Dearth of small-firm owners in Assembly is election issue

No one knows precisely how many small-business owners there are in the 188-seat Maryland General Assembly, but this much is clear: There aren't many.

The number is so small, in fact, that a Democratic Business Caucus launched by Del. Galen Clagett a few years back never got off the ground. Clagett, who owns a property management and commercial sales company in Frederick, printed red-and-gold business cards, formed a steering committee and called a meeting or two. But only a couple of dozen colleagues signed up, and they seemed to have done so half-heartedly.

"No one was interested," Clagett said. The caucus quickly disbanded.

In making relief for entrepreneurs a theme of his gubernatorial campaign, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has repeatedly lamented the dearth of legislators with business experience. He has implored employers across the state to run for office — or at least to go to Annapolis, ledgers in hand, to educate lawmakers.

"You need to understand the predisposition of the legislature today," Ehrlich told a group gathered in Gaithersburg to hear his business proposals. "They've never really done it in the real world."

There's a restaurateur or two, a jeweler, and a handful of accountants and attorneys with employees on their payrolls. But those lawmakers are vastly outnumbered by corporate lawyers, government employees and those who have made a career of politics. One-fifth of the lawmakers count their elected office as their full-time job.

Yet small-business issues are in the election spotlight this year — pushed there by a slow national economic recovery and the state's business climate. Last year, nearly 3,000 more businesses closed than opened, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Ellen Valentino, Maryland director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the topic was getting "unprecedented attention" from Democratic and Republican candidates. The legislature now includes just seven of her members, and six more have decided to run, she said.

"Government intrusion on a national and state level have prompted small-business owners to say, 'I need to get to Annapolis. I'm prepared to come to the table,' " Valentino said.

Candidates are trumpeting their business experience. Smith Island baking company owner Brian Murphy, Ehrlich's opponent in the Republican primary, said primaries in California and Virginia showed that voters are choosing "businesspeople, not politicians."

Gov. Martin O'Malley weighed in recently, signing an executive order to form a commission to study small business, though his campaign said he has been addressing business needs throughout his administration. Ehrlich has criss-crossed the state collecting ideas from small-business owners. Both are lawyers who have had long careers as elected officials.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat representing Calvert and Prince George's counties, largely agreed with Ehrlich that the legislature needs more members with small-business experience. Miller has a law firm in Clinton.

"It's a fair criticism of lawmakers everywhere, including the United States Congress," he said. "I think we all wish that there were more professionals. That way we wouldn't all be so dependent on our staff when business issues come up."

Miller, a member of the Senate for 35 years and a Maryland history buff, said the legislature included far more businessmen when it met once every two years. Now, meeting for 90 days in Annapolis every year makes it impossible for most business owners to attend.

Lawmakers who run businesses say the balance can be nearly impossible. Del. Ron George, a Republican, owns a jewelry store in the shadow of the State House.

"If my business wasn't a block away," he said, "I don't know if I could do it."

George says he has passed many lunch hours helping to close a sale or managing his 10 employees in Annapolis and another shop in Severna Park. He views himself as a businessman directly affected by policy decisions — he had to let his bookkeeper go after a round of tax increases earlier this decade.

Del. James King, a Republican who owns two restaurants and a catering company in Anne Arundel County, said "lack of a small-business voice" prompted him to run four years ago. He's now trying for the Senate seat in his district.

King said he has brought his financial statements to show colleagues on the economic matters committee how tough it can be to make ends meet.

"I say constantly, 'You can talk until you're blue in [the] face, but you don't really understand until you make a payroll, until you've had to look people in the eyes and lay them off.' I'm not just responsible for my family, if I don't succeed. The families of 115 employees depend on me."

He says he urged Valentino about a year ago to pair lawmakers with small-business owners for mentoring — something she agrees is a "great idea," but has not initiated.

Ehrlich has argued that lack of sensitivity to business can lead to grave legislative errors. Examples, he said, include a decision in 2007 to levy a 6 percent tax on technology companies — it was repealed within months — and Maryland's refusal to lower its 8.25 percent corporate income tax, even as Virginia lawmakers considered eliminating their state's tax altogether.

This year, the Senate's few business owners, Democrats and Republicans alike, loudly and unsuccessfully opposed legislation requiring most retailers to offer employees 15-minute shift breaks if they work at least four consecutive hours.

Sen. Rona E. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat who owns a shopping center management company, complained that her colleagues weren't thinking about the smallest businesses, where only one or two employees may be on the clock.

A business caucus, Clagett says, could have guided policy in a way that individual lawmakers cannot. For example, he says, it could have better explained the needs of business during a debate this legislative session over whether to ease rules on stormwater pollution that were costly to developers. In the end, lawmakers did exempt the regulations for development projects already in place.

"It certainly isn't a panacea," he said of forming a business caucus, "but it would have been a vehicle."

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