The General Assembly's top leaders came together with Hogan administration officials Monday to call for passage of a package of bills intended to improve Maryland's business climate.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch joined longtime Maryland business leader Norman Augustine to testify in favor of five measures recommended by a commission the legislative leaders created and Augustine chaired.
"They could be five of the most important bills we pass this session," Miller told a joint hearing of the House Economic Matters and Senate Finance committees.
The legislation presents one of the most likely opportunities for the Democratic-dominated legislature and Republican governor to display bipartisanship in what is otherwise shaping up as a contentious session. With the sponsorship of the Senate president and the House speaker and the support of the governor, the prospects for passage of the five bills is excellent.
Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, told lawmakers that business witnesses had told the commission their problem with Maryland's regulatory structure was not so much the rules but the "arbitrary, inconsistent, time-insensitive" way they were enforced.
"Among the first tasks to be undertaken if Maryland's business climate is to improve is to change the perceived attitude from 'we're here to enforce the rules' to 'how can we help you grow business and create jobs while abiding by the rules?'" Augustine said.
The bills were later endorsed by a Hogan administration panel made up of Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley, Secretary of Business and Economic Development-designate R. Michael Gill and chief legislative officer Joseph M. Getty.
The recommendations reflected in the bills come from the first phase of the commission's findings, largely having to do with how the state regulates business. The second phase, which will pick up this year and concentrate on tax policy, is expected to pose a greater challenge in forging a bipartisan consensus.
Hogan alluded to that objective in a statement he released praising the "common sense" proposals from the commission's first phase.
"No discussion about making Maryland more competitive is complete without also addressing our burdensome tax structure — undoubtedly the main reason our state's economy continues to struggle," the governor said.
The commission was created by the legislature last year at the prompting of Miller and Busch to address concerns that Maryland was perceived as unfriendly to business as a result of state-by-state rankings in various categories.
Augustine said the commission held seven hearings around the state and heard from more than 100 witnesses before developing a set of 32 recommendations.
The recommendations that needed legislative approval were wrapped into five bills. They would:
•Overhaul the state's business development efforts by replacing the Department of Business and Economic Development with a Department of Economic Competitiveness and Commerce headed by a secretary of commerce, who also would oversee now-independent agencies dealing with technology development and public-private partnerships;
•Set up a customer service training programs for employees in state agencies that deal intensively with businesses;
•Create a council of agency heads, lawmakers and small-business owners to examine the impact of proposed state regulations and to report findings to the legislative committee that reviews such rules;
•Establish a pilot apprenticeship program involving businesses and school systems to provide students with an alternative path to high-paying careers other than college;
•Create a task force to examine the ethics rules at Maryland colleges and universities to look for ways to change them so they don't impede the transfer of promising technologies from state labs to the private sector.
Lawmakers said they hoped the bills would be a first step toward improving Maryland's ratings for such things as business-friendliness, where it is near the bottom in certain rankings.
While some contend the rankings are overrated, Gill said he's not one of them.
"I'm a rankings guy. I personally think we have to pay attention to the rankings," he said.
However, Getty said he wouldn't expect Maryland's rankings to change too quickly because they are heavily influenced by tax policy, which isn't expected to change radically this year.
"What the General Assembly does next year will have the big impact on rankings," Getty said.