Candidates at odds on Maryland's job outlook

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Listening to Maryland's two major candidates for governor talk about jobs, you would think they're living in two different states -- if not on different planets.

Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has spent much of the six weeks he's been in the race dropping in on small businesses and convening panels of company owners. From what they're telling him, it's pretty bleak out there -- and what Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is doing hasn't helped.

Ice cream shop owners in Cockeysville have told Ehrlich how an O'Malley-backed sales tax increase alienated customers and how increases in the minimum wage have made it more difficult to hire high school students. A car detailer in Columbia said his company has shed about two-thirds of its 250 jobs since Ehrlich was in office.

And then there was the plastics manufacturer in Baltimore: He apologized to Ehrlich and his entourage for the lack of air conditioning at the plant -- because "junkies" had ripped the units off the roof for the second time in two years to sell as scrap metal.

"Some of this is rather easily fixed. Some of it is more-difficult lifting," Ehrlich told about two dozen small-business people invited to a roundtable discussion last week in Rockville, where many nodded as the candidate addressed the problems they face.

O'Malley, meanwhile, acknowledges that it's still tough out there, but the Democratic incumbent is markedly more upbeat than his Republican challenger. In recent weeks, the governor has visited a motorcycle dealer in Brooklyn Park that added four jobs thanks to an O'Malley-backed tax credit available to companies that hire unemployed people. He has touted 200 construction jobs that will come with a federally funded bridge replacement project in Randallstown.

And last week O'Malley toured a major aircraft manufacturer in Middle River that employs 800 people. After the tour, the company's president said he sees capacity to grow in no small part because of the highly skilled workforce that the governor has helped cultivate in Maryland.

"The difference is in understanding the broader picture," O'Malley said, safety glasses still in hand, when asked by a reporter what explains an emphasis unlike Ehrlich's. "We have held onto our job base better than all but four other states in the country. . . . There are many things that go into determining the economic strength of the state."

At almost every stop, O'Malley has also pointed to a report showing that Maryland employers added a nation-leading 35,800 jobs in March. A smaller increase of 8,200 jobs in April -- more in line with most other states -- was trumpeted Friday in a news release.

It's hardly surprising that both candidates are talking so much about jobs. In a Washington Post poll released this month, 85 percent of registered voters said the state's economy would be either extremely or very important in determining how they vote for governor this year -- a higher percentage than on any other issue included in the poll.

'Jobs Across Maryland'

O'Malley has packaged his appearances as a "Jobs Across Maryland" tour. It has also included school visits and a conference to promote opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses. Although some stops have the feel of campaign events, the tour is organized by the governor's office and is designed, in part, to highlight legislative accomplishments.

From O'Malley's perspective, those include the tax credit available to companies for hiring new workers and steps taken to blunt an increase in unemployment insurance rates paid by businesses. Ehrlich, not surprisingly, has focused on the higher rates rather than the legislative response.

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