Ehrlich repeats industry scolding

Push for political activity is softer than last year's

Annual speech to business leaders

He rejects being `backstop' for `anti-business' bills

April 29, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A year after berating the state's business community for its lack of political influence, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sent a softer but similar message to Maryland Business for Responsive Government yesterday, waving in the air a stack of tax legislation that he said would be law if he weren't in office.

Ehrlich told the group that he is tired of being a "backstop for anti-business bills." Despite his call last year for businesses to "be dangerous" in their dealings with lawmakers who vote against their interests, he pointed out that legislation some view as anti-business, such as raising the minimum wage and requiring Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend more on health care, was passed by the General Assembly this spring.

"This is what could have been over the last three years," Ehrlich said, brandishing defeated or vetoed bills that would have increased taxes on sales, income, cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline and other things. "I ask people to look at this pile as the difference between the proposed [Democratic] administration and the Ehrlich-Steele administration."

Ehrlich's speech to the group at its annual post-legislative-session luncheon was long on visual aids. In addition to his stacks of bills, the governor's aides passed out lists of his legislative accomplishments over the past three years. His highlights included resolving budget deficits, shrinking the size of government and securing funding for the long-debated Inter-County Connector between Interstate 95 in Prince George's County and Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.

From the podium, the governor unfurled an enlarged copy of an anti-Wal-Mart ad that ran in The New York Times last week, in which an advocacy group pledged to send every state lawmaker in the country model legislation to regulate the retailer's health benefits. That model legislation is the bill that Maryland's General Assembly passed this month.

"Fill in your business here. It's coming. Believe it," Ehrlich said, pointing to the Wal-Mart ad.

That the legislature approved the health benefits bill knowing it could jeopardize Wal-Mart's construction of a 1,000-job distribution center in Somerset County is evidence that businesses need to work harder to lobby legislators or replace them, Ehrlich told the group.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative and a driving force behind the so-called Wal-Mart bill, said the reason the business community was unsuccessful in stopping the proposal is that business groups haven't crafted solutions to solving pressing problems, such as access to health care.

The legislation requires companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on worker health care. Currently, that would affect only Wal-Mart.

DeMarco said groups such as his would love to work with the business community to solve problems.

"They don't need to `get dangerous.' They need to get into the issues. They need to propose something," DeMarco said. "That's why legislators are annoyed at them. They just keep saying no and never propose anything."

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel, an Ehrlich ally, was among the hundreds of business people and legislators - almost all of them Republicans - who attended the luncheon. Businesses' difficulty in navigating Annapolis or in presenting an organized front isn't new, Mandel said.

"They would only get active when there was some particular piece of legislation they object to as opposed to looking at all the legislation, pro and con," Mandel said. "They have to start realizing you have to get to know the legislators. You don't get to know the institution and the people during the session. You have to get to know them between sessions."

Kathleen T. Snyder, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said her group has stepped up its political activity since Ehrlich's "be dangerous" admonition last year. The chamber's Web site helps members to identify their legislators and shows how they voted on key business issues.

The chamber is also working to persuade legislators not to override the governor's expected veto of the Wal-Mart bill, Snyder said. It has also reactivated its political action committee and has a policy of giving money to incumbents only if they score well on Maryland Business for Responsive Government's annual rating of legislators.

The passage of bills the chamber opposed this year doesn't invalidate the strategy, Snyder said. It will take time - and probably an election - for businesses' voice to be heard, she said.

"Helping educate the business community is critical to turning the ship around," Snyder said. "They need to make the connection between legislators and the votes they've taken."

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