The Schaefer administration's economic vision for the 21st century ran into the hard realities of 1991 yesterday as lawmakers sharply questioned the state's ability to pay for high-tech economic development initiatives.
The Department of Economic and Em
ployment Development unveiled before the state Senate Budget and Taxation Committee a 40-page report entitled "Commercial Biotechnology Development in Maryland: a Strategy for the 1990s."
The report contained few new ideas, but recapped the state's various programs to aid the fledgling biotechnology industry. The report called for completing several building projects already in the planning stages, such as the Maryland Bioprocessing Center and the Center for Marine Biotechnology.
It also suggested enhanced efforts to commercialize discoveries made in the state's academic laboratories, expanded sci
ence education, and making venture capital more accessible.
"Other states will be investing in this and we should, as best we can, pinpoint our resources to it," said Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of DEED.
But several lawmakers, fresh from their efforts to rein in the state's runaway budget deficit, were skeptical about putting money into an area where private investors appear skittish.
"It's crazy to be talking about expanding programs in an area that is, at best, a crap shoot," said Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel.
He favors efforts to commercialize discoveries, rather than boosting efforts for further discovery, he said.
Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-City, questioned a recommendation in the report to re-examine the state's regulations and taxes related to biotechnology.
"That sounds like another tax break for another industry and that's why our tax system is full of holes," Hoffman said.
Wasserman, making his first appearance before the committee since being appointed to the DEED post by Gov. William Donald Schaefer this summer, said he plans to focus the efforts of the department on areas with the greatest potential, such as biotechnology. He termed this a "fundamental shift" in state policy.
He acknowledged that resources are sparse, but said his strategy calls for making the most of what's available by piggy-backing on private investment. But private investment dollars are not likely to materialize without public support, he said.
"Interesting the private sector in a new area is a tricky business. We've got firms that are struggling to get out of the laboratory," he said.
Maryland has 53 biotechnology companies, more than any other state except California and Massachusetts, he said. But Maryland's companies tend to be smaller and less focused on product than those in competing states, he said.
With the proper nurturing, Maryland's biotechnology industry can be an important part of the state's future economy. While it employs about 4,000 workers now, it could, with current growth estimates, account for 70,000 jobs in a decade, he said.
"Our foothold has to be strengthened if we are to share in what we know will be the growth," Wasserman said.
But Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-City, said "We're cutting everything and then DEED comes in with this grand plan. I do not think this is a high priority for a state that is bankrupt."