One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Robert Keller is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a privately-funded economic development organization. The GBC recently released a report entitled, "The Strength of Maryland Depends on the State of Baltimore."
Q. Why is this economic report by the Greater Baltimore Committee important and how will its recommendations benefit Baltimore City and the surrounding counties?
A.I think the business community of Baltimore City has taken a really courageous and strong stand. It's not something that one would ordinarily expect the business community to do, but what it really reflects is that the Greater Baltimore Committee understands that unless the city is healthy, and carries its weight, and has an independence and an interdependence, then the entire region and, in fact, the entire state begins to collapse.
Q. Can you outline the major points of the report?
A. The major points are essentially that there does have to be a major interdependence among the jurisdictions in the region. And what that means is that you need to work together in this case to make sure that Baltimore City is viable and strong and we ought to go at that in two different ways. One, we need a very strong public education system . . . That strong education system has to be fully accountable and adequately funded. Second is that to become a fully contributing member to the economic life of this community, we have to do some things to strengthen city government and the way the city operates . . . The property tax, which is way too high -- more than double than any of the surrounding counties -- needs to be cut dramatically. And, there needs to be an adequate supply of funds in the city to be able to have the government function in an effective, efficient manner.
Q. How much money will it take to improve the city schools?
A. Well, the estimates vary. And I think that an adequate number is simply to bring the city schools up to the level of Baltimore County schools of per pupil spending [and that] would require about $150 million. Should we have that as our articulated goal to be done in a relatively short amount of time? We'd better have. We can't afford to have another generation of our children getting an inadequate education.
Q. In the report, the GBC says that proposals for improving educational levels in the city are radical. Are they really?
A. Oh, yes. Are there some that could be more radical? Certainly. What we're saying is that far more autonomy -- root autonomy -- needs to be invested in the school building, school officials and the teachers. We have to stop putting our emphasis on the meaningless reorganization of the deck chairs in the bureaucracy. And if, as the Sondheim Commission said, that doesn't work, then the state ought to be given the option to take over and fund individual schools. [The Sondheim report called for effectiveness of school systems across the state to be judged according to student test scores, attendance, promotion and the number of students who drop out.]
Q. In the GBC report, the committee says that the strength of Maryland depends on the state of Baltimore. Why?
A. Whatever is happening, the reality is that Baltimore remains . . . will always remain, the cultural, financial and economic center of this state. And so, wither Baltimore, so the state. That means that unless we have a strong Baltimore City, then Baltimore County and Howard County, Montgomery County, and so on and so forth throughout the state, from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, will suffer dramatically.
Q. Now don't you think that the politicians and residents of the other counties might strongly disagree with that?
A. Well I don't think so. I think particularly the people of this state understand this. I think there are some elected officials who disagree, not very many. There is posturing involved in all this. There is no more critical mass in the state of Maryland than there is in Baltimore City. That doesn't mean that we don't have other sources of strength. Montgomery County is clearly strong. Baltimore County is clearly strong. The Eastern Shore has its own viability, but when you're talking about the heart, where the lifeblood is for the state, there is only one choice for that -- Baltimore City.
Q. There have been many reports by various groups calling for a reduction in the city real estate tax. How will the added voices of the GBC make a difference?
A. Well, I think we need to understand that when the business community coalesces around an issue, that it brings a special viewpoint and a special kind of clout. We can't do it alone. We've said that all the time and we say it again, but I think this is an organization that has shown real courage and so we have a real shot. We are a "value added" to public policy discussions. And we intend to stay with this until something substantial happens, and that's not going to be in a month.
Q. Why are the voices raised now? This is not a new issue.
A. Well, the reality is that we have been raising these issues for a long time and have been one of the major proponents for a healthy city. What is happening now is that there is a confluence of important public policy issues that are around the fiscal state of the city and are around the Linowes Commission.
Q. Why is it important that the GBC supports the package of tax reforms suggested by the Maryland Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure, better known as the Linowes Commission?
A. Well, there are two aspects. One is that we do . . . need major new revenue in this state. So that's why we support additional revenue. Now, why do we support it as a package? We are vehemently opposed to what we are calling "cherry picking." That is when you support one and don't support another. What Linowes has come up with is a very delicately balanced package. And we have to support the entire package. So, we are saying that our support of additional money for transportation revenues is directly dependent on support for Linowes. So, we won't be put in a trap that some are trying to put us in, of supporting one and not supporting the other. We are saying that the state had a commission that worked for three years. And what they have done is reasonable and worthy of all of our support.
Q. What measures can the GBC membership take to see that some or all of the recommendations are implemented?
A. We are spending a lot of time talking with our representatives in Annapolis, trying to build legislative coalitions. We will continue to do that. We have met with the governor. We have met with legislative leadership. We will continue to push this. The other thing that the Greater Baltimore Committee does is stick with issues. We understand that not everything gets done today, and the business community which represents this entire region intends to stay with this issue until we achieve major success.
Q. Do you think Maryland residents will support any changes in the way they pay taxes for fear that it will just mean more money out of their pockets, especially in this economic downturn?
A. Well, I'd say a couple of things. First, there is no good time to talk about taxes, and so what's better or worse about this time than any other? The other thing is that the people of Maryland have historically shown great sophistication about the way we deal with taxes. And, if you look at any poll or any survey . . . what people are saying in our judgment is that if the money is spent wisely and effectively, and with the proper levels of accountability, then they are willing to pay.