Warming trend

April 24, 2005

THE LEADER of the Free State is off bad-mouthing Maryland's business climate again. He's gone so far as to chide business leaders for not bashing the General Assembly enough. Maryland's governor is calling the recent legislative session "embarrassing" and anti-business. All this negative talk is no doubt having some effect. A recent University of Baltimore survey found that the number of people who consider Maryland to be business-friendly has slipped.

What's set off Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s latest doomsaying are two bills approved by the legislature. One would require companies with 10,000 employees or more to spend at least 8 percent of payroll for health insurance; the other would set the state's minimum wage at a still-modest $6.15 an hour. Neither is exactly earth-shattering. Officials at Wal-Mart (the only employer potentially affected by the health insurance mandate) claim they already meet the requirement. As for the minimum wage, let's keep some perspective - it's the same Delaware requires, for crying out loud.

Granted, the Wal-Mart bill deserves a veto. The state shouldn't be micromanaging a single company's payroll. But we recognize a legitimate issue here - the need to make decent health care available to all. When a company such as Wal-Mart offers far less in employee health benefits than its competitors, that creates a dilemma. If Wal-Mart employees can't pay their medical bills, everyone else makes up the difference (unpaid bills lead to higher rates and insurance premiums, etc.). Why should more-responsible employers (and their employees) have to subsidize the nation's largest retailer - or any other large, highly profitable company? It isn't anti-business to protect responsible businesses. Just ask the folks at Giant Food or the dozens of other employers that support the bill.

We think Maryland has a great business climate. And statistics back this up. Maryland's per capita income is among the nation's highest, our work force is better educated, and yes, our tax system is competitive. Maryland's corporate tax is one of the lowest around. Since 1999, the state's job growth rate failed to outpace the national average just once, in 2004 - a fact that should be of far greater concern to Mr. Ehrlich.

Are there areas to improve? Absolutely. The turmoil at the port of Baltimore did little for our reputation. Ditto for cutbacks in higher education and the failure of the stem cell research bill. Maryland's quality of life is its best selling point to employers big and small, and that requires more pro-environment, pro-education leadership. Offering an alternate way to help employers struggling with health care costs would be a more productive strategy, too.

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