Maryland “FastTrack” initiative earns praise

Gov. Martin O’Malley earned kudos for the streamlined permitting program he unveiled Thursday from a source that rarely sees eye-to-eye with the Democratic chief executive — the conservative Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

“FastTrack” will allow developers to apply online for the streamlined state review, which will have agencies working concurrently to vet the project — rather than one at a time — and include oversight from the Department of Business and Economic Development and StateStat, the office O’Malley created to do data-driven analysis of government performance.

O’Malley signed an executive order Thursday morning to create the program.

“Governor O’Malley is taking a step in the right direction today by streamlining regulatory processes in Maryland departments and agencies,” MBRG President Kimberly M. Burns said in a written statement. “The executive order has potential to increase business productivity, investment and ultimately lead to job creation.”

The governor also announced the creation of the “Maryland Made Easy” website where DBED will build a consolidated, online permitting site.

“One of the ways in which we can create jobs, expand opportunity, and do it now, is by cutting the bureaucratic red tape,” said O’Malley said in a statement of his own. “We’re doing that with Maryland Made Easy, simplifying and streamlining the business licensing and permitting process — not just in specific agencies, but across our entire State government.”

“This is the FastTrack to expanding businesses in our state,” he said. “This is the FastTrack to jobs and opportunity, not in ‘a few years from now,’ but now.”

Maryland slips in CNBC business rankings

Maryland slipped two spots in CNBC’s rankings of the best states to do business this year, finishing No. 29 out of 50 after placing 27th in both 2009 and 2010.

What may be worse for the Old Line State is that Virginia – Maryland’s most frequent foil when it comes to all things economic development and business friendliness – gained one place in the rankings and recaptured the top spot.

Maryland didn’t finish in the top five in any category the business news network used to determine the overall rankings. The state had its worst showing in cost of living, its 44th place ranking ahead of only New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Alaska and Hawaii.

Perhaps more surprising for Maryland, CNBC ranked the state 38th for work force and 30th for quality of life, two factors that state leaders talk up as some of the state’s best selling points. The workforce ranking was based on education (where Maryland should have done well), worker availability (where Maryland may have hurt been by its relatively low unemployment rate) and union membership. CNBC counts union membership against states and Maryland’s stance has been very pro-union. It is the southernmost of the non-right to work states, a factor some economists believe hurts Maryland in its competition with Virginia and North Carolina.

Quality of life rankings were determined by local attractions, crime rate, health care and air and water quality. Notice there’s no mention of schools in there, one of Maryland’s strong suits. Just try and talk to a Democratic politician for two minutes without him or her mentioning the top-ranked public school system. Just try it. I dare you.

Maryland also got crushed in the rankings on infrastructure and transportation, finishing 39th. The Baltimore and Washington regions are some of the most congested in the country, so that’s not a surprise. But the rankings also looked at the value of goods shipped through the state, road quality and the availability of air travel. Hampton Roads does more business than the Port of Baltimore and while BWI is bigger than Reagan and Dulles, the two northern Virginia airports are larger when combined and Dulles offers far more international travel.

Where was the good news for Maryland? Probably just where you expected it would be. The state’s highest grade (10th place) was in technology and innovation. This included state support for innovation, patents issued to state residents, broadband access, and health and science grants made in the state. Virginia finished 11th in this category, the only in which it scored lower than Maryland.

Maryland finished 11th in education, which examined K-12 and colleges and universities.

Maryland has the 12th-best economy of all the states according the CNBC rankings that not only looked at the diversity in the state, but the fiscal health of state governments and the number of large corporations headquartered there. And Maryland was 12th-best in terms of access to capital for businesses.

And as much as this state is derided for having a terrible business climate, Maryland finished 18th and tied with pro-business Texas in that category, according to CNBC. But all things are relative, of course. Texas is blessed with neighbors like Oklahoma (24th in business friendliness) and Louisiana (26th). Maryland is stuck between Virginia (2) and Delaware (1). Of course, there’s always Pennsylvania (33) and West Virginia (49). So we’ve got that going for us.

Md. same-sex marriage advocates eye passage in New York

After an unsuccessful campaign this spring, Maryland’s same-sex marriage advocates can look to New York for a few pointers when planning their next efforts, which could come as soon as this fall.

