Metro Baltimore's most important business group says it will shift its focus to regional cooperation and "start talking about issues that aren't politically safe" such as municipal tax sharing and cross-boundary housing policies.
The Greater Baltimore Committee's "primary focus" will be finding ways "for solving problems on a regional basis," GBC President Donald P. Hutchinson said yesterday. The switch promises to stoke the debate on what duties satellite counties owe to Baltimore.
Founded in 1955 to spawn building projects in downtown Baltimore, the GBC has been regional in name but parochial in practice. For example, much of its political energy in recent years has been spent on securing state money for a Baltimore football stadium and a rescue package for Baltimore schools.
But this year GBC spun its economic-development wing into the separate Greater Baltimore Alliance, giving itself a pure public-policy lens. Now its leaders are adopting the rhetoric and ideas of the growing "regionalism" movement, as promoted by author David Rusk and by University of Pennsylvania Professor Theodore Hershberg.
"The way Baltimore and its surrounding counties has gone about its business isn't going to work in the future," Hutchinson said. "We're going to start talking about issues that aren't politically safe," with effects that "we hope will result in some major public policy changes."
The GBC, which has always been fairly liberal for a business group, distances itself from regionalists' more drastic remedies, such as a metropolitan government, substantial tax shifting and wholesale redistribution of poor families.
But GBC leaders emphasize the regionalists' opinion that suburbs cannot thrive around a decaying urban core, saying that attending to Baltimore's needs is ultimately in the suburbs' own interest.
"Regions with declining urban centers do less well overall than regions with healthy and viable ones," GBC Chairman Frank Bramble said in remarks prepared for the group's annual meeting last night. Bramble is chief executive of First Maryland Bancorp. "Despite significant successes, Baltimore City will not be able to reverse the trends in population loss and increase in poverty by itself."
Tax-sharing is one beehive that the GBC, with a $1.5 million annual budget, wants to stir.
"We're going to talk about tax policy," Hutchinson said. "We're going to have long, hard, strong conversations about tax policy in the next several years."
One idea to discuss, he said: whether Baltimore and its county neighbors should pool revenue generated by new commercial and industrial development. Besides being available to slosh across borders according to fiscal need, the pool would give every locality a concrete stake in economic-development projects in rival counties.
Another idea: Add a regional sales tax, such as one in Pittsburgh, that would help pay for museums and cultural institutions.
The GBC also wants to foster dialogue about housing the poor. "We have to make sure that people of all incomes have an opportunity to live in all subdivisions," Hutchinson said. And the group continues to support Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth policies that would steer development away from rural places.
Politically unsafe as those ideas may be, the GBC is edging only so far out on the limb.
"We're not talking about changing legal boundaries" of counties, Hutchinson said. Current local tax income is off the table, as far as the GBC is concerned; so is any plan that would send large numbers of city residents to suburbs.
Even so, officials from outlying counties are reacting cautiously to the GBC's initiative.
"We cannot afford to let the city decline even further," said state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican. "But the problems of the city are greater than dollars and cents," he said, and include crime and inadequate schools.
"We need to do a much better job with them first, before we start talking about the counties redistributing money."
Eileen M. Rehrmannn is Harford County's executive and chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a regional planning agency.
Any regional initiatives "have to be politically doable," she said. "There is disagreement on regional government and regional tax-base sharing," and any tax sharing "at this time is problematic."
Long process foreseen
But Rehrmann agreed that localities can find common ground. Nobody expects quick results from regionalism. Hutchinson sees it as a 10-year project; nobody expects any significant political change -- much of which would have to be approved by the General Assembly -- before 1999.
And despite the inevitable political ire that regionalism will rouse, Hutchinson argued that the cause of unity will be helped by the strong, institutional power held by metro Baltimore's mayors and county executives; by the relatively few jurisdictions making up the area; and by the region's strengths in per-capita income and quality of life.
All the county executives "really are thoughtful, open people," said Hutchinson, a former executive of Baltimore County. "Each is willing to have conversations about these kinds of efforts."
Pub Date: 5/14/97