Observations on the Conway-Mathias townhall meeting

Even with a camera-shy person, the attendance on Saturday wasn't half-bad for this townhall meeting.

On Saturday I was joined by about two dozen others – among them seemingly half the local blogger community – who wanted to pepper local Delegates Norm Conway and Jim Mathias of District 38B with questions about the direction this state is going and just what they would do to send it in the proper direction. At times this was a very contentious meeting when the questions began to be asked.

First they were introduced by Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton.

Fellow Democrat and Salisbury mayor Jim Ireton introduced the pair and pitched a new downtown library while he was at it.

Part of his introduction was an appeal to keep the library downtown, but as for Conway and Mathias Mayor Ireton noted that, “one of the reasons I support them is that they don’t vote no for the sake of voting no and they don’t vote yes for the sake of voting yes.”

Mathias began his presentation by stating “I’m just like you in many ways,” pointing out he had been a businessman, vetoed two budgets as mayor of Ocean City, and argued about increasing fees. Along with us, he felt that the state “should have a dependable budget” and asserted that he’d “stand up and take responsibility for the good things we’ve done and the tough things we’ve done.”

Jim seemed very defensive throughout the presentation, and speaking on the budget remarked that “we thought we’d close the (budget) gap (in 2007)…but we didn’t know the ‘great recession’ was on the way.” He made it clear that there were “a thousand sets of fingerprints to blame” so we needed “a thousand sets of hands to lift us up.”

Noting that much of the industry which had once been the backbone of the Shore – companies like Campbell Soup and Dresser – had abandoned the area, those entities which had taken their place like Salisbury University, Wor-Wic College, and Peninsula Regional Medical Center helped take up some of the slack but our number one industry remains agriculture. On that note, Mathias pled the case that they “tried very hard to get building permits for the chicken houses.”

District 38B Delegates Jim Mathias (left) and Norm Conway listen and interact with their constituents at a town hall meeting held February 20, 2010.

Unlike Mathias, who sat throughout the meeting, Norm Conway stood up to give his remarks.

One thing I didn’t know about Conway is that he’d been an elected official since 1970, beginning with the Central Committee and graduating to Salisbury City Council in 1974 before running and winning his current post in 1986. He recounted some of the mentors who had led him into his lifetime of public service as a teacher, school official, and political officeholder.

As a committee head in the General Assembly, he “tried to build alliances…build bridges” as Norm reminded those assembled that the sum total of the Eastern Shore delegation was 13 – 10 House members and three Senators. (Seems like it should be 12 because there are only three Eastern Shore districts – 36, 37, and 38. Point is we have a small delegation.)

Certainly those in attendance had known that Maryland “had some rough times over the last 2 or 3 years” as “revenues dropped off a cliff.” In the last year the Board of Public Works had chopped $1 billion out of the budget – it had been in balance at sine die of the General Assembly last April but once the fiscal year started July 1 things were already behind.

Norm observed, however, that revenues may be finally leveling off. His anecdotal basis of that claim was seeing more people shopping and in restaurants over the last few months, and to him that was “clear evidence” of a recovery.

But now the General Fund budget being debated was less than that approved for FY07 four years ago thanks to the shrinking revenues. Yet the untouchable area has been K-12 education and it was only this year the tuition freeze had been shelved, after three years of no change.

Delegate Norm Conway addresses the voters at a townhall meeting held in Salisbury on February 20, 2010.

As for the actual budget process, this year it was the Senate’s turn to begin the budget process (it alternates yearly between the Senate and House of Delegates.) Conway predicted the budget would be on the floor by the second week of March. One lament Conway had was the difficulty of maintaining funding for roads because once that area was cut it was “tough to catch up.” Yet we had to balance the budget and create jobs since Maryland’s 7.5% unemployment rate, while well below the national average because of the insulation of federal jobs, was still at a “high water mark.”

So far the meeting had gone fairly smoothly and people had listened attentively. Then the questions began.

Local Americans for Prosperity co-chair Joe Collins got the ball rolling by pointing out the examples of Dresser leaving and the Evolution microbrewery deciding to locate just across the state line in Delaware (after considering a downtown Salisbury location) and asking what can they do for the business community?

Mathias, who reminded us he was on the Economic Matters Committee, told us that part of the issue was local regulation. But he and Conway had urged a reduction in regulations, and Mathias called the poultry industry regulations “overbearing.” Jim also called it “embarrassing” that a permit for a fishing pier desired by a local businessman had languished for two years – that owner “should have had it in his hand by now.”

The former mayor also made the complaint that “as mayor, I was closer to a one phone call fix” but the state is a “matrix.” The only group which stays long-term is the bureaucracy.

Collins interjected that it sounded like Mathias was “making the case for less government.” Jim agreed that there was a need for incentives, less regulations, and more opportunity.

Delegate Conway spoke his piece, talking about how the poultry industry could be gone in a decade if things continue on their path, but bringing up the point that he has to work with other members and “help them.” But as head of the Appropriations Committee, “I do” use that as a weapon against the Maryland Department of the Environment in an effort to help local poultry farmers.

So when it was asked what they were doing to get rid of the bureaucracy, Conway pointed out that 400 vacant positions had been eliminated this fiscal year – but that may not be permanent.

Delegate Mathias then pointed out that, “bureaucracy is not just numbers…every business needs to have trained people.” Yet the government will have to continue to shrink, added Jim. Earlier this decade, we were largely in the ‘roaring Twenties’ of the 21st century.

