Boosting business the Maryland way

When it comes to business in Maryland, the views of Norman R. Augustine should not be taken lightly. A former CEO of Lockheed Martin and Under Secretary of the U.S. Army, he graduated from Princeton magna cum laude, holds 29 honorary degrees and built a distinguished career in aeronautics engineering, advising the nation's top leaders on everything from space flight to homeland security and serving on the governing boards of many of this nation's largest and most important corporations and universities.

For nearly a year, he has headed a commission created by the Maryland General Assembly's presiding officers to study this state's economic development and business climate. This week, he released a preliminary report on what members found, and what do you imagine was their top recommendation to improve the state's business climate?


In three words: Change the attitude. That's right. He believes there's a perception among many state workers that they have "no responsibility to assist in economic development, business growth or job creation," and he wants that to change. He acknowledges that will require a "major management commitment" but not necessarily a significant cost.

Putting the "friendly" in "business friendly" may sound like mere common sense, but this problem of attitude has too often been ignored in the political debate over Maryland's business climate. In his gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Larry Hogan framed the state's perceived shortcomings mostly in terms of taxes and regulations. But make no mistake, the difference between calling a state agency and finding a sympathetic voice on the other end of the line willing to help guide you through the permit process versus running into a bureaucratic stonewall is night and day. And it's clear from the commission's findings that they've heard from enough business owners to know which of these scenarios is the more common.

Democrats used to understand this. Part of the appeal of William Donald Schaefer was that he was constantly talking up this state's business opportunities while simultaneously pushing to raise the bar on state agencies. He took a similar tack as Baltimore's mayor. Have a plan to expand your business? He'd do whatever was needed to assist you. But if he spotted trash on the sidewalks or a pot hole in the streets? He wasn't about to hear any excuses from anyone in public employ, and woe to the staffer who didn't correct the situation immediately.

The Augustine commission has 32 recommendations to improve this state's business climate, but most won't strike people as earth-shattering, whether it involves creating a commerce "super secretary" to oversee agencies that deal with business, a customer service training program for state workers or a pilot apprenticeship program. Governor Hogan has already suggested there are "a lot of things that we're going to find agreement on" as lawmakers ponder the handful of bills that are expected to be introduced this week to help implement commission findings.

But what sets this effort apart is that it's remarkably even-handed. It seems neither to be an unfair, fact-stretching attack on the state in the manner of the governor's recent State of the State address or an effort to paper over government's failings as Democrats in Annapolis might be inclined to do. It simply suggests ways Maryland could do better in job creation and acknowledges that cutbacks in the federal budget make this a more urgent concern than ever.

The role of taxes and state government spending in all this? That's a matter to be reported at a later date, but the commission has already offered a clue as to its thinking, having endorsed spending more on higher education and transportation infrastructure. Those are two areas where Democrats and Republicans would appear to differ sharply, Mr. Hogan already having called for a rollback in planned increases to the gas tax, a major source of revenue for transportation, and for spending significantly less on Maryland's public colleges and universities than the schools had sought.

That improving Maryland's business climate requires better roads and transit and taking better advantage of its knowledge base — translating research breakthroughs into start-up companies, for instance — should not come as a surprise. We've heard this from the Greater Baltimore Committee and others in the business world for years, but the message seems to often get lost on fiscal conservatives in Annapolis who seek only to shrink government, not make it more effective. The task is not to turn the state into Texas, it's to make it a better Maryland. Mr. Augustine is headed in the right direction, and we trust Mr. Hogan and legislators will translate many of these findings into action.