Forecast says state on the rise; Educated work force, proximity to D.C. add to possibilities; Technology a big factor; Towson University expert expects growth of 3.6-3.7%


With its strong technology sectors, educated work force and proximity to federal laboratories, Maryland's economy should grow faster than the national average in 2000, the director of Towson University's economic forecasting unit predicted at a conference yesterday.

Anirban Basu, director of applied economics and senior economist of the Regional Economic Studies Institute, said Maryland's economy should grow at a 3.6 percent to 3.7 percent clip in 2000, compared with a still-strong 3.0 percent to 3.1 percent pace for the nation as a whole.

The job rolls of nonagricultural workers in Maryland should expand by about 2.3 percent next year, compared with a 2.0 percent national average.

Job expansion has been translating into growth in incomes for Marylanders: about 6 percent between the second quarters of 1998 and 1999, outpacing the national average of 5.5 percent.

"We're a wealthy state, and have lots of people of high educational achievement," and that bodes well for Maryland, Basu told his audience on the Towson campus.

This year's "Economic Outlook Conference" -- a briefing on the research group's predictions for the year ahead -- was the fifth held by RESI. In addition to presenting a broad overview of the current state of the U.S. and international economies, Basu compared national and state economies in five key areas: momentum from 1999, consumer debt levels, international exposure, federal spending and technology growth.

Maryland lags behind the national average in exports and international exposure, and is about even in terms of consumer debt levels and economic momentum. But Maryland enjoys a level of federal spending far above the typical state and has seen its technology base grow significantly.

If there was a sour note in Basu's presentation, it was the state health care system, where regulatory reform difficulties are squeezing hospitals.

Several hospitals have closed, costing the state high-paying, high-skilled jobs and costing urban areas access to good medical care, Basu said.

Technology -- and Maryland's emergence as a player in the "new economies" of biotechnology and digital technology -- was a key theme of Basu's presentation.

"In terms of high-tech jobs Maryland ranks well," Basu said. "I think it's probably among the top 10 states. Obviously, we're behind Virginia -- specifically Northern Virginia -- but we all know the dynamics of the area there. Still, compared to the balance of the country, we're doing quite well."

Part of that vitality results from the nearness of federal labs, such as those affiliated with the National Institutes of Health, and research universities such as the Johns Hopkins University, which are helping fuel Maryland's nascent biotechnology boom.

Biotechnology patents are a "stock of knowledge, the foundation for future economic growth," even though it can take seven to 10 years to transform a patent into a marketable drug, Basu said.

At the same time, Maryland is bulking up its strength in the digital-technology arena. It ranks third nationally in the percentage of adults online, ninth in the number of commercial Internet domain names per firm, 23rd in patents per worker and sixth in the value of stock offerings as a percentage of state output.

This information-technology expertise is helping to fuel a rise in the telecommunications equipment and services sector, a good strength to have as the Internet gains as a communications medium and consumer-service phenomenon.

The wages are high in those industries, Basu said. "Those [jobs] are generally dealing with new types of technology."

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