Observations on District 38B town hall meeting

First off, I actually took my camera but decided there really wasn’t much worth photographing.

Earlier this afternoon I was over in the thriving metropolis of Pittsville (the locals will get it) to attend a town hall meeting put on by my erstwhile but Democratic Delegates to the Maryland General Assembly at the village’s fire hall.

I was a little bit disappointed in the turnout, though. There were only 10 people there besides the Delegates and one assistant who took note of the proceedings. Only nine of them were of voting age, the other one may be the first to vote in a Republican majority in the General Assembly. I heard she was one year old; this means she’d come of age in 2026 and it may take that long to sufficiently chink the armor of liberalism (and 66 Delegates/22 Senators) present from Baltimore City and Prince George’s/ Montgomery counties.

But to their credit, both Delegates Norm Conway and Jim Mathias took this as a “listening opportunity” and a chance to “gain insight from other avenues” as this weekend was the second of four they’ll return to the district and hold these meetings.

Delegate Conway spoke first and not surprisingly the newly-announced state operating budget was his first topic of business, a “primary concern.” Noting the operating budget was “drastically reduced” (by 1.57%) he told us that this was even well below the guidelines set forth by the spending affordability study.

Conway continued that Governor O’Malley “tried to maintain the level for education and public safety” so I was led to assume that everything else was under the realm of fair game.

I think it’s worth pointing out at this moment that, while the state-supplied portion of the operating budget is decreasing slightly, the federal share actually goes up more than enough to show a net budget increase. While the FY2009 budget was almost a 50-50 split between state and federal dollars (although they’re all dollars from our pockets no matter how one slices it), the FY2010 budget changes the proportion closer to a 55-45 federal/state split.

One new wrinkle in budgeting is the recently approved Constitutional Amendment permitting video slots in Maryland. Conway spoke about the implementation process, with the licensing committee commencing its work on February 1st. That process will “gauge the interest” in placing slots at each of the five locations dictated by the state, one of which is in my very district over in Worcester County (essentially the Ocean Downs racetrack outside Ocean City.)

In Norm’s estimation, already having slots in Delaware and Pennsylvania helped to move the slots proposal. Now that the process is about to get underway, we could be 18 to 24 months from seeing the funds roll in from the expansion of gambling – although some sites (perhaps Ocean Downs being one) could be up and running faster.

One O’Malley priority that Conway doubted would happen was continuing the tuition freeze. With revenues declining and college costs increasing, that may have to be dropped for at least this year.

I happen to think that dropping the tuition freeze is a good idea, as colleges should be a little more self-sufficient. By keeping the tuition price the same, it only encourages colleges to either raise rates in other areas, or require more of a subsidy from the state to keep pace.

Much like the toll we pay to cross the Bay Bridge eastbound, tuition is a user fee. As O’Malley and his allies in the General Assembly have arranged it, the cost to educate a limited number of students is shared across everyone whether they attend or not – much like K-12 schooling. Furthermore, keeping tuition the same makes those who pay for it less conscious of where the money goes. If tuition goes up 8 percent while administration costs rise 12 percent, the parents who find out can raise holy hell and perhaps the overhead can be reduced.

Returning to Conway and the budget, one other statement he made was that our state was somewhat “insulated” by having such a large proportion of federal jobs and budget-wise we may get assistance from the federal government in that way. Apparently Governor O’Malley had $350 million figured into the budget from the federal stimulus package and the state has already compiled a list of “shovel-ready” projects.

On the other side of the budget ledger is the capital budget, which Conway suggested would be increased this time around by about $150 million. He didn’t elaborate much more into the detail of “bond bills” and what some would consider the pork projects funded by the capital budget.

Also quickly mentioned by Norm was the issue of capital punishment (neither Delegate favors a ban on the death penalty, which is one point where they and I agree) and the expansion of health care – apparently Medicaid expansion is being brought up as part of the “stimulus” package. Sounds more like welfare than stimulus to me.

Delegate Mathias then took the floor and thanked the volunteer fire fighters and remembered his predecessor, the late Delegate Bennett Bozman.

He moved into the issues of the state by pointing out that he served on the Ecomomic Matters Committee and briefly mentioning the foreclosure reform which was passed last session. Some of the other issues which would face the General Assembly, Jim said, would be the increasing and dire need to upgrade our utility generation and infrastructure (including nuclear power) and supporting the interests of the agricultural community.