New York’s legislature approved same-sex marriages late Friday night after the bill there cleared the final hurdle — the Republican-led state Senate.

The New York Times mapped out the legislation’s path from early strategy discussions to passage in a story in Sunday’s paper. It’s available online here and is a great read, totally worth using up one of your freebies if you’re a free-loading reader like me.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is given much of the credit for being such a staunch supporter of the bill. His office is described as orchestrating the lobbying effort and leaning on undecided lawmakers. Also key were Republican and libertarian money men who promised support  to those who voted yes. So, too, was a coordinated grassroots lobbying effort that worked in concert with the governor’s staff.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he was in favor of the bill here, but didn’t play the active role Cuomo did. (Quick update: here’s a link to Dan Rodricks’ column in The Sun on O’Malley and Cuomo.)

Maryland’s same-sex marriage bill cleared the Senate this year, but was unexpectedly derailed in the House of Delegates. (Here’s John Wagner’s story on Speaker Mike Busch’s role in the same-sex marriage effort.) Supporters then vowed to bring the legislation back in 2012, although it could be back sooner than that. The General Assembly will hold a special session this fall to tweak congressional districts.

Equality Maryland, an advocacy group that lobbied for same-sex marriage in this state, applauded the news in  statement sent after 11 p.m. Friday.

“Equality Maryland looks toward the future of marriage equality as New York becomes the sixth state, along with the District of Columbia, to recognize gay and lesbian couples as full and equal citizens. It’s time that Maryland joins the ranks of states who favor marriage equality for all loving and committed gay and lesbian couples.”

Md. trade mission – hotel rooms and great dirt walls

The price of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s trip to Asia this month is slowly trickling out from the state agencies that participated, but the governor’s detractors aren’t yet satisfied.

The Department of Business and Economic Development released a $144,086 tab for the trip Friday that included the governor and four other state employees.

House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, who requested a full accounting of the trip, called that figure “clearly a low-ball estimate.”

“It’s ludicrous to mislead the taxpayers of Maryland at a time when people can’t pay their bills,” he said.

O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, said the trips can be worthwhile, but joked the governor’s entourage of more than 70 state officials, educators and business leaders was “great for the economy of Southeast Asia.”

The trip took the delegation through China, South Korea and Vietnam, and the businesspeople on the trip paid their own way.

“Could the same things have been accomplished with a smaller delegation? Why 16 to 20 academics?” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell also questioned the DBED figures. For instance, the department covered the costs for five people, but listed six hotel rooms in each country.

DBED spokeswoman Karen Glenn Hood explained Tuesday morning the sixth hotel room was for Secretary of State John McDonough. The rest of McDonough’s expenses were covered by his office, she said.

Mike Violette, president of Washington Labs Ltd., was one of the business representatives on the trip. He was looking to drum up business for his electronics testing business.

“Certainly, I rarely get a police motorcade. So that was pretty cool,” he said. “In Washington, I’m usually on the outside watching that stuff.”

He said the trip helped strengthen his relationships with Asian companies, particularly in South Korea, which he visited for the first time while on the trade mission.

“It certainly was a great conversation starter, being part of the [delegation],” Violette said. “We’re pretty well functioning in China and we’ve already done work in Vietnam to open things up, but it did reinforce the message there.”

The trip also helped strengthen ties in Maryland.

“Being on a trip like this, everyone is sharing some common experiences,” Violette said. “By day three, everybody has mapped each other out, the ice is broken, and you have some friendships started. And then you start to see some possible synergies on the domestic level.”

One of those shared experiences came on the way to the Great Wall. The tour bus came upon a mound of dirt in the middle of the road and, when fully loaded, couldn’t make it over. The group had to pile out and watch as the bus worked its way over the obstacle. Violette blogged about the experience here. And here are his posts on Vietnam and South Korea.

O’Malley quiet on Md. jobs report

Updated at 4 p.m.

Gov. Martin O’Malley released a statement on the May jobs report just a few minutes ago. In it, he acknowledges “May was a tough month for job creation in Maryland.”

