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Interview with NSSGA president

By |  November 25, 2013

johnsonMike Johnson is the new president and CEO of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA), taking over the reigns from Gus Edwards this summer. Pit & Quarry Editor in Chief Darren Constantino asked Johnson a few questions as he transitions into his new role as NSSGA chief.

Constantino: Congratulations, Mike, and welcome to the aggregates industry. We have a few questions so our readers can learn a little more about you. What was your impression of the aggregates industry before your journey to become NSSGA’s new president and CEO?
Johnson: I had some familiarity with the construction industry, having spent nearly five years with the National Association of Home Builders, before joining NSSGA, and a basic understanding that you really cannot build anything consequential without the products produced by NSSGA’s members. While the production of crushed stone, sand and gravel is wide-spread, occurring in communities from coast-to-coast, and while aggregates are a part of everyday life from the homes that we wake up in, the roads we travel on, the office buildings we work in, to the toothpaste we use, it is not an industry that I really thought, or that the average American really thinks about, that often. We really take for granted the natural materials that are essential for the safety, security and high quality of life of all Americans and are quite literally the foundation of our economy and society. It is certainly a priority for NSSGA to do a better job educating the public about the contributions of this vital industry and the jobs it provides.

Constantino: What is your impression now that you’ve spent a little bit of time in the industry?
Johnson: First and foremost, I have been impressed by NSSGA’s members and volunteer leaders. Their commitment to the industry is obvious in the level of support they give NSSGA. I also have been impressed by how our member companies, whether they are larger publicly traded or smaller mutigenerational family-owned and -operated, are grounded in and committed to the companies they serve and the people they employ. I think NSSGA’s greatest strength is the determination of its membership to advancing this industry. This industry is filled with extraordinary people and some of them run the best-managed companies in the nation.

Constantino: What is your first priority coming out of the gate? What issue or issues are NSSGA members telling you should be at the top of your agenda?
Johnson: My first priority has been, and will always be, listening to what the members want from their trade association and finding out how well we are doing at giving them what they want. That is why one of the very first things we did was to conduct a membership survey. The response rate was very positive, I think, due in part to how well the survey was perceived by our members. We got a lot of good feedback for simply seeking their opinions.

Not really surprisingly, the highest priority issues are: getting Congress to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill; resolving the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund; ensuring the accurate definition of minerals; and preventing overly burdensome regulation in the areas of the environment, safety and health.

That data and the other information we learned from the benchmark survey, like the extremely high rating that the members give NSSGA in terms of value to their business, will be the foundation for the development of a new three-year strategic plan that will chart an aggressive course for the future of NSSGA with a goal of maximizing the return on our members’ investment in NSSGA.

Constantino: NSSGA and other groups have lobbied hard for a multiyear (five-or six-year) transportation-funding bill. Given the current political climate, what are the chances of such a bill passing Congress? What should we expect in the near future?
Johnson: No doubt about it, the current political climate is challenging. For years now the Congress has been lurching from man-made crisis to man-made crisis – the debt ceiling, followed by the fiscal cliff, to the recent shutdown and the debt ceiling all over again – without a whole lot of headway on substantive issues in between. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that in 2012, in the midst of a presidential election, Congress passed a two-year surface transportation reauthorization, with bipartisan support, that at least maintained level funding for the nation’s surface transportation system. It is fair, however, and probably smart, to realize that that was then and this is now… and now is one of the strangest environments I have experienced in more than 20 years of working with Congress.

That is not to say, by any means, that we cannot succeed in winning passage of a long-term highway bill and a sustainable funding solution for the Highway Trust Fund. It does require that we think and act differently though. As Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The recent passage of the Water Resources Development Act by the Senate and the Water Resources Reform and Development Act in the House with broad bipartisan support was instructive. The way in which the bill moved through the committee process and the floor of each chamber, the media strategies – social and traditional, and the strategic grassroots lobbying produced a remarkable 417 votes for the bill in the House… only one week after the shutdown and debt ceiling fiasco. In fact, bipartisan support was so overwhelming that the final tally had only 17 of the 535 members of both chambers voting in opposition.

To see those types of results on the Highway Bill and Trust Fund, we must stop talking about the problem and start getting more people talking about solutions. Although NSSGA will be playing a leadership role among the construction materials organizations and working to build consensus in the Transportation Construction Coalition, Americans for Transportation Mobility and other coalitions, it is clear to us that the more important lobbying must come from outside the Washington beltway.

