O'Malley trims a red-tape thicket but tangles remain

October 17, 2011|Jay Hancock

We'll hear endless tirades on the subject of business regulation between now and the 2012 election. Republicans will be against it. Democrats will favor it.

Here's a discussion that is heard much less often but which is just as important: How can government best deliver the regulation that both parties agree is necessary? It's a subject on which both Democrats and Republicans often stumble.

Only puritan libertarians would argue that government shouldn't control the way developers of offices, stores and housing tracts connect their projects with public highways. New entrances on busy roads can cause deadly accidents and clog traffic unless they're properly done.

But only militant statists would say that government doesn't have an obligation to grant highway access quickly, smoothly and reasonably. Even the state of Maryland admits that the 25-step obstacle course to obtain an access permit was not exactly set up to delight customers or quickly put shovels to work.

"In some cases permit processes, not only over a year or two but probably over a decade or two, have become more cumbersome than they should be," says Christian Johansson, the state's economic development secretary. "The perception is that we haven't always been the most business-friendly state."

Also, the reality.

Did I say 25 steps to get a highway-access permit? That's if everything went right. Sometimes applicants suffered the bureaucratic equivalent of dying in a video-game dungeon and getting demoted five levels to fight the same monsters all over again.

"It was pretty bad," says Tom Ballentine, head of policy for the Maryland Association of Industrial and Office Properties.

The same application would take far longer with one agency than with another, he said. The state wouldn't return calls. Developers didn't know what was needed for a complete file. State offices that could have worked on applications simultaneously would instead wait until others signed off.

"It felt like a broken process," says Tom Pilon, vice president of development for St. John Properties. "A lot of communication problems. Delays. It just seemed like it was taking longer and longer."

The administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley is trumpeting its recent makeover of the highway access permit process. During the worst economy in decades, officials figured out that needless delays for construction permits were costing the state jobs and tax revenue.

A task force of developers and state officials took months to comb out the tangles. Property owners now know what paperwork reviewers need. They can get informal coaching from state officials instead of having to wait weeks or months for a document to be rejected for a minor error.

Approval steps are mapped out. State offices are supposed to review applications simultaneously instead of waiting for one another to finish. The state is supposed to coordinate better with counties, and vice versa. Phone calls and emails are supposed to be returned.

Recently, Pilon wanted to make a minor change in a permit for a St. John project in Anne Arundel County. He asked for a conference. The state said OK. They worked it out.

"A year ago or two years ago it would have been hard to get this meeting," he said. "Their responsiveness has been better."

Hooray! O'Malley should be congratulated for improving government in this instance. But the highway access revamp also shows how poorly the process worked before, raising questions about how Maryland handles other permits and regulations that haven't gotten a poster-child makeover.

Until now, the state wasn't even measuring the time highway access permits took to be approved. There wasn't even a flow chart showing developers all the hoops they needed to clear.

"I was getting a lot of phone calls from a lot of developers and counties about projects" that were delayed, says Andy Scott, a former special assistant to the transportation secretary who helped simplify the access-permit labyrinth. (He recently became the department's real estate director.)

"In any kind of regulatory process, you're going to have unhappy people who get denied or who don't like regulation. But the calls we were getting were more along the lines of, 'I just want to know where I am in the process. I haven't heard for months,'" Scott said.

Democrats often minimize this kind of dysfunction as the cost of protecting the public. Republicans often highlight it as a way of attacking government and regulation in general.

But if liberals truly believe in government, they should be obsessed with making sure regulation is administered as intelligently and smoothly as possible. If conservatives truly are pro-business, they should have the same goal.

It shouldn't have taken a terrible economy for the Democratic O'Malley administration to make life easier for job creators. How much more red tape is clogging Maryland's economy?


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