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Top Democrats push package for better business climate

Busch, Miller aim to lure researchers, companies to Maryland

By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

8:55 PM EST, January 24, 2014

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Announcing their first-ever joint agenda, the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly said Friday they will work together to pass legislation aimed at improving Maryland's business climate and boosting the state's economy.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch released a list of proposals they'll push during this election-year session — a mix of tax credits, tax cuts and spending to bolster the state's research universities, expand its cybersecurity industry and lure high-tech entrepreneurs to Maryland.

"Has this ever been done before? No," Miller said of the public collaboration. "We want to send a message not just to our sister states but to the world that we are the state for research and development."

Surrounded by leaders from universities, high-profile business groups and legislative committee chairs, Busch launched the event by saying they wanted to make "a better business climate."

A new commission led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, will conduct a review of that climate and issue a report next year to guide the Assembly.

In the meantime, lawmakers will push bills — some of which have been championed by Republicans in the past — that would cut the estate tax, allow the auctioning of tax credits to pay for endowed chairs at universities, create a program to help startup technology companies and invest tax dollars in cybersecurity businesses.

Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland, College Park, said that when fully implemented, the endowment program could give the school as much as $100 million a year to "allow us to bring in superstars."

"I am totally fired up to be here today," he told state lawmakers. "What you are proposing is totally transformative."

Another proposal would create areas around colleges and research centers such as the National Institutes of Health where tax credits would be offered to lure businesses such as biotechnology firms and defense contractors.

Bills detailing the proposals have not yet been introduced, and the leaders offered no estimate of a price tag. But if Miller and Busch work together to push legislation, the chance of passage is high.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who did not attend the event and is not sponsoring the bills, said through a spokeswoman he was reviewing the ideas.

"It's been the Republican mantra in this state that the policies of the Democratic Party are driving businesses away," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"This is, I suspect, an effort on the part of the Democratic leadership to put that to bed," Norris said. "It won't stop the Republicans from claiming that, but it will give Democrats some arrows in the quiver."

The broad proposal was met with both surprise and tepid enthusiasm from Republicans and economic analysts.

"This is a shockingly good start," said economic consultant Anirban Basu of the Sage Policy Group. "From a business person's perspective, there's been a history of skepticism regarding Annapolis and its interest in these issues. This strikes me as a very serious, business-minded document that maps neatly to the many obstacles that Maryland's businesses typically face."

Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley, who has unsuccessfully pushed for a reduction in the estate tax in previous years, said all the ideas released Friday are "worthy of consideration" as the state tries to ensure that discoveries made in Maryland translate into jobs here.

"A lot of these entrepreneurs, once they make some money, they choose to go live elsewhere to start their next company," Brinkley said. "The evidence has become overwhelming. It's been a hostile environment for the private sector. And I think the leadership in the legislature is trying to set the stage for the next governor, whoever he or she might be, that this is something that needs to be addressed."

Over the next two weeks, lawmakers plan to release more details of their ideas, which were developed by a bipartisan work group of delegates who met with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee and other business groups.

Kathleen T. Snyder, the longtime executive of the Chamber of Commerce, told reporters, "We ought to mark today down in Maryland's history."

ecox@baltsun.com

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Business proposals

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch are pushing some proposals to improve Maryland's business climate. Here are some highlights:

•Business climate commission — Panel led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine will review economic development programs and recommend changes.

•Tax-break zones near "anchor institutions" — Special districts around universities and research centers would get tax breaks to lure businesses.

•Estate tax break — Gradually roll back Maryland's estate tax over four years to match the federal government's more generous threshold. Right now, Maryland's taxes estates worth $1 million or more. The federal government doesn't tax estates worth less than $5.25 million.

•Research endowments — Pay for science and technology endowments to attract top researchers to Maryland universities by auctioning tax credits.

•Investments in cyber startups — Invest tax dollars in cybersecurity and privacy businesses, and grant tax credits to private investors who do the same.