Donald Fry: Closing the ‘disconnect’ with elected officials over competitiveness

By Donald C. Fry

On Wednesday, Greater Baltimore Committee Chairman Brian C. Rogers put his finger on the nature of the disconnect between state lawmakers and business advocates on the issue of Maryland’s competitiveness for business location and growth.

Major issues at the center of the disconnect are Maryland’s tax and regulatory policies, Rogers suggested in his remarks to more than 800 business and civic leaders gathered in the Hyatt Regency Baltimore’s ballroom for the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual meeting.

Maryland can, and should, do better when it comes to business growth and job creation, says Rogers, who is chairman and chief investment officer at T. Rowe Price Group, Inc.

Maryland has many significant strengths, including a well-educated and skilled workforce, major research and technology resources, and a high quality of life. But largely because of tax and regulatory policies, our state is perceived by economic development professionals and business leaders as being “middle of the pack” or worse when it comes to competitiveness, says Rogers.

The GBC has launched a new initiative to develop a specific policy strategy agenda for improving Maryland’s business climate that is based on eight core pillars for economic growth and job creation outlined in the GBC report “Gaining a Competitive Edge.” The report, issued two years ago, was compiled from a year-long series of focus groups and feedback sessions in which business leaders and economic development experts from around the state participated.

This year, the GBC has been conducting a comprehensive information-gathering process to collect ideas from CEOs on policies that are needed to strengthen Maryland’s business competitiveness.

On June 12, the GBC will host a day-long conference of CEOs to begin distilling the core pillars into specific legislative public policy action items for business advocates to propose to lawmakers.

Based on feedback the GBC is receiving so far, tax policy is likely to be a key issue up for discussion at the CEO conference.

Here’s how Rogers arrives at tax policy as a big part of Maryland’s competitiveness challenge.

Maryland boasts a highly impressive array of qualities that businesses covet. We have a top-notch public education system, globally-ranked universities, a highly-skilled work force, a major concentration of research activity, great potential for innovation in the areas of health sciences, technology and cyber security and a tremendous geographic location and quality of life.

“Many elected leaders in Maryland believe that these are sufficient and that companies will start up, expand or relocate here based on these strengths alone,” says Rogers.

However, a number of widely-read, nationally-published business rankings point to issues that require attention if we want to be recognized as an outstanding environment for business.

“While we rank highly in terms of the environment for entrepreneurial activity and technological innovation,” says Rogers, “we often fall to the middle or bottom of the pack when it comes to our tax system and regulatory environment.”

This raises a fundamental question that Maryland policy makers must ask themselves, says Rogers: “How can a state with the advantages we possess possibly be perceived as a “middle of the pack” place to do business?”

That’s a compelling question that should be the starting point for any serious discussion about competitiveness.

It’s one that’s difficult to be explained away by elected leaders who enthusiastically embrace rankings that place Maryland at the top in innovation and entrepreneurship in some business climate surveys but then choose to totally dismiss the validity of low rankings for taxes and regulations by the same body of surveys.

However, it’s not enough for business advocates to simply point and wail at such low rankings. We need to come up with specifics – constructive, achievable suggestions to policy makers for improving Maryland’s competitive position as a business location.

It’s an exercise that is well worth the effort.

As Rogers points out, the benefit of successfully developing and implementing a specific strategy that improves our state’s competitiveness is huge: a faster rate of job creation, jobs at all education levels that will stimulate economic growth, an expanded tax base to provide support for essential government services and opportunities for future generations.

This is a task that only private-sector advocates are in a position to take the lead on. Our advocacy for competitiveness is needed more than ever to position Baltimore and the state of Maryland for the future.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

City takes constructive step toward strategy for job growth

Federal fiscal uncertainty could erode states’ infrastructure funding options

Business issues rose to the top of State House priority lists in 2013 session

O’Malley deserves better grade for affordable college in Maryland

Hire One Youth: connecting Baltimore’s youth with private-sector opportunity

Maryland’s transportation funding crisis is real, not contrived