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2013 legislative session seen as business-friendly

ANNAPOLIS — Fresh off what top elected officials have called the most productive General Assembly session in memory, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the legislature’s presiding officers met Tuesday to celebrate the passage of numerous bills they say will spur economic development in Maryland.

The legislature adjourned Monday having created new procurement rules for public-private partnerships, incentivized the development of offshore wind energy and established the framework for an employer-driven jobs training program. Popular tax credits — for investors in biotechnology and film production activity — were also expanded.

O’Malley’s office said the bills focused on “jobs and opportunity,” business-friendly legislation that critics say is too rare in Annapolis. Some say it wasn’t business as usual for the legislature in 2013.

“In past years, it seemed like business was under attack,” said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. “This year, it didn’t seem like business had a target on its back.”

The public-private partnerships bill, controversial legislation that died last year, took the full 90 days to reach approval. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — who ran point for the administration on the legislation — said key changes to 2013’s versions helped this year. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. were in full support.

The Board of Public Works must designate a project as a public-private partnership before soliciting bids. Brown said the measure would foster “more confidence” before companies pursued long-term lease agreements that could pay for capital improvements to state facilities. State officials predict that 6 percent to 10 percent of state construction projects could be paid for through public-private partnerships.

A business could also pitch its own idea for a project, rather than waiting for a state agency to solicit interest.

“You send a clear message to the private sector,” Brown said. “I think by the end of this year, we will have identified at least one major project.”

That could include a “significant portion” of the Red Line in Baltimore, Purple Line in suburban Washington or Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County, Brown said. Separate legislation that increased gas taxes and transit fares to pay for transportation projects requires that the state determine whether all or part of those projects could be built as part of a public-private partnership.

“We’re excited about that,” Brown said.

The offshore wind bill is also expected to spur development by subsidizing energy from wind turbines that could be built off the coast of Ocean City. Businesses would see electricity bills increase by 1.5 percent, but O’Malley said offshore wind could be a thriving new industry.

“There is no progress without jobs,” O’Malley said, before posing for photos with proponents of offshore wind. “The heart of all new job creation is really in innovation.”

O’Malley also signed legislation that boosts credit for investors in biotechnology companies to $10 million and provides $25 million in credits for film production. The fiscal 2014 operating budget also includes $3 million in tax giveaways for cyber security firms.

A separate bill — not part of the governor’s legislative agenda, but requested by Baltimore officials — would make some former criminals eligible to apply for jobs at a proposed casino in the city.

As opposed to last year’s ceremonial bill signing — a tense encounter between O’Malley and the presiding officers following the collapse of budget negotiations — Tuesday’s event was marked by Maryland’s three most powerful Democrats congratulating each other.

“I think you can sum this session up with collaboration and cooperation,” Busch said. Miller, who has presided over the Senate for 27 years, called 2013 “probably the most successful session of my lifetime.”