Needed: Leadership from the Business Community

January 02, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Will new leadership mean a more effective and purposeful business community in Maryland over the next 12 months? Given business' anemic track record in the past decade, that may be asking too much.

L Three business combines have turned to new leaders recently.

Former Baltimore County Executive Don Hutchinson jumped from the Maryland Business Council to the Greater Baltimore Committee, whose influence has declined alarmingly.

Champe McCulloch, a veteran telephone-company lobbyist, took over at the business council, which is the lobbying arm of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

And McCormick & Co.'s CEO, Bailey Thomas, assumed chairmanship of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a group intent on making legislators more sensitive to business' wishes when voting on bills.

All three groups serve a useful purpose: The GBC is supposed to be the Baltimore area's Voice of Business and an instrument for advancing civic enterprises; the MBC serves as a counterweight to organized labor's traditional dominance in Annapolis; MBRG has shocked many legislators by publicizing their voting records -- and rewarding loyal supporters with campaign contributions.

Yet none of these groups fills the role of a major power in shaping the future direction of government. At best, they are peripheral players.

The state business council's role, for instance, is largely defensive. Its objective is to block anti-business measures. Glance down its list of key issues for the coming General Assembly session: Work against extension of the ''wealth tax'' on high-wage earners; work against higher unemployment benefit levels; deny workers'-compensation benefits to drug or alcohol users; battle against strict air-pollution rules on businesses; oppose new user fees; oppose any tax increases.

Maryland Business for Responsive Government plays a largely negative role, too: Punish and embarrass legislators who fail to toe business' stance on bills. As for the Greater Baltimore Committee, it played a pivotal role in the rejuvenation of Baltimore in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but the group has proved ineffective lately.

The result is tremendous discontent within the business community about what's happening in the State House and City Hall, but no vehicle for taking effective, positive action.

In private conversations business executives are harshly critical of Maryland's elected officials for maintaining what they regard as a poor climate for corporations. The executives rail against the lockstep pro-union votes of Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski. They decry Mr. Sarbanes' myopic focus on foreign affairs and monetary policy to the exclusion of local business needs.

And yet when business leaders have a chance to do something -- by coalescing behind their own candidate or raising funds to defeat an incumbent with an anti-business record -- they cop out.

Thus, Mr. Sarbanes can count on financial support from some of the same corporate honchos who heap scorn on his record: They'd rather maintain ties to the senator than risk alienating him if he's re-elected. As for coming up with a business-community candidate to run against him, forget it: Maryland's corporate leaders love to complain but they are unwilling to enter the political arena.

The lack of dynamic business leadership has hurt both City Hall and the State House. In 1978, the state's poor economic-development efforts proved a key issue in the race for governor. Sixteen years later, economic development remains a big issue in the race for governor. During all that time, businesses have done little to help craft a workable strategy for Maryland.

Instead, business leaders carp about Maryland being a ''tax hell'' (though that doesn't seem to hold water when analyzed in depth); they complain about state regulatory overkill and they daydream about turning Maryland into a ''right to work'' state with low, Sunbelt-style taxes. None of this is constructive. There is a lack of positive, productive action from business CEOs.

The only time the corporate community came together recently with zeal and aggressiveness was in trying to win a football franchise for Baltimore. Sadly, it didn't last.

But what if the Greater Baltimore Committee's football zeal could be channeled into a high-powered plan -- backed by corporate dollars -- to create a true regional network to pool government resources? What if business leaders insisted as a quid pro quo for their corporate support that city and county officials jump into the regionalism project with them?

What if the state chamber put its corporate might behind a visionary economic development plan for Maryland, and then backed it up with corporate bucks? What if candidates for governor and attorney general knew their election chances depended on endorsing a business partnership to spur economic growth in Maryland?

Messrs. Hutchinson, McCulloch and Thomas have their work cut out for them. A negative, whining and defensive business community can't lead Maryland out of its doldrums. In fact, corporate Maryland's lack of resolve to spearhead this state's future growth is a major reason for the Free State's recent economic decline.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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