Monday, January 3, 2000

But rather than starting anew, lawmakers will largely pick up where they left off. The top issues on their agendas have come up before, such as finding solutions to traffic congestion and coming up with ways to accommodate the fast growth the region is experiencing.

What is different this time is a sense of immediacy. Much has changed since lawmakers left Annapolis in April and Richmond in March.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s rejection of the Inter-County Connector, which would have provided a new link between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, has galvanized and re-energized pro-business forces.

The loud clamor of business groups in Virginia has helped push Gov. James S. Gilmore III to take a strong stand in favor of dedicating $2.5 billion to transportation, with much of that coming from nontraditional sources.

And, like last year, both states are sitting on surpluses that present great challenge. By looking for transportation funding from the general fund, Mr. Gilmore is signaling he favors using much of the surplus for traffic solutions. Mr. Glendening has consistently seen surpluses as an opportunity to create new programs, despite calls to use it to accelerate income tax cuts being phased in through 2001.

Maryland’s governor has not provided leadership in dealing with the Washington area’s notorious traffic problems, except to speak in favor of a new rail line ringing the Beltway that should rather be part of a larger, aggressive plan that includes new roads.

The surpluses will be well spent if they do not encumber the states with new, ongoing expenses, which is why one-time capital improvements such as road and transit expansion make sense.

Of course, this is more than a new year in the minds of many who have set aside the fact that the new millennium is actually a year away, choosing to identify the year 2000 as a beginning rather than the ending that it is.

Regardless of how the new year is perceived, policies crafted in 2000 will have far-reaching effects in the future. The question of Internet sales taxes, which is now being debated by a national commission Mr. Gilmore serves as chairman, is one such issue. The commission is divided into camps that favor and oppose creating sales taxes.

The phenomenal growth of electronic commerce, which is essential to the large and growing number of technology companies in the region, is at stake. Retailers with physical stores also have much on the line as they worry that tax-free electronic commerce will put them at a disadvantage. This is not a easily solved issue, and the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, which was appointed by Congress to study what to do about an existing moratorium on new Internet taxes, is due to report back in March.

The top local business story in 1999 is the ascension of Mayor Anthony A. Williams to the top elected spot in the D.C. government. The District is essential to the long-term strength of the region as a whole and, for too long, it was a black eye that no amount of makeup could hide.

Mr. Williams has brought credibility back to the office, which was a key factor in the District’s ability to add more jobs than it lost in 1999 for the first time in a decade. Census figures show the population in the District, which has been declining in recent years, is growing once again.

The new mayor will have to jump-start his economic development operation and show more concrete successes for the image of a city in recovery to endure. Cutting crime and improving schools are central to efforts to attract companies and new residents to the District.

These issues all develop on a continuum, just as the region continues to see itself more as an area that defies jurisdictional divisions. There’s general agreement that the each-man-for-himself approach of the past is outdated.

While suburbs and the District will continue to vie for the businesses that bring vitality in the form of jobs and tax money, it is essential that governments find a way to make more concerted efforts on issues that include economic development, addressing traffic problems and finding workers to fill technology jobs.

The Washington Area Council of Governments is looking to become a more powerful forum for such issues, and its efforts will be worth watching this year.

The region faces tremendous challenges and opportunities. It is essential that good economic times stock markets that are creating wealth, a fast-growing local technology sector and a real estate market growing with healthy confidence do not lead to complacency.

The efforts of the past have brought us prosperity, but this is not a time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Too many remain unemployed in the District, even as the greater region struggles with a worker shortage that could limit growth. The benefits would be great if the unemployment problem was solved by filling the needs of companies looking for help.

Companies and technology councils using quality of life amid an arsenal of lures to bring skilled workers to the region could use some help addressing traffic problems. If the region is coming to a halt in traffic, companies already here will be tempted leave.

A good economy needs nursing care, but it is easier to keep momentum going than to reverse a decline as the District has begun to do. A healthy and prosperous new year will require a considerable amount of both.

Bernard Dagenais, business editor of The Washington Times, can be reached at 202/636-3173.

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