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.