A Multitude Of Strong Resources Supports A State In A Soft National Economy

Friday, July 1, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor interviews William R. Sasso, Chairman of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, LLP.

Editor: Bill, please tell our readers about your broad range of interests - your role as head of Governor Corbett's transition team, your position as a Commissioner of the Delaware River Port Authority, your many activities with the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and your role as chairman of the firm.

Sasso: First and foremost I feel compelled to note that my firm has provided me with the essential foundation to be involved in all of these activities. I have been chairman of Stradley Ronon for approximately 18 years. The firm provided me with significant opportunities as a young associate and continues to support me in my community efforts.

Insofar as the business community is concerned I spent several years as chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, which is one of the largest chambers of commerce in the United States, numbering well over 5,000 members. As part of the chamber we established an organization known as the CEO Counsel for Growth and a program known as Select Greater Philadelphia, which is an organization of companies in the private sector charged with developing business for the Greater Philadelphia region (five counties in Pennsylvania, five in New Jersey and one in Delaware). We approached employers throughout the United States and around the world in order to educate them on the benefits of locating here.

When we established Select Greater Philadelphia in 2004, it was the first time that anything like this had been attempted in this region. We have made great strides in a short time by attracting a number of businesses and creating hundreds of jobs in partnership with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the states of New Jersey and Delaware, and the city of Philadelphia. It has been a real success story that involves bringing the private sector and the public sector together in order to benefit everyone. Our philosophy among the three states and the city is that a rising tide in this region will lift all boats.

I am also pleased that Stradley Ronon has developed a reputation of giving back to the community in terms of our time and talent. We focus on a number of different areas, including education of inner-city youth, healthcare and arts and cultural institutions. We encourage our young people to be involved in the community, and we put our firm resources behind their efforts.

Editor: Please discuss Pennsylvania as a place to do business. What are your thoughts about encouraging the public and private sector to work together in partnerships to bring about economic growth?

Sasso: Number one, Governor Tom Corbett is very much in favor of having government reach out to the private sector, and he is looking to develop a number of public/private partnerships. He is encouraging the business community to follow his lead in that area. That is why he is so supportive of organizations such as Select Greater Philadelphia, which encourages employers throughout the country and the world to come to the Greater Philadelphia area.

He is also looking to make Pennsylvania a more business-friendly state. That is why, during his campaign, he made a pledge that there would be no new or increased taxes in Pennsylvania. In addition, one of his primary efforts has been encouraging the energy industry to look to Pennsylvania, given the tremendous resources here. Some of these resources have been newly discovered - such as the Marcellus Shale - and some resources have existed for years. He has put the sign out to the energy industry that Pennsylvania is a friendly place to do business. I feel compelled to add that the Governor is encouraging this development in an environmentally safe way.

By appointing quality people to key positions, the Governor has been able to accomplish two key objectives: one, making this a good place to do business; and two, protecting the interest of the citizens of the Commonwealth, especially in terms of environmental safety.

Editor: I read that Pennsylvania aspires to be a self-sufficient energy state. Do you think the Marcellus Shale formation will provide an abundance of energy that will attract new businesses?

Sasso: The Governor has taken the lead in living up to the commitments made during his campaign. Although criticized by some, including the press, he made a commitment not to impose any new tax on the companies involved in gas drilling in the state. It was a promise that he made to the citizens of the Commonwealth, and he is living up to it today. There is no doubt in my mind that this policy will result in substantial job creation in Pennsylvania.

As an example of how an area can be enriched, Louisiana, another energy state with substantial gas resources, has had a major drilling company, Nucor, establish a $750 million facility in the state, creating hundreds of jobs. By putting out the welcome mat to this industry, Pennsylvania will enjoy a similar benefit. There will definitely be synergies developing with industries related to energy. For example, John Serma, the CEO of U.S. Steel, was quoted recently to the effect that the gas shale revolution is "the first bit of good news in U.S. manufacturing in two decades." He went on to say that we must embrace what is happening in natural gas, since these discoveries will change the entire manufacturing base in the United States.

Editor: How successful was former Governor Rendell's program in creating jobs by way of the Economic Stimulus Program and the Governor's Action Team?

