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Norman Augustine
Norman R. Augustine, chairman of a panel examining the state’s business climate. (File)

Augustine panel: Create Md. ‘super secretary’ of commerce

Lawmakers acting on recommendation of Augustine commission

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland could have a new “super secretary” to oversee efforts to improve the state’s business climate.

The creation of the secretary of commerce is one of nearly three dozen recommendations made in a preliminary report issued by the Maryland Economic Development and Business Climate Commission. But the panel delayed recommendations on the state tax climate despite finding reasons to be concerned.

“We need to try to remove the impediments that have developed over so many, many years in Maryland,” said Norman Augustine, chairman of the commission that has come to be known as the Augustine commission.

Augustine said the new secretary would oversee the state Department of Business and Economic Development as well as the Technology Development Corporation and a public-private marketing arm. The secretary would also have strong input into operations at other agencies, such as the Maryland Department of the Environment, as they pertain to business-related regulations and operations.

Creation of the so-called super secretary position is part of a five-bill package announced Thursday by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who created the Augustine commission last spring.

“This is going to be a major sea change in how we do business in Maryland,” Miller said. “I read through the list last night and could find no fault with any of the recommendations.”

Also included as part of the legislative package is:

• Creation of an advisory commission that included business leaders to advise the state on the effect new regulations would have on small business.

• A task force focusing on how to improve how inventions are moved from universities to the marketplace. The organization will have a focus on recommending changes to some ethics rules that limit these transfers.

• Creation of “Apprenticeship Maryland,” a workforce development program for young people.

• A new customer service training program that focuses on state employees who interact with businesses and the public.

“Changing attitudes would be the No. 1 on our list,” Augustine said.

The issue of customer service is one that has been raised by a number of officials in recent weeks, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Department of Business and Economic Development Secretary Michael Gill, and Comptroller Peter Franchot, who highlighted the issue in his swearing-in speech.

“This is an agenda everyone can work together on,” said Joseph Getty, policy and legislative director for Gov. Larry Hogan.

The governor, in a statement, called the Augustine Commission report “exactly the right conversation we should be having to transform the state’s business climate” and said his administration “will be an enthusiastic partner when considering legislation and other actions to make Maryland more competitive.”

The commission, established by Busch and Miller last spring, met nine times around the state last spring and summer listening to business owners from around the state.

Augustine said Thursday that Maryland had many assets, including its education system and the amount of research that is done in the state. But Augustine said “the bad news is” that the state also falls short in some areas, ranking 26th in the nation in startup businesses and 37th in the nation in job creation since the recession.

Maryland is also strong when it comes to federal jobs and related industries.

“That also has had a consequence that I think our commission would say has caused us to be complacent,” Augustine said. “The need to diversify our economic base seems clear.”

Augustine said the state should continue to seek federal jobs and related employment but also “diversify our base of business beyond the federal government.”

Not included in the preliminary recommendations were any changes to the state tax structure.

A number of business owners last year told the commission that increased regulatory and tax burdens were causing them to consider leaving the state.

The commission agreed, and its report noted, “The state’s tax policies serve as a deterrent to businesses considering expanding in or relocating to the state and impede the economic viability of existing businesses.”

The Augustine commission will continue work this year reviewing the state tax structure in an attempt to make additional recommendations.