For the business community, next legislative session’s top issues are much the same as those for the county at large, based on a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored business breakfast with the Howard County delegation Wednesday.

In the panel-style forum at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Columbia, the county’s state senators and delegates fielded questions from Chamber members on hot topics such as raising the minimum wage, the future of the stormwater fee and whether Maryland might move forward with fracking in 2014.

A majority of the county’s delegation attended the breakfast. All of the county’s senators – Republican Allan Kittleman (District 9) and Democrats Ed Kasemeyer (District 12) and Jim Robey (District 13) – were there, and half of its delegates joined as well. District 13 Delegate Guy Guzzone, who is at home recovering from an emergency appendectomy last week, was scheduled to come but had to cancel. 

Moderator Richard Story, senior vice president of Howard Bank, gave each legislator a chance to answer questions submitted by the audience.

The opener was about the state’s business climate, and whether it’s too restrictive – a frequent complaint from local business leaders.

Republicans Kittleman and District 9 Delegate Gail Bates agreed that state taxes and regulations weighed too heavily on businesses.

“For the record, government is an enormous, inefficient conglomerate and they don’t see the changes we need,” Bates said. “Business changes fast… We need to let you guys do what you do best and get government out of the way.”

Bates and Kittleman said the state should look at lowering the corporate tax, and Bates proposed taking a look at the personal income tax as well, a main concern for small business owners. Kittleman said government policies on business needed to be more predictable.

“People need to come here and know we’re not just going to pull the rug out from under them,” he said.

The delegation’s Democrats said more improvements could be made but that it was important to focus on the positive.

“We have a lot of good things going for us,” Kasemeyer said, citing the state’s well educated workforce and high median income. He said he would like to hear specific concerns so they could be solved.

And, he added, legislators had to deal with tough choices when it came to balancing tax cuts with a healthy budget. “We don’t ignore all these comments from business,” he said. “Sometimes you know something has to be fixed but you don’t have the resources to do it.”

Another question was whether the state is too reliant on the government as an employer, a charge that was made especially during October’s two-week government shutdown.

Robey and District 13 delegates Shane Pendergrass and Frank Turner said government employees were a valuable asset to the state.

“I’d rather have the federal government here than say we’ll just forget about them and focus on other things,” Robey said. All three pointed to the contributions tax-paying federal employees made to Howard County’s high quality of life.

The delegation gave a preview of what to expect in the upcoming 2014 session, which begins Jan. 8, in answering questions about legislative hot topics.

First came fracking. The controversial natural gas extraction practice has been on hold in the state since 2009.

Robey and Bates said they didn’t think a bill permitting the practice would pass this session.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions [about the environmental consequences of fracking] that need to be addressed before we make that commitment,” Robey said.

Bates said she thought the practice created jobs and would boost western Maryland’s economy.

“Our neighbors are already doing this. I hope at some point we can do it,” she said.

Kittleman said he thought the legislature’s handling of fracking was indicative of a “classic bad business climate.” He said he didn’t understand why the first fracking studies were ordered in 2011, two years after the first permits were issued in 2009.

“Whether or not we decide it’s the best thing to do, we shouldn’t have waited two years to start,” he said.

Pendergrass, Kasemeyer and Turner all urged a cautious, thorough approach to studying fracking before it’s approved.

And District 12 Delegate Jimmy Malone offered another perspective based on his experience as a firefighter. He pointed to the occurrence of small earthquakes in regions with fracking. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of jobs if people are getting injured,” he said.

The forum ended with what legislators predicted would be the two biggest business-centric legislative topics: raising the minimum wage and tweaking the stormwater fee.

Turner, Kasemeyer and Bates said they expected the assembly would raise the minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour, next session – though it will likely be coupled with some sort of tax break to appease business owners.

Turner said Maryland should look to other states who have already raised their minimum wage. A salary of about $16,400 a year – the amount made by a minimum wage worker – is not tenable for someone who has to support a family, he said. “I believe in a livable wage,” he added.

Bates called proposals to raise the minimum wage “a terrible mistake.”

“How many of you are still making what you started making as a teenager?” she asked the audience. “A minimum wage is a starting wage… We’ve got to stop having the government tell you guys how to do your business. You guys know what a job is worth.”

Kittleman, who sits on the Senate finance committee, said a proposed minimum wage increase died last year in part because of objections from the nonprofit community. “They can’t afford [a raise],” he said. But, he added the issue had “legs” and was something the Chamber should examine.

“This is an issue we have to be willing to talk about,” he said.

Robey said he thought the assembly would have to take a careful approach to any increase. “We don’t need to make any mistakes on this one,” he told the audience. “We need to do it right and not cripple you guys.”

A question about the future of the stormwater fee elicited the most passionate responses of the forum. All of the legislators thought it would be revisited, and possibly changed, in 2014.

Kittleman, who last month prefiled a bill to repeal the stormwater fee, said he thought Howard County should have waited for the legislature to revisit the fee before passing a plan.

“The new rates have no rationale in science at all,” he said. “All small businesses are going to be hit with this.”

Per the County Council’s latest plan, residential property owners would pay a flat, annual rate based on a tiered system, while business owners will pay $15 per impervious surface unit of 500 square feet. The Council also passed a program to reduce or eliminate the fee for nonprofits that craft a stormwater management plan.

Pendergrass said charges that the legislature created the fee just to raise taxes were disingenuous. “None us like to raise taxes,” she said “We did what we thought was the best way to handle [the federal mandate] at the moment.”

While Kasemeyer said he thought the fee should have been set by the state, Pendergrass, a former Council member, said she thought local government was best equipped to implement a fair rate.

“There is an argument to be made that a government closest to the people is best [to make those decisions,” she said.

The delegation will turn its focus to the 2014 session again later this week at a public hearing on next session’s proposed local bills. The hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard government building in Ellicott City