Center Maryland: Grasping job-growth reality in Annapolis

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Maryland had a disappointing year for job growth in 2013, when employment in our state grew at a rate of less than 1 percent.

A recent interactive map of job growth projections published by Pew Charitable Trusts, using data from Moody’s Analytics, projects a better year for Maryland in 2014, forecasting a 1.55 percent job-growth rate in our state this year. This would rank Maryland’s employment growth 29th in the nation and third among Mid-Atlantic states if the projections are realized.

This modest rebound for Maryland would be a step in the right direction, but not the robust employment growth you might expect in a state with so many strengths, including superior location and quality of life, highly ranked education and a major concentration of research activities and technology development.

It’s clear that strengthening Maryland’s competitiveness for job growth remains a key challenge in the tenaciously sluggish economy that has emerged after the Great Recession. It’s encouraging to note that policy-makers in Annapolis are recognizing this.

During the current General Assembly session, lawmakers have begun to pay attention to initiatives to nurture job growth and to foster private-sector innovation.

In January, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch announced a joint legislative agenda for business and economic development. Many of the initiatives reflect core pillars for economic competitiveness compiled by Greater Baltimore Committee business and civic leaders in the GBC’s 2010 “Gaining a Competitive Edge” report.

With a week left in this year’s session, a number of these initiatives are moving through the General Assembly. Here’s a status report on these and other bills that would contribute to enhancing Maryland’s competitiveness as a location for economic growth and job creation:

  • Reduced-tax zones. A bill sponsored by Senator Catherine E. Pugh, D-Baltimore City, would encourage business investment by offering a number of tax incentives to businesses located in Regional Institution Strategic Enterprise (RISE) zones near designated public schools and higher education institutions. Status: This bill passed the Senate and is before the House Ways and Means Committee.
  • Cyber seed investment fund. Bills sponsored by Senator James E. DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel and Delegate Pamela Beidle, D-Anne Arundel, would establish a cyber security investment fund in the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) to provide seed and early-stage funding for emerging tech companies in Maryland focused on cyber security. Status: The Senate measure passed the Senate and has received a favorable report from the House Economic Matters Committee. The House measure passed the House and is before the Senate Finance Committee.
  • Matching private-sector funding for university research endowments.  A bill sponsored by Senate President Mike Miller, D-Prince George’s and Calvert, would establish the “Maryland E-nnovation Initiative Program” to create a $50 million fund, by auctioning tax credits to insurance companies, and deploying proceeds to attract private-sector matching funding for scientific research at higher education institutions. Status: The bill passed the Senate and is before the House Ways and Means and Appropriations committees.

  • Easing Maryland’s estate tax burden. High-priority bills sponsored by House Speaker Busch and Senate President Miller would increase, over a five-year period, the amount exempted from Maryland‘s estate tax from $1 million currently to the federal estate tax threshold of more than $5 million. Exempt amounts would be $1.5 million, $2 million, $3 million and $4 million in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively.  After that, the exempt amount would match that of the federal estate tax. Status: The House measure has passed both chambers.

  • Improved transparency on tax forms.  Bills sponsored by Delegate Galen R. Clagett, D-Frederick, and Senator Roger P. Manno, D-Montgomery, would require information on each state tax form showing how tax dollars are being spent. It requires the inclusion of a graph showing how much of each general fund revenue dollar is spent on education, health, public safety and other categories. Status: Both the Senate and House measures have passed their respective chambers. The Senate bill is before the House Ways and Means Committee and the House bill is before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

  • Workforce skills training. A bill sponsored by Senator Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, would create a pilot program for three years to provide skills training, career counseling and a summer employment opportunities to high school students who are struggling to meet college and career standards.  The program would be conducted in four selected school systems in the state. Status: This measure passed the Senate and is before the House Ways and Means Committee.

    • Technology internships. A bill sponsored by Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, would establish a Maryland Technology Internship Program to foster paid internships for college students, recent graduates and veterans in the small-business technology sector. The program, which would be administered by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, would reimburse businesses for 50 percent – up to $3,000 – of stipends paid to high-tech interns. Status: This measure passed the House and is before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Each of these legislative initiatives relates in some way to strengthening key prerequisites in Maryland for a competitive environment that generates private-sector economic growth and job creation, including making tax policies more competitive, nurturing research and technology industry development, and building a superior workforce for a knowledge-based economy.

It’s worth noting that the advocacy by Senate President Miller and House Speaker Busch for an economic development agenda added considerable weight to the issue of competitiveness in this year’s session.  Lawmakers have delivered bipartisan support this year for measures that might have failed in previous sessions.

For most of these measures that appear poised for passage, final action on them remains to be accomplished in the next 10 days.

But Annapolis policy-makers are sending positive signals about grasping the reality that, despite Maryland’s many strengths as a place to do business, there is work to do on the issue of competitiveness if our state is to leverage its significant advantages into strong economic growth.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland. This column was originally published in Center Maryland on Friday, March 28.

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