Seeking harmony, business group may lose its edge

  • Kim Burns is president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government.
Kim Burns is president of Maryland Business for Responsive… (Baltimore Sun photo by Robert…)
March 08, 2011|By Jay Hancock

The last time Maryland was attempting to emerge from a brutal recession, Maryland Business for Responsive Government offered a partisan and pointed prescription.

Maryland's "big and expensive" government was "antithetical" to business job growth, MBRG President Robert O.C. "Rocky" Worcester wrote in a letter to The Sun. So was the state's "highly litigious" legal scene. "Aggressive measures" were needed to cut taxes and stop "the unchecked expansion of state government," Worcester wrote.

That was 1994. Now we're in another slump. State and local government make up a bigger portion of Maryland's economy than they did 17 years ago. Despite the terrible fiscal downturn, Gov. Martin O'Malley has laid off hardly any state employees.

And Kimberly M. Burns, MBRG's new president, says O'Malley "has done a fantastic job at looking how to trim back and run state government."

You too, MBRG? Business groups have gone collaborationist before with Maryland's reigning Democratic powers. But never Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

Maybe the organization's new, "nonpartisan" approach under Burns is merely fresh sauce for MBRG's free-market meat. Or maybe the failure of former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to recapture the governorship has made Maryland business basically surrender.

Even as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Baltimore Committee canoodled with the liberal establishment, MBRG and Worcester could be counted on to excoriate unions, trial lawyers, taxes and regulations.

Worcester yelled at politicians while chamber lobbyists sucked up to them. Former Democratic House Speaker Casper Taylor once used a barnyard epithet when I asked his opinion of MBRG's legislative scorecard, which penalized all but small-government, laissez-faire purists. The chamber regarded MBRG "as a pain in the ass," Worcester said once.

But Worcester, 68, who spent nearly three decades at MBRG, has retired. Now the group is trying to rebrand.

"There was a lot of discussion that the organization was becoming a Republican organization," says Former Gov. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat and co-chairman of MBRG along with Republican Ellen Sauerbrey, who almost won the Maryland governorship in 1994.

So they hired Burns — an Annapolis business lobbyist and lifelong Democrat — with "no objection" from anyone on the board, Mandel said.

And under Burns, MBRG will be "still free market, but with more of a nonpartisan focus," she said in an interview.

"People are tired of the arguing and bickering — left and right, and things not getting done," said Burns, who has a law degree and a master's in business. "They are looking for solutions that are down the center, and that's where MBRG wants to be."

She said her priority will be maintaining Roll Call, the legislative scorecard that Taylor hated and that in recent years the chamber has made available to members. MBRG's underlying principles haven't changed, she said.

For example, she said, the group still supports right-to-work laws, which make it more difficult for unions to organize and which diehard conservatives have argued could prompt a Maryland manufacturing renaissance. (Enormous factory job loss in North Carolina and other right-to-work states undermines that premise, to say the least.)

Asked to take a position on a current issue in Annapolis, Burns said MBRG objects to the "combined reporting" proposal for corporate taxes, which advocates say would close loopholes and which businesses argue would create a nightmare of complexity. In an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun last month, Sauerbrey and Mandel also blasted proposals to extend Maryland's "millionaire tax" and increase its minimum wage.

But it seems clear that the group will at least make a show of working with Democrats.

The new MBRG will "be part of the solution, maybe working with the administration or more in tandem with legislators to find solutions to Maryland's economic problems," Burns said.

Sauerbrey, too, talks about cooperation.

"It's certainly no secret that, with Maryland being a heavily Democratic legislature, an organization that is branded as a Republican organization is not going to have the influence it would if it is branded as a nonpartisan or bipartisan organization," she said. Part of the new mission, she added, is "at least being able to talk to Democrats and hopefully have them listen to why these things that we promote are important."

I thought that was the chamber's job. While it often struggled to show legislative results, at least Worcester's MBRG offered a certain ideological purity. It's hard to imagine how the group will hew to free-market ideals and simultaneously work with the Democrats who tried to force Walmart and only Walmart to increase spending on employee health care a few years ago. Or who support combined reporting, increasing the minimum wage and extending the millionaire tax.

When Ehrlich was governor he urged businesses to get feisty, vocal and "dangerous" in Annapolis after years of passivity. The new MBRG doesn't sound very dangerous.

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