But, he said, “other trends suggest that we continue to move in the right direction. On the year, Maryland has achieved the largest reduction in unemployment in nearly three decades.”

Labor Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez took a similar approach to the numbers earlier this morning.

“May was a soft month, there’s no getting around it,” he said in conference call with reporters. “But there are indications in today’s report that show Maryland is poised to recover faster than other states.”

Original post:

There was something missing in the Maryland employment report out Friday morning.

It wasn’t the 15,300 private sector jobs that evaporated in May. It wasn’t 3,600 retail jobs, or 1,900 leisure and hospitality positions.

It was Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The governor was silent on the monthly report that, in addition to the private sector losses, showed the unemployment rate in the state held steady at 6.8 percent during a month more when Marylanders found jobs. (More on this discrepancy later.)

The governor’s take on the jobs report is usually a staple of the press releases sent to reporters around 10 a.m. on a Friday late in the month. Well, as long as the numbers are good.

Last month, in fact, O’Malley’s office beat the jobs report to my inbox. His statement arrived at 10 a.m. on May 20 and the figures from the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation hit a minute later. They touted the 16,400 private sector jobs added to Maryland payrolls in April and the unemployment rate slipping from 6.9 percent to 6.8 percent.

There was no separate O’Malley statement on April 19, but the governor made the second paragraph of the DLLR announcement of an improving unemployment rate in March and the 15,000 jobs added since January.

“Maryland’s economy continues to grow as our state pulls out of this national recession. Thousands of Marylanders have entered the workforce since the start of the year and we recorded the largest monthly employment gain last month since the final month of President Clinton’s term,” O’Malley said then.

In March, DLLR beat the governor to the punch, but only by three minutes, as both talked up the 8,100 jobs added the month before.

The January report was similar to the one just released Friday. That month, the unemployment rate dropped from 7.4 percent to 7.2 percent and more Marylanders were working than in the month before, but the state also managed to lose 7,100 private sector jobs. Sound familiar?

Indeed, there was no statement from the governor on the jobs report that month, either.

The discrepancies in the January and May figures — fewer Maryland jobs, rising Maryland employment and a steady or improving unemployment rate — are due to where the figures are measured. The jobs number is based on residency, and the unemployment percentage is based on that figure. The employment or payroll number is based on place of employment. So, more Marylanders were finding work outside the state in January and May.

Md. GOP wants full accounting of O’Malley trade mission

As Gov. Martin O’Malley’s prepares to travel back to Maryland after 10 days spent drumming up business for the state in Asia, Republican lawmakers are asking for total price tag on the trade mission.

“As we are sure you will both agree, in this austere fiscal climate, we must be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar,” GOP leaders wrote to Gov. Martin O’Malley and Business and Economic Development Secretary Christian Johansson.

The letter was signed by House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St.Mary’s, and the No. 2 Republican in the House, Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, of the Middle Shore.

The letter details 27 state employees on the trip, including O’Malley, Johansson, Secretary of State John P. McDonough, and three staffers from the Department of Business and Economic Development and the governor’s office. An O’Malley aide told The Washington Post the cost of the trip will likely be about $100,000, although that estimate doesn’t include the cost of sending educators from around the state, including University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace D. Loh and his counterpart at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Jay Perman.

Some government officials, including Del. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Edward Chow, paid their own way, and participated only in part of the trip.

The business leaders included in the 68-member delegation paid their own way,

“With plummeting business rankings and high tax environment, we know convincing corporations to locate here is not an easy task,” the GOP leaders wrote. “We hope this trip proves to be a fruitful one for the citizens of Maryland.”

O’Malley’s trip took the delegation through China, South Korea and Vietnam. On Friday, the trip’s final day, O’Malley met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and discussed strengthening trade and investment ties the state and that country. The two also signed an agreement to consider a sister state relationship between Maryland and Ninh Thuan Province.

“Vietnam is one of the world’s fastest growing markets and we see great potential to strengthen the trade and investment partnerships we have already established through Maryland’s trade offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City,” O’Malley said. “By signing the MOU to explore our first sister state relationship in Vietnam, we look forward to promoting all Maryland has to offer for Vietnamese firms looking to do business in the U.S., as well as increasing our more than $25 million in exports to the country.”

