The Daily Record: Compare, contrast candidates on business

don fry commentary square

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on September 18 on TheDailyRecord.com.

By Donald C. Fry

Both major party contenders for governor cite improving Maryland’s business climate as their top priority.

Democrat Lt. Governor Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan are both pledging to work on issues cited by business leaders as currently detracting from Maryland’s many strengths as a place to do business.  For example, both pledge to make tax reform an early action item for their administration and vow to review the way Maryland’s operating expenses are budgeted and to explore new approaches to better manage government spending.

But how would the specific policies of the two candidates differ if elected?

Following are a few thumbnail summaries of contrasting concepts on business climate issues gleaned from web sites and candidates’ meeting with business leaders.

Economic growth and job creation

Brown says he would create jobs and opportunities through strong state investments in public education and infrastructure, growing small businesses and strengthening workforce training. He also cites more affordable and reliable energy as important to the state’s economic growth.

Hogan’s major focus would be to lower the cost of government, thereby easing the pressure on business costs and living costs exacerbated by the increase in state taxes and spending. Ultimately, lowering government-related costs is central to creating jobs in Maryland, he says.

Tax reform

Both candidates pledge action on reforming Maryland’s tax structure to make the state more competitive for business location, economic growth and job creation – the top strategic priority recommended by business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee last year for strengthening the state’s business climate.

Brown is vowing to create a blue-ribbon tax-reform commission in his first 100 days with the goal of issuing a set of recommendations to take to the 2016 General Assembly.

Hogan has also vowed to roll back taxes as a top priority of his administration, conceding that he would need help from a predominantly Democratic General Assembly to enact “meaningful” tax reductions.

State budgeting and spending

Both candidates acknowledge that most state government spending in Maryland is driven by formulas enacted over the years by the General Assembly. Brown has pledged to examine all of the state’s spending formulas and guidelines for budget categories and to work toward a consensus on “realistic” and sustainable formulas for future years.

Hogan is vowing to implement $1.75 billion in potential savings identified by state legislative auditors.  He would work to persuade members of the General Assembly to alter funding formulas to rein in non-discretionary spending. He contends that a five percent budget cut could “easily” be achieved without Draconian measures.

Transportation

Perhaps the most dramatic disparity between Brown and Hogan campaign pledges centers on how each would manage transportation resources and allocate funding for transit and roads.

Brown is a strong supporter of mass transit – particularly funding the light-rail Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The Baltimore region, for example, is in dire need of the Red Line because it is “perhaps the least connected” metropolitan area in the nation, he says.

By contrast, Hogan vows to re-align the state’s transportation funding priorities more toward roads. He contends that many more state residents use roads than transit and, given the state’s fiscal challenges, Maryland can’t afford to build the Red and Purple lines now.

Both candidates support the enactment of a constitutional amendment that is on state election ballots this Nov. 4 to create a “lockbox” for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to prohibit what had become habitual raids on the fund during the last decade by lawmakers seeking to balance general operating budgets.

Both candidates have vowed to restore highway user funds to the county and municipal governments. Brown has indicated that the restoration of funds would occur incrementally. Hogan has pledged to restore more than $400 million in his first budget submitted to the legislature.

Education

Both Brown and Hogan pledge continuing strong state support for education – a significant business climate asset for Maryland.

Among other things, Brown supports Common Core and would implement half-day pre-K education for four-year-olds by 2018 and increase state investments in school construction and career and technology education. Brown also vows to work toward providing more operational flexibility to charter schools in Maryland, which ranks 43rd in the nation for developing charter schools.

Hogan says he is in favor of having standards, but that Common Core needs to be re-worked to focus on parent, classroom teachers and local control. He also favors promoting the creation of more charter schools, but contends that Maryland has been less successful in implementing school choice than other states because of opposition by teachers unions.

These are just a few examples of contrasting approaches to fundamental business climate issues.

It’s worth noting that both candidates are voicing vigorous agreement on one key issue raised by business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee and across the state – the need for congressional and legislative redistricting reform. Both Brown and Hogan say they support the concept that an independent commission – not elected officials – should be tasked with redrawing Maryland’s election district boundaries.

That point of agreement notwithstanding, it goes without saying that election campaigns are more about contrasting concepts than about specifics.

Neither candidate offers detailed answers to obvious questions relating to their governing concepts. For example, how would the stepped-up state “investments” that Brown envisions be funded?  And how would Hogan accomplish billions of cuts in state government revenue without negative impacts on critical government services?

Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to hear from both candidates that, for Maryland’s economic future, the fundamental task of strengthening our state’s business climate must be at the top of their “To Do” list in post-election Annapolis.

It will be incumbent upon all of us to ensure that a more competitive business climate suitable to growing our state’s economy outlives the campaign rhetoric and becomes the top strategic imperative of either a Brown or Hogan administration.

Donald C. Fry, president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His e-mail address is donaldf@gbc.org

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