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GBC celebrates good news, but warily eyes future

In the wake of a legislative session lauded as one of the most productive in recent years, officials had more good news than usual to deliver at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual meeting. The General Assembly supported 70 percent of the policy positions advanced by the organization, GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry told the crowd of about 800 at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore hotel on Wednesday night.

Donald C. Fry

Donald C. Fry

The GBC took positions on 28 bills during the 2013 session, Vice President of Communications Gene Bracken said after the meeting, and legislators supported the GBC stance on 20 of them. Most were measures the organization supported, Bracken said, but at least one was a bill the group opposed: legislation that would have applied the state corporate income tax to a company’s out-of-state revenue, which died in committee.

Fry first praised the passage of the transportation-funding bill for addressing what he called one of the most significant challenges to economic growth, despite its reliance on the gasoline tax — usually a dirty word in these circles.

“Although no one likes to pay more in taxes or fees, the business case for transportation funding was clear,” Fry said, rattling off the number of labor hours lost to traffic congestion each year (between 40 and 67 hours per worker) and other statistics.

“As Maryland expects to grow by more than 400,000 residents over the next 10 years, steps were needed to fund a balanced transportation plan. The failure to do so would have left us mired in gridlock. Business cannot flourish and economic growth will not occur if we are incapable of moving people, goods and services.”

There were several other references to transit-related measures throughout the meeting, especially as they relate to job growth, which is priority No. 1, officials said. Several people praised progress on the Red Line, which would run through East and West Baltimore, for its ability to connect more potential workers to jobs throughout the city. A larger workforce with access to transportation would make it easier for businesses to create more jobs, they said.

But the annual meeting wasn’t just about reviewing the past year. When Brian Rogers, chairman of the GBC’s board of directors, took over the microphone, his tone was more matter-of-fact than celebratory. Although Rogers — who is the chief investment officer and board chairman of T. Rowe Price Group Inc. — recognized the recent legislative triumphs and cited local success stories from Baltimore-area businesses, he warned attendees not to become complacent.

Despite Maryland’s strengths — including “top-notch” education and health care systems, quality research programs and robust commercial activity in sectors such as biotechnology — the state still struggles with the perception of having a “middle-of-the road” business environment, he said.

Rogers said job creation is the best route to achieving many of the state’s goals, but Maryland is disadvantaged by its heavy reliance on government employers.

Almost 20 percent of Maryland residents work in the public sector, compared with the national average of 16.5 percent, he said. And almost 6 percent of the workforce is employed by the federal government, compared with an average of 2 percent in other states, Rogers said.

And because that number excludes Marylanders who commute to work in Washington, “we are somewhere between three and four times more dependent on federal jobs than the rest of the country,” he said.

“And every day when you … see what’s going on in Washington in terms of fiscal headwinds facing not only the federal government but also many other governmental entities, we [in Maryland] have something of a major headwind to deal with,” he said. “So job creation in the private sector is really all we can look to in terms of growth over the next couple of years, raising the GBC’s responsibilities to an incredibly high level.”

T. Rowe Price plans to increase its workforce by 3 percent this coming year, which is on pace with the national average, Rogers said.

“But that is not dynamic growth,” he continued. “And there aren’t enough T. Rowe Prices and Under Armours and Johns Hopkins Hospitals to go around and really accelerate employment growth. So we have to rely on a new generation of companies. … Innovative startups are the companies that will provide the job creation for us going forward.”

Rogers also discussed the “perennial issue” of Maryland’s taxation and regulatory environment, which he said is one of his biggest “pet peeves.”

Some of those issues were addressed during the legislative session, as Fry pointed out in his remarks. He commended the passage of a bill creating $2 million in tax credits for cyber security companies, as well as a measure removing hurdles to establishing public-private partnerships and the $1.1 billion funding mechanism between the state and the city of Baltimore to replace 15 dilapidated city schools and renovate up to 35 others.

GBC leaders also announced the winners of two awards. The first, the Walter Sondheim Public Service Award, which recognizes private-sector individuals for outstanding civic involvement, was presented to Joseph T. Jones, the founder of the Center for Urban Families, where low-income fathers receive parenting assistance and workforce development services.

The Regional Visionary Award was represented to Jan Houbolt, the retiring executive director of the GBC Leadership Program — a highly respected, 10-month program for business and community professionals.