One year ago, attorney Kimberly M. Burns went from being one of the state’s top 100 registered lobbyists to president of the nonprofit Maryland Business for Responsive Government.
To her, the move was not so much a radical one as it was a way to retool her skills as a negotiator for clients like the Maryland Mortgage Bankers Association, Nextel Communications, AARP and the Maryland Builders Association and focus on business as a whole in the state.
“I didn’t know some of the challenges within the business community,” Burns said of her time lobbying with Government Affairs-Maryland, the firm she co-founded with her father, former state Del. Dennis C. McCoy, of Baltimore.
“I didn’t appreciate some of the challenges. When you are lobbying, which is what I had been doing for the last 20 years, you really focus on clients and their goals. And you’re not necessarily focused on the whole picture. Even though I have a background in the broader picture, over the years it kind of got lost.”
She also got a crash course in dealing with the media, a role Burns routinely shunned as a lobbyist, when she worked to stay “below the media circuit” of the give-and-take political battles in Annapolis.
“It’s an art,” she said of the dodge.
Today, Burns and the Towson-based MBRG are totally out there. The group, which represents firms large and small in Maryland, is a vocal pro-business advocate.
The group’s top issue this season as the 90-day General Assembly session hits its midway mark is the status of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to extend the 6 percent sales tax to gasoline, which when fully implemented after three years would add up to 21 cents per gallon to current prices, she said.
The bill is a job killer, Burns said.
“That’s going to have an effect on everything from the corner grocery and the price of lunch meat to what is it going to cost you to get to the corner — and they are the kinds of businesses that drive our economy every day … and create the jobs that a lot of people rely on,” Burns said. “They are the ones that MBRG believes are getting pushed aside in all this.”
The gas tax debate promises to be forceful in the upcoming weeks as lawmakers work on the governor’s proposed budget, Burns said. And businesses are smack in the middle, flanked by families — all of whom have been flogged by the recession for years.
O’Malley says his proposal would result in an estimated 7,500 new road construction jobs; some businesses, though, say jobs might be lost because of the higher gas costs.
O’Malley’s proposal also adds a “lockbox” as a means of ensuring the additional funds would be used for transportation projects. He has said he might push for a constitutional amendment to ensure that move — but Burns said the idea has raised an air of cynicism among business leaders who see it as potentially another empty and shallow political promise. In the past, governors of both parties have taken money from the Transportation Trust Fund for non-transportation uses.
“There is a problem going between the legislature and executive branch, a real head-knocking thing about are we going to have a constitutional amendment to protect the transportation trust fund or are we not?” Burns said.
“If we do, how honest is that going to be? Is it going to be effective? Is it the way we want to proceed, and if not, it becomes nothing more than a tax for tax sake, and I think people see a significant disparity between their standard of living and Maryland’s economy and tax policy, and that’s when people get angry and businesses leave.”
Being competitive for businesses in Maryland is a long-term work in progress, Burns said, while job creation is a short-term must.
Criticism that the state is anti-business because of high taxes and has a lopsided focus on various industries have some element of the truth, she added.
“When you’re living next-door to states like Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware, to argue that Maryland is a business-friendly state is a very difficult argument to make,” she said. “I don’t know how you argue that Maryland is business-friendly when the taxes are so much lower or nonexistent right on the other side of the border. Maryland does not exist as an isolated state when it’s got all these other states around it, and it’s within that context that Maryland’s competitiveness has to be determined.”
The dialogue MBRG is pushing, Burns said, is to incorporate job creation into competitiveness for a “more positive, long-term healthier economic development” strategy. And helping to shape that strategy would be CEOs and major investors in the state’s businesses — many of them on MBRG’s 20-member bipartisan board, which is chaired by former Gov. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat, and Ellen Sauerbrey, a Republican.
“If you travel the state, you get 24 different opinions in one day,” she said. “Our focus really is on getting a handle on the whole of issue of competitiveness.”
MBRG has established the Maryland Business Leadership PAC, which has a goal of raising $250,000 to help fund campaigns of pro-business candidates. So far, Burns said, $35,000 has been committed, and no money has been given out.
But a hallmark of that political action committee’s pro-business aim is to get pledges to cut spending at the state level first as a safeguard to prevent tax hikes, she said.
“The ability of the legislature to listen to what [businesses] have to say will probably bear itself out,” she said, referring back to the gas tax debate. “I think business people are very angry, very upset and very frustrated at the government for proposing it.
“We believe there is a lot of spending that can be cut,” Burns added, saying that state leaders should keep a watch on the ever-expanding general fund that critics say is driving constant budget deficits. In fiscal 2013, the state’s budget deficit is expected to top $1 billion.
“Maryland’s AAA bond rating is in part a reflection of the ease with which the legislature and governor can increase taxes and assurances that Wall Street investors will get their money,” Burns said. “Marylanders are pushing back and saying ‘We’ve had enough.’”
Nothing to fear
An alternate “doomsday” budget now in the works by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is nothing to fear, Burns said.
“I’m glad he’s doing it,” she said. “Any time you have the opportunity to look at spending cuts, whether you call it ‘doomsday’ or ‘new day,’ it’s an opportunity to look at the spending branch.”
From now until early April, the fiscal movements of the General Assembly will come swiftly. For that, Burns is at the call.
“I will be watching this whole issue of taxes,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t extend beyond the gas tax, but I’ve been picking up along the way that they might extend [taxes] … like the services tax or an expansion of the sales tax base.”
A “Roll Call” list published by MBRG tracks just that, along with how state legislators vote on issues relating to business and job creation.
Last week, Burns attended an MBRG reception at the Galway Bay Irish Pub in Annapolis to honor those the group calls its pro-business voters and supporters.
“That’s all we wanted to say,” Burns said. “A simple thank you.”
KIMBERLY M. BURNS
Family: Married to former state Del. Michael W. Burns, mother of Caroline and Elisabeth.
Education: A 1981 graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School; received a Bachelor of Arts from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1985, majoring in English. Received a Masters in Business Administration from the College of William and Mary in 1987 and studied at Oxford University’s Magdalen College on Law and Economics through the University of San Diego. Received a Juris Doctor from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1993 and was admitted to the Maryland Bar Association in 1993.
Career: Worked for Philip Morris USA from 1987-89 as a systems analyst. Interned at the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in the Division of Advertising Practices. From 1993-94, she was a law clerk for then-Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. Co-owned and worked as an executive at Government Affairs-Maryland from 1990-1992 and from 1995-2011.
Boards: Trustee, Anne Arundel Community College.
Hobbies: “Cooking and teaching my children how to cook Italian using mom’s family recipes we had her write down before she passed away, also gardening with my children.”