Watching the lawmakers on wage, tax, workplace issues

From left: The West Virginia state capitol in Charleston, the Maryland state capitol in Annapolis, and the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg.

By Mike Lewis

Some business leaders are going to be watching lawmakers as 2019 begins.

Among states in the Crossroads Business Journal region, potential issues could range from the minimum wage in Maryland to taxes in West Virginia to infrastructure funding across the nation. Chambers of commerce and other business organizations are preparing to meet issues that affect them as the topics arise in statehouses and Washington, D.C.

“Our (priorities) are very broad” and generally support job growth, said Paul Frey, president and CEO of the Washington County (Md.) Chamber of Commerce. “When a specific piece of legislation comes out … then we’ll get involved.”

Frey and the others are preparing to get involved soon.

In Maryland

Paul Frey

This year’s Maryland General Assembly is scheduled for Jan. 9 through April 8.

Frey and some Western Maryland lawmakers said they expect some familiar proposals, such as raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, will come up again this session.

“Fifteen dollars an hour is on the table,” Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington, said at a recent chamber gathering in Hagerstown, Md. Parrott said that would be “a huge detriment to the business community.”

Frey said the chamber believes the private sector should set wages.

“It’s not the government’s job to make those decisions,” he said.

Another proposal that’s likely to resurface would require businesses to give employees three weeks notice about work schedules.

Frey said that requirement would be a hardship on many business, particularly those involved in retail sales and construction, which need flexibility in order to compete and cope with changes in weather.

“It just doesn’t seem to be a practical piece of legislation,” he said.

Frey said some political changes also will bear watching as the Maryland General Assembly goes about its business.

“There are a lot of new legislators, and there is a fair amount of new committee chairs and co-chairs. … That’s a new dynamic,” he said.

In West Virginia

The West Virginia General Assembly is scheduled for Jan. 9 through March 8.

Tina Combs

Tina Combs, president and CEO of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has a two-page list of legislative priorities for 2019.

“Some of these priorities have been on our list for a while. … We try to keep the list sort of concise. It would be 30 pages long, but we try to get it down to our top 10,” she said.

“We always advocate for infrastructure. We still have areas that don’t have good internet connection here.”

Among other things, the chamber “strongly advocates balanced investment in drug treatment and educational programs to alleviate the drug epidemic.” Another priority “encourages the elimination or considerable modification of provisions taxing inventory and equipment while providing adequate alternative revenue capacity for local government.”

In Western Maryland, business leaders often say that they are competing with nearby companies in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and that some Maryland-specific measures could hurt them. Combs said she makes the same point, because the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia is a relatively narrow strip between Maryland and Virginia.

“We have to make sure we remain competitive” when it comes to taxes, workplace policies and other issues, she said.

In Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is a year-round body, much like the U.S. Congress.

Stephen Christian

Stephen Christian, president of the Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce, said his group will look at 2019 initiatives in early January.

“Our government affairs committee tries to review the Pennsylvania State Chamber of Commerce action items and legislative initiatives and kinds of picks and chooses the things that are most relevant to Franklin County and the Interstate 81 corridor,” he said.

“I think if I had one overriding message for any legislative body it would be ‘less is more.’ … That would be my general comment for any legislative body, Pennsylvania or otherwise,” he said.

L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp., said he did not know of any potential Pennsylvania legislation that would have a big impact on the region’s economy.

Ross said the biggest legislative boost, if it happens, would come from Washington, D.C.

In Washington

Mike Ross

A national infrastructure bill would have a larger regional impact than any piece of state legislation, Ross said. And he’s hopeful that Congress can deliver such a bill in 2019.

“If Congress passes an infrastructure bill next year, that is the game-changer for us. … That’s the legislation that will affect us more than any other, if it happens,” he said.

That bill could create investments in everything from roads and bridges to water lines and broadband service, he said.

And it also would mean a more fundamental contribution to the area’s economy.

“We have the companies that build the equipment that builds the infrastructure,” he said, mentioning a list of businesses that included firms like Volvo, the lift company JLG and the crane-maker Manitowac. “It will create significant opportunities for them.”