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Economist: State policies ‘at war’ with rural areas

An economic boom is driving growth in rural areas around the country but bypassing many areas in Maryland, and one economist thinks he knows why.

An economic boom is driving growth in rural areas around the country but bypassing many areas in Maryland, and one economist thinks he knows why.

An economic boom is driving growth in rural areas around the country but bypassing many areas in Maryland, and one economist thinks he knows why.

“Public policy,” said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive officer of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group.

Basu spoke Friday in Annapolis to members of the Maryland Rural Counties Coalition about the economic impact and importance of the state’s rural counties.

“I think the state in many dimensions is at war with rural Maryland,” Basu said. “Something has to change. We need a marketplace of ideas.”

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, disagreed.

“There might be some hostilities but I don’t think it’s a war,” said Conway, who chairs the state Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

As Maryland continues in its economic recovery, western states such as North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma — “resource intensive with large rural components”— are outpacing Maryland in terms of job growth, Basu said.

Rural job growth “is not happening in Maryland,” said Basu, adding that state environmental and land-use policies limit what rural counties can ultimately do.

Since 1979, Maryland and the country have seen a decline in manufacturing jobs but Basu said other areas of the country are seeing those jobs return. General Electric, Whirlpool, NCR and Caterpillar have all brought manufacturing jobs back to rural areas of the Midwest and south.

One primary reason is the low cost of natural gas brought on by the rise of hydraulic fracturing, according to Basu.

“Anyone who cares about rural Maryland must care about our competitiveness in manufacturing,” Basu said. “For a number of reasons we’re not as competitive as we ought to be.”

State smart growth and infrastructure policies have choked off the ability of rural counties to compete for manufacturing jobs. Environmental policies have made it difficult for rural landowners to access natural resources such as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing on their lands and made farmers the enemy, the economist said.

“There’s something called self-determination — the ability for people to determine what their communities will look like,” Basu said. “It must be frustrating in rural counties across the state to be told by Montgomery County and Prince George’s County and elsewhere, ‘This is what your county should look like. We’ll make the decision for our counties but we’ll also make the decision on how you use your land and how you use your natural resources.’”

Basu said one possible solution is to elect more Republicans to office in an effort to change who makes decisions on public policy.

Del. Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, said rural counties need to learn to work with other groups to further their goals.

“We need to learn coalition politics,” O’Donnell said. “It’s one thing [rural jurisdictions] don’t do well. You don’t have to fight their battles and they don’t have to fight yours but we need to build those coalitions.”

Conway, the Senate committee chairwoman, said many of the policies Basu highlighted are driven more by environmentalists and other interest groups than by legislators. She acknowledged, however, that rural counties often don’t have the numbers to vote down some of these proposed laws.

“You’ve got to have the numbers,” Conway said.

“On the majority of issues, believe me, it could be worse,” Conway said, adding that many bad bills “end up in the chair’s drawer and we have a deep drawer.”