From left, Spencer Jones (Chick & Ruth’s) and Lori Graf (Maryland Building Industry Association) presented an overview of critical business issues at the Anne Arundel Chamber’s legislative breakfast. (Photo: TBM/George Berkheimer)

Emergency department capacity, transportation, and reducing fees for startups were among topics legislators brought up at the Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast at the Crown Plaza hotel in Annapolis.

Business leaders and elected officials heard from a panel of state lawmakers as well as a panel of chamber members who addressed priority legislative issues for the General Assembly’s 2024 session, as well as critical issues that business owners are grappling with.

State Sen. Pam Beidle, who represents District 32, said she will be paying attention to business regulation and hospital policy.

“Hospital emergency department wait times are a big issue, we need more beds,” she said.

For State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who represents District 30, transportation is a priority.

“A few months ago the governor announced a $3 billion gap in our short and long term transportation budget,” Elfreth said. “The good news is we’re going to fill about $150 million of that this year, backfilling funds around transit and commuter bus lines … and we’re going to have a conversation moving forward.”

Elfreth is also backing legislation to eliminate the personal property tax on rooftop solar and parking canopies for businesses.

While the governor’s budget proposal does not include any tax increases, “it does include some fee increases, mostly small fees that haven’t been tackled in over 10 years for [businesses] that are not paying for the state services that they should be.”

Energy and transportation

District 31 Delegate Brian Chisholm said he would reintroduce the Right to Start Act bill, which would eliminate the filing fee for businesses registering for the first time.

“I’d also like to earmark filing fee money from existing businesses for child care centers, with a portion of the money going into the form of a scholarship,” he said.

Chisholm is also championing a bill to prevent the premature retirement of electricity generating plants until a viable replacement is available.

Transportation is also a priority for District 32 Delegate Mark Chang, who said he is working on funding transportation needs now that technology and new transportation modes have reduced fuel tax revenues.

“We’re also facing challenges in our shock trauma system,” he said, adding that he will be looking at the potential to use motor vehicle violation fees to increase shock trauma center funding.

Housing and education

Lori Graf, CEO of the Maryland Building Industry Association, said the housing shortage is an issue for the whole country, and for Maryland in particular, which ranks as the 8th least affordable state for housing costs.

Regulation on all levels accounts for roughly 22% of the cost of a house in the state, she said, while each new regulation for rental property represents a 2.3% increase in rental price.

“The cost of construction has gone up a lot and we don’t have enough people going into the trades to do construction anymore,” she said. “It will take local government, state government and the private sector working together to improve things.”

Mark Bedell, superintendent of the Anne Arundel County Public School System, said he is backing legislation that would allow his school system the option of a specific number of student hours rather than the mandated 180 school days.

“We can’t be afraid to innovate,” he said, suggesting that adding 10 minutes to each school day could transform half days into days off to allow more professional development and eliminate needlessly extending the school year to satisfy legal language in the law.

“I’m asking for support for construction funding for pre-K education,” Bedell said, which would accelerate the time it will take AACPSS to achieve the pre-K expansion mandate.

Child care and employment

Barbara Palmer, president and CEO of Kingdom Kare, asked lawmakers to support the child care workforce and continue state funding to ensure every family has access to equitable, quality child care.

“Child care averages $2,100 per month, that’s a mortgage for some families,” she said, adding that more than 40 child care centers in Anne Arundel County have closed since 2020.

Spencer Jones, owner of Chick & Ruth’s Delly, urged lawmakers to reconsider the Maryland Fair Scheduling Act, which he said created excessive paperwork and record keeping and could put employers who haven’t committed a violation in a harmful situation if they couldn’t produce the records to defend themselves.

A proposed change to require employers of tipped employees to cover the difference for tipped employees earning $3.63 per hour who don’t get tipped up to $15 per hour would put many restaurants with small margins out of business, he warned.

“Just for Chick & Ruth’s alone this would cost us $200,000 a year,” he said, cautioning that restaurants will adapt by raising prices and implementing mandatory service charges that will result in customers tipping less or staying home because they can’t afford to dine out.

“Most of the people testifying against this bill last year were the tipped employees themselves,” Jones said. “You can’t have good worker policies if you’re not also considering the needs of the businesses they work for.”

The Maryland General Assembly’s 2024 legislative session convened on Jan. 10 and will adjourn on April 8.