Closing the disconnect between lawmakers and business

Don Fry Commentary on WYPR

As a former state senator and delegate, and now president of a private-sector business advocacy organization, I’ve been on both sides of the legislative process.

But a recent trip to Annapolis to urge the repeal of the state’s computer services tax reminded me of the vastly contrasting perspectives between lawmakers and business executives.

A powerful committee chair noted that lawmakers are, in effect, the state’s board of directors trying to deal with a slowing economy and declining state revenues, just as a private sector board would address a business slowdown.

While that metaphor is valid, contrasts between the legislative and business worlds are substantial.

Successful businesses have specific, focused missions based on their companies’ unique strengths and customer needs. Lawmakers, faced with re-election prospects, all too often try to be all things to all people.

Businesses plans are based on detailed strategies for success. Tactics are crafted to fit the strategies. A Maryland lawmaker’s world is exactly the opposite – it’s a chaotic, tactics-first environment.

Long range planning on a particular issue is not easily accomplished in a 90-day session as lawmakers sift through 2,500 bills – a flood of disconnected tactics shaped by an incredibly broad range of competing agendas. Legislators are smart people who understand the importance of linking tactics to strategy. But they struggle to find time for meaningful in-depth, strategic analysis.

Facing price competition and fiscal challenges, business executives’ instincts are to aggressively scrutinize operating budgets and find ways to cut expenses while preserving strategic priorities. It’s their first, best option. State lawmakers are clearly reluctant to cut spending. Despite what many people suggest, individually, they don’t like voting to raise taxes, either. But collectively, as recent history demonstrates, lawmakers seem to favor raising taxes over cutting a $15 billion general fund budget that they sincerely believe is devoid of fat.

This is probably the biggest single philosophical disconnect between the State House and the business sector.

If both sectors could manage to bridge this divide, the state would greatly benefit. A first step could be to work together on a comprehensive review of Maryland’s revenue structure as it relates to the state’s strategic priorities. The results of such a project could be both enlightening and beneficial for the State of Maryland.

For the Regional Business Report, this is Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, for 88.1 WYPR, your NPR news station.

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