A look ahead: 2017

Last year I did this in three parts, but to me that may be overkill this time around. Consider that 2017 is not an election year, so if anything we will not see much on that front until the latter stages of the year as the campaigns for 2018’s state elections ramp up. And because all but one of our local officials are first-term representatives in their respective offices, it’s likely they will wish to continue in office. Bear in mind, though, on the Senate side longtime House member Addie Eckardt will be 75 and Jim Mathias (who is in his second term as Senator after one-plus in the House) will be 67 by the time the next election comes around, so they are likely closer to the end of their lengthy political careers than to the beginning. And thanks to Wicomico County voters who passed the referendum this past November, 2017 will be the year we formally set up the elections which will net the county its first fully-elected Board of Education in late 2018.

Speaking of the local BOE, we still have an appointed board until that election and the two members whose terms expire this year are both Democrats who are term-limited. I suspect the local Democrats will try and send up names of people who will run for seats in 2018 to gain that incumbency advantage – as envisioned, though, these will be non-partisan elections. And the final say goes to the state Secretary of Appointments, who over the years hasn’t always been kind to those we preferred, either. Or, conversely, since the incumbents serve until their successors are appointed, we may see a long stalling technique, too. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, but I’ll bet those who are appointed will use that tenure as a springboard for eventual election.

Elsewhere in Wicomico County as 2016 comes to an end, it appears the city of Salisbury and Wicomico County are working out their issues rather well. The biggest sticking point remains fire service, and it’s relatively likely the city is going to see more of a reimbursement from the county when it comes to that – perhaps to the tune of up to $2 million a year. It’s possible there may be something to cut to make up for this, but as the county has increased its debt in the last few years to build several schools it leaves less room for spending cuts to make up the difference. If the city receives $2 million annually that would equate to about a 3 or 4 cent property tax increase for county residents. There’s also the chance that a tax differential or rebate may be on the table in order to reimburse city residents, as they pay the same tax rate as county residents. Wicomico is one of only three counties in the state that choose not to provide a tax differential to their municipalities.

But there is another factor to consider. Back in June the number of people working in Wicomico County set an all-time high of 52,010, eclipsing a mark that had stood for nearly a decade (July 2006.) That record lasted a month, as July came in at 53,668. While the number of jobs has finally reached where we were a decade ago, bear in mind the labor force is about 1,000 larger – so unemployment is in the 5.5% range rather than 4%. Even so, that extra number of people working – a number which year-over-year between 2015 and 2016 has fluctuated quite a bit but usually comes in at 1,000 or more additional workers in 2016 – means there’s more revenue to the county from income taxes so paying the city of Salisbury may not be such a heavy lift. The question for 2017 will be whether these economic conditions continue and whether Wicomico County will want to spend every “extra” dime on items which are unsustainable in rougher economic times.

That same question goes for the state, but the trend there has been for more spending. Democrats in the General Assembly added millions in mandated spending to the state budget and it’s a sure bet they will try again this year. Add to that the general belief that year 3 of a Maryland political cycle sees the most ambitious agenda put forth – it’s time for those incumbents to bring home the bacon and burnish their re-election chances the next year – and you can bet that paid sick leave will pass, Radical Green will have its day (perhaps with a fracking ban, which would devastate Western Maryland), and any Hogan veto will be promptly overridden. It’s certain that they will leave enough time in passing these controversial bills to do so. We’ve already seen battle lines drawn with the counter-proposal from Governor Hogan on paid sick leave and the social media-fueled drive to repeal the “Road Kill Bill” that Democrats passed over Governor Hogan’s veto in the spring of this year.

The wild card in state politics, though, comes from national politics. It’s not because we had the well-publicized answer to an extremely nosy press – if only they paid as much attention to some of Martin O’Malley’s foibles and scandals! – that Larry Hogan wasn’t going to support his (nominally at best) fellow Republican Donald Trump, but the idea that Donald Trump may actually do something to cut the size and scope of government. (Military contractors, particularly, have reason to worry.) And because Maryland’s economy is so dependent on the federal government, to a shocking and sickening degree, we know that if Trump begins to make cuts it will hurt Maryland the most. Given the typical bureaucrat CYA perspective, it explains perfectly why four of the five jurisdictions Trump did worst in – the only five which came in below his 35% statewide total – were the four counties closest to the District of Columbia (MoCo, PG, Charles, and Howard. Baltimore City was the fifth.) While I am entirely a skeptic on this, there seems to be the belief that Trump will take a meat cleaver to the budget and thousands of federal and contract workers will be cast aside because of it.

And in a situation where revenues are already coming up short of forecast, a recession in the state’s biggest jurisdictions, coupled with the mandated spending Democrats keep pushing through, will make it really, really difficult on Larry Hogan going into 2018. You will be able to judge who has the most ambition to be Governor by who carps the longest about these cuts.

While the Dow Jones stalled this week in an effort to breach the 20,000 mark by year’s end, the rise in the markets echoes consumer optimism – even as fourth quarter GDP forecasts turned a little bearish, consumers still feel a little better about the state of our economy. If we can get the 4% GDP growth Donald Trump promised we may see some of these fiscal crises take care of themselves.

Yet there was also a sentiment in 2016 that the world was going mad: consider all the terror attacks, the seemingly unusual number of and extended shock over high-profile celebrity deaths, and a general turning away from that which was considered moral and proper to that which fell under the realm of political correctness, wasn’t a “trigger” and didn’t violate the “safe spaces” of the Millennial “snowflakes.” (I can’t resist linking to this one I wrote for The Patriot Post.) At some point the pendulum swings back the other way, but in most cases that takes a life-changing event like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. I’d prefer a much softer transition but a transition nonetheless.

As I see it, the key word for 2017 will be leadership: if the current elected officials and new President have it and use it wisely to the benefit of our county, state, and nation “so help me God” things will be okay. If not, well, we’ve seen that movie for about eight or ten years already and we will continue to slouch toward Gomorrah.

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