ANNAPOLIS -- State officials pleaded yesterday for more money and a solid future for a program that helps companies improve the skills of workers.
What they got was a tough debate over whether the state government should be in the business of helping private companies earn a profit.
The program, called the Partnership for Workforce Quality, helps companies decide which types of retraining programs they need and then provides matching grants to help pay for the retraining.
In its two-year existence, the program has provided more than 750 companies with $1.87 million in grants to help retrain more than 20,000 workers.
The House bill debated yesterday before the House Economic Matters Committee was requested by the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development.
It would provide an additional $900,000 for the program and abolish a "sunset" provision requiring the legislature to reauthorize it each year.
"We're in a race," said DEED Secretary Mark L. Wasserman. "The typical Japanese company will spend 8 to 10 percent of its payrollon worker upgrading, and that compares to 1 percent for U.S. companies."
But in a year in which the state faces a $1 billion deficit, some lawmakers questioned whether the program is a proper use of public money.
"The government is doing what a business consultant would do in theprivate sector," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Montgomery. "Only you're suggesting the government bureaucrats would do a better job of it."
Del. Gary R. Alexander, D-Prince George's, questioned whether some of the recipients, including retailers and large multinational corporations, really deserved the state funds.
Grant recipients have included a five-store Jerry's Sub and Pizza franchise in Frederick County; Bausch and Lomb, which makes vision equipment; Lever Brothers Co., a huge manufacturer of personal products; and T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based investment firm.
Jerome Doubroff, chairman of the advisory board for Partnership for Workforce Quality, argued that the program has spurred an additional$9.4 million in investments from the companies.
He said the organization has shown that the state's investment is worth the money.
"No matter whether it's T. Rowe Price or Jerry's Pizza or whatever, these employees who come out of the program are more productive Maryland citizens," he said. "It's not a Christmas club program where you ask for money and you get it."