Donald Fry: Getting beyond sound bites and bumper stickers

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By Donald C. Fry

Recent news about Maryland’s front-running gubernatorial candidates has offered details about their campaign fundraising, their personal incomes and charitable contributions, all of which make for interesting news copy

But these factoids are not the most important things that conscientious voters want to know about Governor Martin O’Malley and his challenger, former Governor Robert Ehrlich – the major party candidates Marylanders will choose between in November, barring a monumental primary election surprise.

Most voters want to know what the candidates think about on key issues that will define our state’s economic climate and quality of life for the next four years. Even of more interest, they would like to know, specifically and in compelling detail, what the candidates might do that is innovative, creative, resourceful, realistic, practical, strategic, or just plain solid public policy.

If we drill deep into the candidates’ web sites, we can access finely-tuned message points about issues, priorities and general strategies designed to resonate with key target audiences. But this year’s gubernatorial election presents a unique opportunity to choose between two candidates who know the territory and the mechanisms of the office that they seek extremely well.

In this election we have a situation where it is eminently reasonable to ask the candidates to venture beyond the message points, sound bites and bumper stickers. They have held the job. They know, or should know, the issues and the challenges.

From my perspective as a business advocate, I would like to drill past the five-point plans or web site issue papers. All voters would benefit from a better glimpse into the essence of these candidates – their core inclinations and perspectives regarding how they might address some very specific and well-defined challenges Maryland’s next governor will face.

For those planning candidate debates, here are a few topics and questions for both gubernatorial candidates, and all candidates for state offices, for that matter, that I respectfully suggest:

• Fiscal policy. The state faces an estimated $1.5 billion shortfall in the FY 2012 budget that the next governor will have to balance without the benefit of substantial federal stimulus funding. What would be your funding priorities in the next budget year? How, specifically, might you accomplish them? If increased taxes and fees are not part of your solution, what state programs or departments will you eliminate or vastly reform?

• Transportation funding. The revenue stream to fund the state’s transportation infrastructure is at a historic ebb. The state’s six-year transportation capital plan has been reduced by $2.1 billion in the last 15 months and Maryland commuters endure congestion that ranks among the nation’s worst, according to national experts. What is your plan for catching up when it comes to funding transportation in Maryland? How would you divide the funding between highways and transit?

• Business tax credits and incentives. Maryland’s lawmakers have been traditionally lukewarm to enacting business tax credits as a way to nurture economic development. Meanwhile, a state commission is considering ways to begin a process leading to potentially reducing business incentives. What’s your position on business tax credits and other business incentives?

• Unfunded pension and health plans for government employees. Maryland faces rising costs of its retirement pension plans for state employees. The state’s unfunded pension liability has increased $14.7 billion in the last five years. A task force has been created to examine this and the issue of the state’s largely under-funded health care plans for retirees. What, in your opinion, are some of the key retirement-funding issues you would like the task force to focus on? What are your thoughts of a defined contribution plan for future state hires?

• Competitive business environment. Maryland has many advantages as a place to do business. But for decades, Maryland has not been viewed as a strong competitor for business growth and development. Experts cite above average taxes, high business costs, and regulatory uncertainty as detracting from Maryland’s otherwise strong potential for business growth. How would you, as governor, instill a new tone on the part of government to view business as a partner for economic growth and not as an adversary? What specifically, would you do to create a more competitive business environment in Maryland? How would you engage business leadership to help solve the state’s challenges?

• Energy. Maryland imports more than 25 percent of electricity used by customers in the state. What would be your strategy for strengthening transmission infrastructure and increasing generating capacity within Maryland to ensure residents and businesses of adequate future electricity supply at reasonable costs?

This is just a sample of fiscal and economic issues where voters could benefit greatly from specific answers directly from the candidates. The closeness of the race, as measured by recent polls, creates a competitive atmosphere that might encourage candidates to range beyond the message points in their public debates and discussions with voters.

Plus, the recession has impacted everyone in our state and voters, now more than ever, deserve the clearest thinking and most lucid discussion of our future that candidates can muster.

I know that political campaigns are not academic exercises and that campaign rhetoric is geared toward generating passion rather than articulating policy.

But if there was ever an opportunity for voters to benefit from a more detailed discussion about our future between two seasoned candidates who have up-close, first-hand knowledge of how our state government works -- this is the year. The voters deserve honest answers to these questions and our state is in need of creative solutions to these challenges.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Biotech tax credit more popular than ever, but the ‘rock-concert’ lines are gone

Bad timing for upcoming business tax report

For economic indicators, the ‘whipsaw’ effect continues

Do census data foretell a Baltimore city population rebound?

Remember the value of business after the election

New report ranks Baltimore among stronger regions to weather the recession

New living wage proposal: wrong idea, wrong time for Baltimore

Northeast needs more attention from federal rail planners

New national report has familiar ring for Maryland bioscience advocates

New report underscores Maryland’s work force development challenges

State’s health initiative: a ‘win-win’ for employers and their workforces

As Baltimore hikes taxes, are state’s counties next?

After the ‘fiber from heaven’ scramble, what’s next?

BRAC growth no longer a future event – it’s happening now

Economic development is a contact sport

Despite the recession, bioscience growth still percolates in Baltimore

State stumbles in enacting new education collective bargaining process

Wind power has potential in Maryland, but solar emerges as early renewable option

It's not good to be clueless in cyberspace

Amid fiscal shuffle, Maryland lawmakers pass measures to spur business growth

Thankfully, Baltimore leads with substance over style in luring Google

Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid -- a bad habit continues

Where's the outrage over crime?

Small business is where innovation lives
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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.