Gov. Martin O'Malley called Maryland's often lengthy and confusing business permit process "one of the weaknesses of our state" Thursday — and then signed an executive order aimed at easing it.

The new program he ordered, called "Fast Track," is supposed to help speed projects with significant economic impact in specific areas — so long as they would not adversely affect the state's environmental and Smart Growth goals.

A developer who qualifies for Fast Track will be told up front whether his or her proposal has any chance of being approved, or whether the state will fight "tooth and nail" against it, O'Malley said.

The program is part of an effort called Maryland Made Easy, which corrals state permitting and business approval information in one area.

Observing that small businesses account for 85 percent of the jobs in Maryland, O'Malley said, "We understand that government is not the job creator. But it sets the conditions."

Bureaucratic red tape was a theme on the gubernatorial campaign trail last year, with Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. repeatedly criticizing what he described as the Democratic governor's "over-regulation" of private businesses.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who will be overseeing Fast Track, said complaints about Maryland's approval process date back far longer than the O'Malley administration. "It's not like approvals came to a standstill four years ago," Brown said. He said O'Malley and he have been pondering ways to improve it for years, but "we needed to make sure we got it right."

Business and Economic Development Secretary Christian Johansson said his agency now plays "traffic cop" for the permitting process, helping businesses contact all the right state agencies.

The speed of permitting will be monitored by StateStat, which will allow the governor to prod agencies that aren't moving quickly enough, Johansson said.

Maryland Business for Responsive Government — a group that frequently criticizes O'Malley's approach to small business — issued a supportive news release about Fast Track.

"Governor O'Malley is taking a step in the right direction today by streamlining regulatory processes in Maryland departments and agencies," Kimberly M. Burns, the group's president, said in a statement. "The executive order has potential to increase business productivity, investment and ultimately lead to job creation."

Bakery Express in Halethorpe played host to the Fast Track executive order ceremony. The many Cabinet secretaries and state and local lawmakers in attendance left with boxes of doughnuts.

Owner Charles Burman said his own experience with state and local permits has been positive in recent years.

By the time he began working on the 143,000-square-foot bakery in Halethorpe in 2007, he'd already opened three others in Maryland and one each in California, Texas and Florida. He said he knew to stay in constant communication with the state agencies that would issue permits.

"The state was extremely responsive," Burman said, "but we were extremely proactive."

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