For those of you not familiar with the Eastern Shore, we are one area where the interests of farmer and treehugger frequently clash. For the most part our region is rural and has a lot of open space but we also feature a great deal of shoreline and wetlands. There’s always a tension between the two interests, particularly when it comes to runoff from agricultural land leaching its way down to Chesapeake Bay.

In a fraction of the time Conway held the floor, Mathias spoke in the broad terms of leaving a “legacy” and wishing to “sustain and conceive our next achievement.” He praised his Delegate partners on the Shore for their leadership, respect, and tenure which were all necessary to get things done for the Eastern Shore.

After these presentations, the floor was opened to questions. First, a citizen asked, if there are sports lottery games in Maryland for the Maryland Stadium Authority, why not a lottery game to support public safety? He reasoned that it would help eliminate the need for constant fundraising by the volunteer fire departments.

It’s worthy of noting that I didn’t know we had two lottery games dedicated to the MSA (with a total of four authorized), I just figured all the lottery proceeds went into the General Fund. (I knew better than to assume they all went to education!) But Norm Conway explained that there are already dedicated funds for the volunteer fire departments. One example is a $7.50 surcharge placed on traffic tickets, half of which goes to local volunteer fire departments and half going to the Maryland State Police to assist in funding their Medevac helicopters. A complaint made by another observer was that the cost of equipment and training is rising faster than most VFD’s can increase their fundraising.

One thing I did know (or had a pretty good inkling of, at any rate) was that 67% of the state’s budget is mandated due to various asundry funds and other items dreamed up by the General Assembly over the years. That’s why the budget is so difficult to cut, and in future years this percentage really needs to be addressed and diminished. Delegate Conway stated this as part of his answer, and it allowed me to pontificate.

The one question I asked – which was truly sort of a half statement, half question – regarded the funding distribution from slots. The original formula has about 48 to 51 percent going to education, 33 percent to the licensee, and smaller percentages devoted to the horse racing industry, administration, and so on. I asked the logical question of whether there was already pressure to play with these numbers, and Norm thought there “probably” would be once revenue began rolling in. Only the number and locations of video slots were covered in the Constitutional Amendment.

Another question answered at some length regarded utility deregulation. As Delegate Conway put it, the original thought when deregulation was passed was the assumption that other players would jump into Maryland’s market and competition would keep the eventual rate increases from having such a huge effect on the pocketbooks of Free Staters. Unfortunately, neither the competition nor the enhanced generating capacity or infrastructure came to pass, in part because of environmental concerns.

Delegate Mathias chimed in that re-regulation is “beyond impractical” now, and perhaps the state could provide some sort of incentives for building infrastructure. One of the citizens there remarked that the MAPP project (to build new power transmission lines to the Eastern Shore) is only going to be “half of what we need”, and with certain power plants going offline the situation locally will be no better than before.

A concerned parent asked about school funding for pre-K, and was told that the Thornton rules made funding pre-K optional for each county.

The final question dealt mainly with getting some sort of reimbursement for VFD’s from insurance companies – as the questioner pointed out, if we limit the damage to a half-million dollar house to $100,000, we don’t get any benefit from doing so but the insurance company is saved $400,000. That was something which Mathias thought could merit more discussion with the insurance administration and lobbyists. But a side note to the question again brought up the Medevac helicopter subject, which is a sore spot in the General Assembly at the moment.

Delegate Mathias echoed the questioner in supporting the current state-operated system, saying he’s “very comfortable” with it. Some of the issues which led to last year’s Medevac crash and loss of four lives were addressed by changes in protocol, and updating their fleet may also help with safety.

Naturally, the venue created some of the questioning – since we were in a fire hall, a good number of those present were from that line of work. I did chat briefly with Norm Conway afterward regarding some of the fiscal questions, and let him know I’m quite the libertarian on some things – I don’t believe in mandating health coverage, for example. When he asked if I supported mandating auto insurance, I said no. I don’t believe in seat belt laws, either; however, I still choose to wear mine.

While it was nice to have the ear of my Delegates, perhaps this is something which should be repeated more often and better publicized. More than most, I stay interested in what occurs in Annapolis and how they vote on these matters.

I will say that now that they know my name and where I stand, this will make it a little easier to attempt to steer them in the right direction. However, I also think we’ll have several strong candidates in the running on the GOP side come 2010 to take their place in the General Assembly. This year will be telling as far as their voting record goes – will it reflect better the will of a conservative district or the “go along to get along” Annapolis attitude?

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.

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