Prince George's business leaders, some frustrated by the state's looming budget deficit, others wary of increasing taxes on businesses, expressed a measure of relief after Republican Bob Ehrlich won the race for governor.
Many said they were willing to overlook Ehrlich's party affiliation in this heavily Democratic county to have someone they believe can get the state's fiscal house in order. And while most business groups were studiously neutral in the race between Ehrlich and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, local spokesmen said they were eager to work with the new Republican administration.
Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen T. Snyder said "the state government cannot spend more than the money it is taking in, and on that point we agree with the governor-elect. . . . This session is going to be all about money. We can't allow partisan politics to get in the way of improving Maryland's economy."
The state's chamber, along with most Maryland business groups, did not officially endorse Ehrlich or Townsend, preferring to preserve working relationships with both candidates.
The Prince George's Chamber of Commerce also was neutral.
"We are concerned about education. We are concerned about public safety and transportation. We are concerned about the budget crisis," said Wendi Williams, president and chief executive of the Prince George's chamber. "We are here to partner with the state."
Worries about increased taxes by state legislators on business revenues prompted Legusta Floyd Jr., senior operations manager at Landover-based commercial cleaning company Centennial One Inc., to lean toward a change of leadership in Annapolis.
"I'm paying more [taxes] than I want to pay now," said Floyd, who is also an active member of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce and the national Business Leadership Network. "My number one issue is fiscal responsibility."
Art Eisenstein, owner of Time Piece Jewelers in Bowie and president of the Bowie Chamber of Commerce, said he, too, was looking for change, specifically in the state's "smart growth" policy aimed at focusing development around public transportation and older, densely populated areas. He said the new developments are weakening older business communities, such as the one in Old Bowie, that have survived despite their relatively long distances from the Metrorail system.
"We want to make sure we're not bringing in new business at the expense of old businesses, and Bob Erlich mentioned that in his acceptance speech," Eisenstein said.
The image of Democrats as big spenders also hurt Townsend in the eyes of Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, a 500-member group. The Retailers Association does not officially endorse candidates.
Saquella has been lobbying against an increase in the state's 5 percent sales tax proposed by some state legislators after the passage of the state's $21.7 billion budget and a simultaneous 10 percent income tax cut earlier this year.
"One of our major concerns, because of the state's growing budget deficit, has been concern about increasing the state's sales tax," Saquella said. "Ehrlich's election bodes well for us. He has been saying he will not increase the sales tax."
The lack of affordable health care plans for small-business owners is also on the list of issues facing the new administration.
"For small business in Maryland, it has become more and more expensive to provide health insurance for their employees," Snyder said.
Funding all those concerns and cutting the deficit will be difficult with the state's economy slower than all but a handful of other state's in the country.
"We certainly will be monitoring," said Elizabeth S. Casto, executive director of the Prince George's Board of Trade. "We will continue fighting for legislation that will support business in the county and the state."
Walt Townshend, president of the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce, said the new governor and legislators will have a steep learning curve.
"Anything that could be cut out of the budget has largely already been done. At this point you're really having to look outside the box," Townshend said. "The 't' word comes up."
Thinking outside of the box -- that is, avoiding a business tax increase -- could mean legalizing slot machines, which Erlich supported during his campaign. His push for slots is joined by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which see the machines as an untapped revenue generator. Other local business groups said they are still considering the proposal.
"We do support slots," Snyder said. "We'll be in front of that if they are heavily state regulated and in limited locations. We're not talking about full casinos. We're not talking about anywhere in the state. Marylanders are spending hundreds of millions of dollars outside the state. Let's keep them here and help improve our schools."
Oxon Hill resident Bonnie Bick, who lives near a horse track in Prince George's -- a possible location for slots -- said arguments for boosting state revenues do not factor in the social costs of legalizing slots.
"Prince George's County needs to keep our eye on the social costs because we've already suffered quite a bit for not having our priorities straight," said Bick, a leader of the Campaign to Reinvest in the Heart of Oxon Hill and of the Sierra Club. "It's residential. It's our neighborhood."
Bick, who in the past opposed the National Harbor development planned near Oxon Hill, said slots lead to "crime, the breakup of families and suck money from other investments like small businesses and more healthy economic projects."