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State forms group to fight for Maryland in future round of BRAC

As the Pentagon calls for a new round of military base realignment, officials in Maryland are working to build on the state's gains in previous rounds.

On Wednesday, the state Commerce Department announced a committee of retired generals, defense contractors and economic development professionals to fight for Maryland's interests.

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In each of the past several years, Pentagon officials have asked Congress for a new round of the base realignment and closure process known as BRAC. Each year, Congress has said no.

The Department of Defense said again this year that the need is pressing. By 2019, the Pentagon projects, nearly a quarter of military facilities will be surplus to requirements.

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"Spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense," Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work wrote to congressional leaders in April.

Mike Hayes, the retired Marine general who heads the state's office of military affairs, is reminded of the rumblings that proceeded the last round of BRAC, in 2005.

"We feel there's some degree of inevitability," Hayes said. "We will observe the banter back and forth, but we have to be ready one way or another."

In previous rounds, an independent commission has developed and presented a package of recommendations on which facilities to grow, shrink or shutter. The package has been sent to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

The process is intended to insulate decisions based on national security needs from micromanagement by lawmakers whose districts stand to lose facilities and jobs. But it also makes lawmakers less likely to approve its start.

A defense spending bill making its way through the House prohibits the Pentagon from launching a new round.

Maryland was a big winner in the 2005 round of BRAC. The Defense Information Systems Agency, which provides IT services, moved to Fort Meade, an Army communication and intelligence organization went to Aberdeen Proving Ground, and the operations of the old Walter Reed in Washington were consolidated in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

In the years since then, the Pentagon established U.S. Cyber Command, a new organization to coordinate battles on computer networks, at Fort Meade.

"We're in better shape than some of those communities around the nation," Hayes said.

Defense spending contributed about $57 billion to Maryland's economy — about 17 percent of the state's total GDP — in 2012, the most recent year for which data was available. That was up from $36 billion in 2008. Some 400,000 people in the state work either directly or indirectly for the Department of Defense.

Officials are optimistic about Maryland's chances in a future round because much of the military presence in the state is focused on high-tech combat and research and development.

"Our installations are really forward-thinking, and the missions are so important to protect our country and national security," Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger said. His district includes Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground.

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The Baltimore County Democrat recalled the 2005 round as a battle that required marshaling federal and local officials, businessmen and academics to advocate for Maryland.

He said the state prevailed by making a military case for moving units here, and by showing why Maryland is an appealing place for troops, civilians and contractors to live.

"It's not just about the base," Ruppersberger said. "It's about quality of life for your families. ... That's part of what you sell."

The Fort Meade Alliance represents business connected to the massive facility, the state's largest workplace. General Manager Tim O'Ferrall said the communities around the state's installations must find ways to work together and demonstrate how they complement one another.

"What you'll see is a cohesive front," he said.

O'Ferrall said it makes sense to start laying the groundwork now, because officials in other states are looking at Maryland's success with covetous eyes.

"We're seeing other states well ahead in doing significant efforts and advocacy," he said. "We need to position ourselves."

Hayes said that there is likely to be uncertainty in the coming years over any future base closure process and the overall defense budget, so the new 12-member group will have a broad mission to advocate for Maryland's military facilities.

The Commerce Department said Monday it would work with the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University on a census of defense contractors to identify businesses and communities that might be vulnerable to cuts in defense spending.

About 8,000 companies are to be surveyed over the summer as officials build a detailed picture of how defense money flows through the state.

"As the federal budget contracts, Maryland is taking steps to help defense-dependent businesses broaden their markets, expand their client base, and remain economically viable," Commerce Secretary Mike Gill said in a statement. "Those steps, in turn, will help ensure that the economies of communities surrounding military installations remain stable."

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