By MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Though the person in the governor's office is changing from a pro-business Republican to a mainstream Democrat, leaders of Maryland's business community are cautiously optimistic about working with Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley.
"The jury's still out," said William Burns, a spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "We have to wait and see what the priorities of this administration are going to be."
Maryland business leaders say they are hoping for good things from O'Malley's administration, even though some of his stances have conflicted with those of the business community. Top issues include improving transportation in the state and reducing health care costs for small businesses, they said.
On paper, that should put business people on the same wavelength as O'Malley, who during the campaign listed health care and transportation as two of his three top priorities, along with education. But as always in politics, the devil will be in the details.
"We haven't agreed with him on everything, but from our standpoint, we don't see O'Malley as being anti-business at all," said Gene Brachen, a spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee. "Look at the city. It's a veritable boom town. There's construction everywhere."
The Greater Baltimore Committee, an association of businesses and nonprofits in the Baltimore area, worked with O'Malley for seven years when he was mayor of Baltimore. Despite some points of contention, Brachen said the committee had a good relationship with O'Malley that he hopes will remain intact.
It's clear that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who sided with businesses on many issues, will be missed.
"Gov. Ehrlich and his administration did wonders for Maryland's business community," Burns said. "Oftentimes, he shared our agenda on issues across the board."
Maryland's Democrat-controlled General Assembly, often supported by O'Malley, came under fire this year for creating what some say is a bad environment for business in the state.
A key test coming up could be the so-called Wal-Mart bill, which required the state's largest private employer, Wal-Mart, to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on health insurance.
The bill was a major part of the Democrats' agenda, heavily lobbied by organized labor and just as strongly opposed by Maryland business and the Ehrlich administration.
The measure was passed by the General Assembly and then vetoed by the governor. The Assembly overrode Ehrlich's veto and enacted the bill into law, but it was promptly challenged in court and struck down by a federal judge.
That decision is currently under appeal, and O'Malley appears willing to let the appeal run its course before taking a stand on whether he will aid Assembly Democrats and organized labor in trying to pass another bill.
"We'll see what happens" on the issue of health care, Steve Kearney, an O'Malley spokesman, said. "Making health care costs fair is something that is under consideration. What shape that will take is something that will continue to be worked on."
Business leaders will be watching carefully.
"Health care is a top issue this year," Burns said. "Small businesses across the state have seen double-digit rate increases every year. We have to make health care more affordable."
Business leaders have also criticized lawmakers for attempting to fire members of the Public Service Commission, who they said were too cozy with utilities in the state. That firing was overturned by the state's Court of Appeals, but O'Malley has pledged to fire PSC members himself.
Despite these misgivings, business leaders say they remain optimistic about O'Malley and expect to build constructive relationships with him.
"There will be issues, but it (party affiliation) is not a huge issue for us," Brachen said. "We'll work with whoever is in power, and the Democrats are clearly in power."
Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers' Association, expressed a similar sentiment.
"A lot of business organizations felt very strongly toward Gov. Ehrlich, but we're not closing the book on the governor-elect," he said. "We're looking forward to working with him."
Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley, said the governor-elect hopes to create a climate of stability for businesses in the state.
"Political stability is good for business," he said. "That's one thing that the governor-elect will bring to Annapolis."
Better transportation in the state is also at the top of the priority list.
Abbruzzese said O'Malley remains committed to the Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs, to construction of the Purple Line segment of the Washington Metro, also in the Washington suburbs, and public transportation in the Baltimore region.
"In the campaign, O'Malley said his vision for the state includes a statewide transit plan," Brachen said. He noted that there is already money budgeted for expansion of Baltimore's subway system. "All we're asking is that the state keep those [plans] on track," he said.