Sasso: While Governor Rendell's efforts, which utilized grants and loans, were well received by the business community and employers, he was more focused on individual businesses. The current Governor's approach will build on and expand that approach by focusing on entire industries, as opposed to individual employers, and by focusing on creating a favorable environment generally for business in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Editor: Are there special tax and other incentives that induce new businesses to move to Pennsylvania?

Sasso: There are special grant and loan programs. Governor Rendell had the benefit of those during his tenure, when the economy was much better. The current administration will use creative methods to do more with less in view of the fact that governments at all levels - federal, state and local - are experiencing significant cutbacks. The Governor is trying to minimize those cutbacks in the area of job creation because he recognizes that job retention and creation is money well spent, as there is a multiplier effect with every dollar invested.

Editor: I understand the state has been successful in creating jobs in the green energy area. In your practice, which of the growth industries has required the skills of your lawyers?

Sasso: We have been heavily involved in working with the gas and drilling industry. We are currently working on establishing a very significant project that will involve transforming gas to liquid fuel. We have also been heavily involved in the solar industry and other alternative fuel industries, including converting biomass products to fuel. And just recently, we have been successful in helping an energy business relocate to our state, using our expertise in the energy field, combined with our government affairs practice. We worked with the Governor's office and the Commonwealth's Department of Community and Economic Development to get this done.

Editor: Your firm has also been an active Latin American practice. How did that come about?

Sasso: We have a very active diversity committee, peopled by attorneys of many backgrounds, but with a substantial Hispanic representation. It was basically our Hispanic attorneys' idea to focus on Latin America as a growth area. Our Latin American practice runs the full gamut of different industries - from energy to agriculture - and these industry sectors are bringing jobs to Pennsylvania.

We are also very fortunate to have a port that is very competitive. The Port of Philadelphia compares very favorably with the Ports of New York and Baltimore. By focusing on certain industries, particularly the fruit industry in South America, especially in Chile, we have been able to develop significant business and also assist in port expansion and job creation.

Editor: What do you anticipate will be the major legal or legislative developments that affect business? What is contemplated in terms of tort reform?

Sasso: The big issue in terms of tort reform in Pennsylvania is the modification of the impact of joint and several liability. Under the current law, a co-defendant in a case where it is determined that he has only 10 percent of the responsibility for a claimed injury, could be held liable for 100 percent of the damages established. Unfortunately, when the General Assembly passed a bill eliminating this principle in 2006, Governor Rendell vetoed it.

A compromise measure recently recommended by the Judiciary Committee of the State Senate would require defendants that are apportioned responsibility for causing a plaintiff's injuries at 60 percent or less to only pay the portion for which they are found liable. Unfortunately, the compromise Senate bill (which is expected to be signed into law shortly)would still apply joint and several liability to economic damages and in cases where a minor has a beneficial interest. Obviously, the business community generally and the healthcare community specifically are interested in seeing joint and several liability fully abrogated. Currently, that does not appear likely, but we are seeing some progress.

Editor: Have there been measures instituted to prevent doctors from fleeing Pennsylvania?

Sasso: Some reforms were instituted in 2003, and we have seen positive results from those efforts. In that year, the State Supreme Court began requiring that medical malpractice cases be filed in the counties where the alleged malpractice arose and that cases must be filed with a certificate of merit from a qualified physician. The certificate of merit must state that there is a reasonable probability that the defendant in a medical malpractice case deviated from the accepted standard of medical care resulting in injury to the plaintiff. Medical malpractice filings dropped by almost 50 percent from 2002 to 2010. Most observers feel that the rule changes were the primary cause of the decline in filings. Needless to say, the numbers certainly indicate a better environment for physicians; however, more work needs to be done.

Editor: Why has Pennsylvania not suffered as severely from the economic downturn as many Midwestern states?

Sasso: We have always had slow and steady growth in the Commonwealth, owing to our broad-based economy, which includes energy, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, education and healthcare sectors. When our financial institutions and related sectors ran into difficult times, we were able to rely on other industries in Pennsylvania that kept us on a relatively even keel. For example, our unemployment rate is almost two percent below the national average. I believe this is a direct result of a broad-based economy.

Please email the interviewee at wsasso@stradley.com with questions about this interview.