentima said it will be crucial for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) to help its members weather the coming months, as time is still needed to let the vaccines produce their desired effects on both the spread of the virus and economy.

This profile is part of HBJ’s 5 to Watch in 2021 special feature. Click here to see other top leaders we expect to make headlines in the year ahead.

Some health officials and economists predict a return to near-normalcy could happen around mid-year.

“The vaccine has shown us the light,” said DiPentima, who is also a volunteer member of Gov. Ned Lamont’s vaccine advisory committee. “There’s this hope and opportunity that we’re all clinging onto, and we should because it could be a huge driver of our economic recovery.”

State lawmakers must not cause additional harm to Connecticut’s economy, which has so far clawed back less than two-thirds of its historic pandemic job losses, DiPentima said.

For CBIA, that means fighting back against any proposed tax increases as well as opposing stricter public health restrictions on businesses, particularly restaurants and other service-sector companies, as the state’s second hospitalization peak looms.

While budget projections improved in the latter half of 2020, the estimated hole in the coming two-year spending plan remains in excess of $4 billion, creating a greater potential for lawmakers to eye tax hikes, or other new revenues.

Lamont has said that he will oppose tax increases and use the state’s rainy day fund to deal with projected deficits. That gives DiPentima comfort, but he says he still must be ready for anything this session.

“You never get comfortable because you hear calls for more taxes in Connecticut even when we’re having good times,” he said.

As he embarks on a crucial year, DiPentima is armed with a retooled CBIA lobbying strategy, which will be put to the test between now and June 9, when the legislative session is scheduled to end.

A bigger tent

As a longtime CBIA member and chair of its board of directors a few years ago, DiPentima knows that the association is viewed by some as largely supporting Republican policies, or only caring about businesses.

He rejects that notion, insisting that CBIA cares about economic growth, which he says can improve life for the broader population, no matter their political leanings.

“We care about the business community because it affects every man, woman and child in Connecticut,” he said.

CBIA has been highlighting positive contributions that businesses make to their communities in its recently launched “Rebuilding Connecticut” marketing campaign.

DiPentima points to the recent migration of New York City residents to Connecticut amid the pandemic as evidence that economic growth is the answer to the state’s long-running fiscal woes. Those new residents were part of the reason Connecticut’s tax revenues held up better than expected over the summer and fall.

“It shows you what happens when you have a larger tax base,” he said. “The pie grows bigger.”

There are political realities at play too. Democrats further increased their majorities in both legislative chambers last November, which increases CBIA’s urgency to shift perceptions about its identity.

CBIA recently beefed up its in-house lobbying team, which could help with those efforts, especially because several new hires have ties to Democrats, including Wyatt Bosworth, a former staff assistant to House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford).

DiPentima is a registered Republican, but he said he wants a team with diverse opinions surrounding him.

“I don’t want a bunch of Chris DiPentima’s running around here,” he said. “I want different thinkers who bring other perspectives.”

DiPentima wants to find more common ground at the Capitol in order to produce better outcomes for his membership.

To that end, CBIA nixed its legislative election endorsements last year, choosing instead to highlight which candidates had signed its new policy pledge.

CBIA also invited House Speaker Ritter and incoming House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora (R-North Branford) to its December virtual board meeting. Both lawmakers spoke to the board and members, which DiPentima took as a positive sign.

He’s also pleased that Ritter has announced a number of moderate Democrats as committee co-chairs.

“We’re trying to hit singles and doubles,” DiPentima said. “There’s no home-run solution, no silver bullet, if you will. We just want some moderate policies to move the state forward.”

Narrowing it down

CBIA has a diverse membership, with companies ranging from manufacturers and financial services firms to bioscience and healthcare organizations.

That’s tended to lead to a broad policy agenda, but this year DiPentima has narrowed CBIA’s wish list to five categories: Return on investment for taxpayers, small business relief, workforce development, urban renewal and infrastructure investment.

Those policy categories are included in CBIA’s policy pledge, which had been signed by nearly 60 elected lawmakers as of press time.

“For CBIA, that’s a tone change,” DiPentima said of the narrowed agenda. “We’re trying to tell the legislature ‘let’s focus on these [issues].’ ”

“We don’t want to get noisy and lost in the shuffle,” he added.

DiPentima has also been working to build closer ties with other interest groups, including the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, education groups, and even some housing associations with which CBIA can find common cause on zoning changes and other reforms to spur urban renewal and attract more young residents to the state’s workforce.

CBIA also doesn’t want to be known as a naysayer so it will offer alternative policy ideas to any legislative proposals it opposes. For example, CBIA will oppose efforts to create a public health insurance option for private workers, but instead might recommend a reinsurance program that would use federal and state dollars to lower premiums, among other potential alternatives, DiPentima said.

CBIA is also picking its spots in other ways this year.

For example, employee payroll deductions for the state’s fledgling paid family and medical leave program just took effect, in preparation for benefits to roll out in 2022, while the minimum wage will jump from $12 to $13 an hour this August. CBIA unsuccessfully fought against both policies, and though DiPentima believes they will be unhelpful to employers, he said CBIA isn’t going to spend time trying to repeal them.

“We have called for delays and it doesn’t look like that will happen,” he said. “Again, these are some of our tone changes. These things have already passed and they’re behind us.”

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January 16, 2021

Great article!

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