The Vietnam visit also led to business deals, according to the governor’s office:

  • Rockville’s AmeriSure Pharmaceuticals, one of only a handful of U.S companies licensed to distribute pharmaceuticals products in Vietnam, agreed to collaborate with VIMEDIMEX, a Vietnamese, state-owned pharmaceutical firms.
  • Marlin Steel Wire, of Baltimore, signed a collaboration agreement with Vietnam’s Inox Hoa Binh, a state-owned steel production and fabrication firm.
  • The Vietnam Natural Resources and Environmental Corp. committed to promote the floating island products of Blue Wing Environmental Solutions and Technologies, of Ellicott City.

O’Malley, South Korean president discuss Md. trade

Gov. Martin O’Malley went off script Wednesday, visiting the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak during his 10-day trade mission to Asia due to wrap up Saturday.

O’Malley met Lee at his official residence, Cheong Wa Dae, or the “Blue House”, and the two discussed ways to increase trade and investment between South Korea and Maryland, according to the governor’s office. O’Malley called the meeting “a highlight of our Asia mission” in a written statment.

“Given his long and successful business career — including 27 years with Hyundai — President Lee fully understands the importance of reaching across borders to build relationships and form partnerships to open markets to international trade and benefit the global economy,” O’Malley said. “We look forward to an ongoing relationship and further strengthening Maryland’s ties to South Korea.”

The meeting was not listed on the governor’s itinerary released last week. Secretary of State John P. McDonough and Business and Economic Development Secretary Christian Johansson were also in the meeting.

South Korea is already the state’s sixth-largest export market, accounting for $481 million in exports in 2010, according to the Department of Business and Economic Development. The state imported $525 million from South Korea that year, with automobiles, machinery and electrical equipment the top products.

O’Malley is in the country for three days, and is scheduled to meet with senior Samsung leaders tomorrow. He is set to tour the company’s biologics division, which was formed earlier this year in partnership with a North Carolina company to help the company expands in to biopharmaceuticals.

Beefing up the state’s biotech industry has been a focus for Maryland governor’s traveling, whether the trips have taken them to Asia, Europe or the Middle East.

O’Malley’s trade mission also includes stops in China and Vietnam. He traveled first to Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing China, and will stop in Hanoi on Friday. The state has announced $45 million in business deals closed during the trip already, and is expected to release details on others later this week.

The Korean leg of the governor’s trip has been the source of some controversy. Lobbying firm Alexander & Cleaver touted the access to O’Malley one of its lobbyists would have on the trip. The governor’s office was not amused.

Md. approves diverging diamond “concept”

The State Highway Administration has provided a little post-holiday clarity after Tuesday’s story on the wacky diverging diamond traffic pattern that some planners think will alleviate congestion at the interchange at Arundel Mills Boulevard and Maryland 295.

SHA has approved the concept of the design, according to spokesman Charlie Gischaler.

“SHA ‘s Office of Access Management engineers are still awaiting receipt of the plans for the design and will review the plans to ensure that the additional traffic is safely mitigated,” he wrote in an email.

SHA couldn’t track down that information late last week as state offices were closed Friday as part of a budget-balancing move, and many workers took off Thursday as well to extend their already extended holiday weekend to five days.

For more background, Gischlar added:

It is worth noting that commercial or residential developers are required to submit a traffic impact study to SHA if our roads (the state-numbered routes) will be impacted by a development. Engineers from SHA ‘s Office of Access Management evaluate the impact study for the safest and most effective improvement to mitigate the traffic increase due to the development , as well as storm water management, materials and many other functions involved in road improvements. The developer is responsible for construction of the improvement. SHA will then inspect the traffic improvement, whether its a new stop sign, turn lanes, etc) to make sure it was built according to our requirements.

The diverging diamond at the Arundel Mills exit would be Maryland’s first intersection of that design. The basic idea is to eliminate left turns across traffic, a factor traffic consultants blame for much of the congestion and accidents at conventional intersections. (Check out a youtube video of the diverging diamond concept here.)

Planners hope to have the work completed in time to open the revamped intersection along with the Maryland Live! Casino being built next to Arundel Mills shopping mall by developer David Cordish.