Local businesswoman Sally Jones then asked about unemployment insurance, noting how much it affected her business.

The problem, responded Mathias, was that businesses were moving to a higher table on the unemployment scale and that raises their premiums. One change last year was adding part-time workers to the rolls, a move the Chamber of Commerce supported but Jim opposed (as did I.) But Jim also couched it as an issue between big business (like Wal-Mart, as Jim naturally mentioned) against small business and the NFIB.

Yet I happen to know there’s also a federal impact, as the bailout being proposed comes with strings attached. With Maryland’s fund in peril, the state is looking for an infusion of federal cash but in order to get it they have to “reform” their system (after just doing so five years ago.)

At that point, a questioner asked about illegal immigrants and the fiscal impact they have on our state, but neither Delegate was aware of a financial number and Mathias “doubt(s) my committee” has ever asked for one. Remember, Maryland is well known as a sanctuary state and is adopting a two-tier driver’s license system just for them. (That was a contentious bill, and many Delegates – including Conway and Mathias – asked their name by withdrawn as co-sponsors after numerous changes were made to gut that bill.)

Shifting gears, fellow blogger Joe Albero asked about the death penalty in the wake of the Foxwell case. Conway expressed his support for the death penalty but voted to weaken it in order to make sure it stayed on the books, noting wistfully “they have it where they want it” for now. He’s working on a bill to be heard tomorrow which would add scientific evidence to the criteria where the death penalty can be sought. Delegate Mathias chimed in that there “will be improvements” to sex offender laws and echoed Conway’s support for capital punishment.

Another fellow blogger (and the other AFP local co-chair), Julie Brewington, asked about the gas tax and why so much of it goes to public transit. Mathias said that he wouldn’t support an increase but also countered that “we all know we have to make that contribution” and perhaps change the funding mechanism for fixing roads as cars get more efficient. After our economy finally recovers, this will be “a different country than we know.” (He also had a sidebar about the one staunch Republican who supported Obama’s stimulus plan – that man runs a paving company.)

But here was a case of the quid pro quo which permeates Maryland politics. Delegate Mathias recounted his first votes, which were to override vetoes by Governor Ehrlich of various Baltimore City and County issues. He was going to sit them out (since he never voted on the original legislation) but was reminded by Norm Conway that the items he liked getting as mayor of Ocean City had to have the approval of Baltimore-area legislators to be done. In this case, they support the public transit predominant on the other side of the Bay as a trade-off for things we need.

One item that Conway said has been proposed in the past and could be revisited to address transportation would be a regional sales tax.

Johnnie Miller, a proponent of energy legislation, wondered why renewable energy bills pass the House easily but die in the Senate Finance Committee. He pointed out Delaware is way ahead of us in that area. More interesting was the fact he and fellow advocate John Palmer had written the draft of legislation to be introduced this year (they were only awaiting the legal language to be set) for energy policy.

To address the question, Delegate Mathias pointed out these bills generally come with a “strong fiscal note” which seems to scare off support. (Tellingly he also said, “maybe one day I’ll be on the Senate Finance Committee.” File that under “worst-kept secret.”)

This touched off a long and sort of meandering discussion which eventually returned to jobs and development. While it was pointed out (properly) that renewable energy was only made competitive when subsidized by the government and certain interests were more focused on rent-seeking than energy policy, the philosopical question was asked “how is it that government ever thought they could create development?” To that, Delegate Conway replied that there were a number of public-private projects under discussion but when pressed couldn’t name any local examples.

Delegate Mathias attempted to bail Conway out by postulating that even with the increasing amount of real property now owned by government (such as the ever-expanding Salisbury University and even the newly-purchased Pollitt’s Folly parking lot for the Civic Center) there are still jobs and disposable income being created by them. With all due respect, Delegate Mathias, at what cost to us? (I used that term because Delegate Mathias used it often.)

This is basically how it ended, since the time allotted for the meeting room was only two hours and it was booked for another group. I didn’t get a chance to ask my question, but did say my piece to Delegate Conway about the increasing proportion of the state budget comprised from federal dollars. To him, it was just our money coming back to us but that doesn’t address the philosophical difference I have that the money belongs to us in the first place and all that having a middleman does is keep some pencil-pusher (who may or may not live in Maryland) employed.

There was also a comment made by a guy whose name I didn’t catch which, to sum up, said that we should watch the Delegates in action before being overly critical. Come to Annapolis and watch them work on a Monday night or some other time during the week, he said.

That’s all well and good for a lobbyist or perhaps CASA de Maryland, but most working people in far-flung regions of the state don’t have the time to drive up to Annapolis and watch the legislature grind its sausage. We count on them to do what’s right and what’s proper in being stewards of our taxpayer money.

Instead we get “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” politics, trading favors at the expense of the taxpayer. So much for “One Maryland.”

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.

2 thoughts on “Observations on the Conway-Mathias townhall meeting”

  1. I certainly appreciated Conway and Mathias holding the meeting, but I think they could have gotten through more questions if Mathias had been a little less wordy. That guy loves to hear himself speak! I may not agree with Conway’s politics, but did appreciate that his answers were much more direct and to the point than Mathias’s. I can see how Conway keeps getting elected year after year in what should be a GOP district. The guy doesn’t come across as a politician but instead as just a hard-working public servant.

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