The Howard County Chamber of Commerce treated the county's legislative delegation to breakfast yesterday and threw in a familiar helping of advice -- cut government rules and regulations and increase opportunities for business to perform jobs traditionally left to government.
Speakers from the Chamber's Governmental Affairs Committee repeated the themes of "competition" and "privatization" throughout yesterday's meeting to present the 1,000-member organization's legislative positions for the 1994 General Assembly session.
Chamber representatives addressed proposed local legislation and issues concerning the environment, solid waste management, health care, education, transportation, taxation, government efficiency, procurement and mandates. They emphasized to about 65 county political and business leaders that the key to economic growth is keeping small businesses vital.
In its "1994 Legislative White Paper," the chamber states that its members are partners with government but challenges legislators to "remove the roadblocks to success in enhancing our quality of life.
"We want to create a balance of taxes, regulation, government size and services which will position Howard County and Maryland to compete more effectively," the report says.
To that end, the chamber generally opposes tax and government fee increases and supports terminating a surtax on higher income earners, many of whom run small businesses. However, it supports an increase in fuel taxes earmarked for transportation improvements, including public mass transit.
The organization supports contracting more government work out to private companies to improve efficiency and awarding contracts when "appropriate." The chamber also supports reforming the state's system for bidding on contracts to enable small businesses to be more competitive.
The chamber denounced a practice in which government agencies are "competing" against private businesses for contract work in areas such as industrial and occupational health. "An agency which has the excess capacity to compete with private enterprise is a good example of the need for government streamlining," the report says.
Discussion of "privatization" became more sensitive when education was the topic. The chamber recommends that "alternative strategies be explored" to improve efficiency in education, including considering government vouchers that could be used at private schools, contracting out some educational activities to the private sector and year-round schools.
Jim Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association, objected to the voucher concept, saying the school system prides itself on educating all students, from the gifted and talented to non-English speakers to those with disabilities.
"Take a second look at using public money for private education. It's fundamentally wrong," he said.
While most parents are satisfied with Howard County schools, education in some other areas of the state is "non-functional," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-14B). He said that he was impressed by a recent tour of selected Baltimore public schools whose operations have been turned over to a private company and that the concept "deserves exploration."
The chamber urged Howard lawmakers to push for more state money to support a rapidly growing school population.
Howard County also should consider turning over solid waste management to private firms, and search for the most cost-effective, environmentally safe solutions, including regional approaches. "If it's the private sector instead of the public sector, so be it," said attorney Ronald Schimel.
The chamber cited several proposed laws or regulations that would put certain Howard County employers at a "competitive disadvantage." For example, Federal Clean Air Act regulations being developed by the state could require larger employers to reduce employees' vehicle trips to work.
That could put Howard at a disadvantage because it lacks a public transportation system, the chamber says.
Also, any health care mandate requiring employers to buy health insurance or pay increased taxes to cover the uninsured could harm small businesses, the chamber says.
"If universal health insurance is a desired goal, it should be a straight-up tax on everyone, not just on business," attorney Guy Harriman said.
On local legislation, the chamber supports bills to build a county agricultural center, continue an excise tax on construction to pay for roads, and reform the jury duty system to reduce time commitments.
It opposes bills to require applicants for zoning changes to declare campaign contributions and to give mobile home owners a first crack at purchasing their parks when offered for sale.
The chamber also:
* Supports the state assuming full authority from federal agencies for regulating construction in wetlands to reduce "delay and duplication" in the permit process.
* Urges the state legislature to terminate programs that have "outlived their usefulness" and fully finance those deemed vital to relieve the burden on local governments.