GBC lists legislative agenda

Business committee hopes for state's help with economy, crime

January 07, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Drug treatment, tax cuts, west side redevelopment and "brownfields" cleanups top the legislative agenda this year for one of the Baltimore area's leading business groups.

The Greater Baltimore Committee's wish list for the General Assembly session that begins Wednesday includes a mix of economic and social causes, reflecting the complexity of the problems confronting the city and its suburbs.

But with Maryland sitting on a $1 billion budget surplus, business leaders hope the Baltimore area can reap its share of the state's largess to fight urban crime and attract more jobs.

"It's all about money," John Morton III, GBC chairman and president of Bank of America's Mid-Atlantic Banking Group, said yesterday at a GBC-sponsored preview of the 90-day legislative session.

Legislative leaders who turned out for the preview at the Renaissance Hotel offered encouragement on at least one of the GBC's priorities -- accelerating the five-year, 10 percent income tax cut enacted in 1997.

"Whether it can be done in one swoop, there definitely is a way to accelerate the income tax reduction," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Taylor also echoed the GBC's desire to expand drug rehabilitation programs, without mentioning specific funding figures.

"It's not a typical business issue," acknowledged Donald P. Hutchinson, the committee's president. But making it easier for drug addicts to kick their habit helps the region's economy indirectly, he said, by reducing crime, lowering health care costs and improving worker productivity.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed a $10 million-a-year increase in state funding for drug treatment, to be paid for out of the $4 billion tobacco lawsuit settlement won by Maryland. But Hutchinson said that the governor's offer is not enough. "In Baltimore alone, you need about $70 million for treatment on demand," he said.

On another anti-crime front, the GBC is looking for $1.9 million in the governor's budget to run a new "community court" in downtown Baltimore. The business group has spearheaded the court's creation, purchasing the former Maryland National Bank building on Gay Street and raising private funds for its conversion to a courthouse.

Modeled on a similar institution in New York City, the Baltimore community court would give speedy trials for minor and "nuisance" offenses, such as aggressive panhandling and prostitution -- "all the things that make people anxious about being in the city," said Diane Hutchins, GBC's director of government relations. Offenders would be sentenced to community service and offered counseling and other social services to overcome their disruptive behaviors.

The GBC also hopes the governor will put $11.5 million in the Maryland Stadium Authority budget to help restore the historic Hippodrome Theater in downtown Baltimore, and to authorize the agency to borrow another $10 million for the project. The theater rehabilitation, expected to cost $53 million, is the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to revive the city's west side.

The GBC is joining other business groups to seek reform of the state's 3-year-old "brownfields" law.

The measure, intended to encourage voluntary cleanup of contaminated industrial sites, has been little used so far. Owners of only 52 properties, of the thousands suspected to be tainted by pollution, had applied for the program after two years and only four had qualified for state grants and tax credits to aid their cleanup efforts. Critics have said the law is too limited in scope.

"It is a nonfunctioning law right now," said the GBC's Hutchinson.

The House speaker, who has his own economic-development legislative package, urged the GBC to join in crafting a more cohesive plan for meeting the region's transportation needs. Taylor, while acknowledging that more highways need to be built, stressed that mass transit must be at the heart of transportation plans.

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