Members of Congress, especially those who voted to shut down the government and keep it shut down, need to hear loudly and clearly from the people who live, work, employ and most importantly – vote – in the communities they were elected to represent that just saying no is not an acceptable option when it comes to surface transportation infrastructure and its impact on local economies and the quality of life for families. NSSGA is already working with our grassroots and our coalition partners to educate folks at the local level and to ensure that the message is delivered.

This work will enable the creation of, as others have suggested, “a coalition of the willing” in Congress who understand the importance of transportation infrastructure to America’s long-term economic strength and our quality of life.

Constantino: In addition to the obvious – lobbying for a new transportation bill – what will be some of the association’s other lobbying goals?
Johnson: While Congressional dysfunction has meant little action on any legislation of consequence, the rulemaking process continues unabated. Without a doubt, the people who work in the aggregates industry are by far our most important asset and we appreciate the importance of being good stewards of the environment. NSSGA will continue to fight for regulatory reform. Far too often, even the best intended regulations can prove overly burdensome in application and have dramatic negative impacts on business growth. For example, we are very active in efforts to limit the negative impacts of EPA’s proposed rule to clarify the Clean Water Act and OSHA’s Crystalline Silica proposed rulemaking.

NSSGA also supports comprehensive tax reform and has submitted comments to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees outlining our priorities for reform, including addressing the highway funding revenue shortfall in this context and percentage depletion. Comprehensive reform of the tax code is long overdue.

Constantino: In contributions to federal candidates in the 2012 election cycle, OpenSecrets.org reports that ROCKPAC contributed 83 percent to Republicans and 17 percent to Democrats. In prior cycles, NSSGA has shown similar support for Republican candidates. Will the association continue in this direction with you at the helm?
Johnson: ROCKPAC is first and foremost a relationship-building tool. Even the best thought out public policy messages are only as effective as the ears hearing them are predisposed to receive the message favorably. The understanding the members of NSSGA have for the importance of being engaged in the political process has enabled us to build strong relationships that help our messages resonate. Even so, we need to continue to grow ROCKPAC and regularly evaluate our support strategy. To that end, we are in the process of developing a comprehensive ROCKPAC Strategic Participation Plan, which will make certain that we maximize our effectiveness. While I cannot predict exactly what the ratios will be going forward, I can assure you that we will be guided less by labels than we will be by identifying and supporting a “coalition of the willing” – those lawmakers who understand and are committed to investment in infrastructure, ensuring the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and lessening the regulatory burden on business.

Constantino: How might NSSGA’s relationship with MSHA change or grow during your tenure?
Johnson: We will continue to cultivate an effective working relationship. We will always stand ready to work with the agency to develop education and training that can reduce injuries and fatalities. Our Alliance’s Safety Alerts, based on aggregates injury data from 2012, do a very good job of educating about best practices for avoiding injuries in critical areas like materials handling and slips and falls. Similarly, we work well together to conduct the Noise & Dust workshops, which are very effective instruction on how to monitor for over-exposure to workplace health hazards.

We will also use our relationship to educate MSHA on the realities confronting operators to encourage appropriate regulation and enforcement. Remember: It’s the operator on whom the Mine Act places primary responsibility for workplace safety. So, we all have a vested interest in the operator’s ability to successfully produce stone, sand and gravel in the safest, healthiest and most compliant manner possible. We plan to continue to work with MSHA both on behalf of safety and compliance and in encouraging balanced regulation and enforcement.

Constantino: What one thing would you most like to accomplish during your time with NSSGA?
Johnson: I would most like to see us get the federal government back in the business of investing in infrastructure. Doing so will not only finally allow us to fully recover from the recession and help NSSGA’s members return to the sales volumes and profitability that the industry enjoyed in 2006-2007, but it will also put us on a path to give the next generation a chance at a better quality of life in a world-class economy. America’s transportation system was once the envy of the world. Now it is not.

Bottom line: You cannot have the number-one economy in the world, or for that matter sustain a real economic recovery, with the 23rd rated infrastructure we have now. NSSGA is committed to working with its coalition partners to get the federal government back to building the America our people deserve.

Constantino: Thank you for your time, Mike, and best of luck from the staff of Pit & Quarry.

About the Author:

Darren Constantino is an editor of Pit & Quarry magazine. He can be reached at dconstantino@northcoastmedia.net.

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