By ADAM KERLIN
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 14, 2010) - Prominent business leaders told nearly 200 members of the Maryland Economic Development Association Thursday that innovation, job creation and collaboration among companies will be the keys to overcoming fiscal challenges that legislators will be reluctant to tackle in an election year.
"It's going to be hard to pass any more tax credits in an election year," said Kathleen Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "We just have to be supportive of small businesses and allow them to grow and prosper."
In his keynote address, Gov. Martin O'Malley touted the state's No. 1 public school ranking in Education Week and emphasized that Maryland's "highly educated workforce" is the state's most important asset.
The governor said employing that workforce should be the focus of Maryland's efforts to boost the economy.
"It's all about the jobs," O'Malley said. He pointed to his plan to make Maryland the home base of the nation's cyber security industry and his proposed $3,000 tax credit for businesses that hire jobless Maryland residents.
As a state, Maryland is better off than most. With an unemployment rate nearly three points lower than the national average, legislators believe the economic landscape could be worse.
"I do believe that Maryland is better positioned than many of the other states, but that doesn't mean we don't have our problems," said House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
Maryland business leaders spoke optimistically about Thursday morning's news that the state's public school system was ranked No. 1 nationally for the second straight year. The sentiment, however, was that businesses need to do more to capitalize on the ranking.
"We have to keep our graduates here in Maryland," Snyder said. "More than half of the students who graduate with engineering degrees from Maryland colleges return to their home states."
Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, is supportive of giving tax credits to businesses that bring on interns, as well as funding job-creating projects.
"I really think that we as a state have positioned ourselves appropriately," Fry said, "but we need to put the money into programs that will create jobs."
One place Fry would like to see money spent is transportation.
"We haven't put significant money into transportation since 1992," said Fry, who believes transportation will be important for workforce mobility and growth. "Transportation doesn't rise to the top until it becomes a crisis and then we can't manage to get out of it."
But with the legislature grappling with a nearly $2 billion deficit in an election year, Fry does not expect much from Annapolis.
"Anything with a fiscal note of more than $1,000 will likely sit in the desk of a chair," Fry said.
Snyder agreed with Fry, calling transportation a "hot-button issue that both residents and businesses are talking about," but said there are a few simple things that the state needs to look at.
"We need to be investing in the good news of Maryland more," Snyder said. "We need to invest in our time and our people power."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.