Let’s get back to work

Yesterday, in my thoughts on an unrelated subject, I alluded to the massive loss of jobs in Maryland. Turns out it was worse than I thought – based on the unrevised Bureau of Labor Statistics totals, 16,286 fewer people in Maryland were working in July than June, adding 10,057 to the ranks of the unemployed.

The state compiles this data for Wicomico County as well, and I thought it would be instructive to note the June totals for the last several years. It’s worth noting that employment here normally tops out in July, with June usually a close second. The numbers are readily available for the period 2009-14, which covers the trough of the recession and the recovery.

So here are the June totals since 2009:

  • 2009 – 49,271 employed, 4,556 unemployed (8.5%)
  • 2010 – 49,548 employed, 4,856 unemployed (8.9%)
  • 2011 – 49,160 employed, 5,030 unemployed (9.3%)
  • 2012 – 49,585 employed, 4,759 unemployed (8.8%)
  • 2013 – 48,991 employed, 4,526 unemployed (8.5%)
  • 2014 – 48,760 employed, 3,964 unemployed (7.5%)

Over the five-year period, the unemployment rate went down 1 percent, but the number employed also went down by 511.

Just as a comparison to use a (generally) worst-case scenario, here are January numbers:

  • 2009 – 47,015 employed, 4,722 unemployed (9.1%)
  • 2010 – 45,526 employed, 5,669 unemployed (11.1%)
  • 2011 – 46,838 employed, 5,393 unemployed (10.3%)
  • 2012 – 46,758 employed, 5,178 unemployed (10.0%)
  • 2013 – 46,806 employed, 5,066 unemployed (9.8%)
  • 2014 – 46,711 employed, 4,338 unemployed (8.5%)

Over that five-year period in the month which is generally the nadir for local employment, we still lost 304 jobs although the rate deceased 0.6 percent.

But it’s estimated that Wicomico County gained 2,163 people between the census in April, 2010 and the 2013 estimate. So how are those people supporting themselves on 300 to 500 fewer jobs?

The title of this piece comes from a tagline and hashtag that District 38B candidate Carl Anderton, Jr. has been using during his campaign. While state numbers have fluctuated due in large part to changes at the federal level, the number of jobs in this area really doesn’t depend on the mood of the federal government. Instead, much of it is influenced by the policies at the state level and, judging by the figures, it’s pretty obvious that what’s being tried isn’t working – particularly if you’re one of those who had a job and lost it.

It’s often forgotten that the government doesn’t necessarily produce anything nor does it create value. Even in cases where infrastructure is being improved (such as the airport runway I described a few days back) the actual work is contracted out to a private company. But that private company has to follow additional rules and regulations to access that federal money, ones which may not apply in a truly private transaction – oftentimes there is a prevailing wage provision, for example. Meanwhile, we also have to pay the bureaucrats who reviewed the grant application, wrote the specifications, and so forth. The airport is receiving $5.53 million, but it may have cost taxpayers $7-8 million with the overhead involved.

Simply put, the Washington bureaucrats served as a conduit and a filter, meaning they received their cut first. Sure, this project will create a handful of construction jobs but imagine what the overhead could have done. It’s pretty much the same when Annapolis or local government is involved, since they get their cues from higher levels.

There are a number of economic drivers which this area relies on: agriculture (particularly poultry, with the feed stock being an integral part of this), tourism, and to a small extent, technology (thanks to spillover from Wallops Island.) Here’s where we really need help from the state:

  • improving transportation by using the gas tax we pay to actually build the needed bypasses and through routes to make access easier for tourists and getting goods to market more efficiently for producers;
  • leaving alone our true environmentalists, the farmers, by allowing them to use their land as they see fit and reforming the transfer of development rights to a generational term rather than perpetual;
  • creating a sales tax-free zone to allow us to compete directly with Delaware for retail sales;
  • finally, putting an end to blaming farmers for environmental problems and looking at common-sense solutions for cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. Work on the problems we know we have and put a moratorium on new regulations until we can determine how well the ones we have in place work.

Larry Hogan addresses some of the problem in his new video:

But the other side of that is reining in the Maryland Department of the Environment and Chesapeake Bay Foundation, neither of which Hogan addresses. That’s okay, though; I’d rather not telegraph those sorts of moves.

I have often seen complaints from the other side (of both the Bay and the political spectrum) that we on the Eastern Shore take more from the state than we give to them. For the sake of the argument, let’s say that’s true.

One has to ask, then, why this is the state of affairs? The people of the Eastern Shore seem like the hard-working, prideful sort who don’t like the thought of handouts. All we want is a chance to shine and do what we do best – left to our own devices, we can prosper and lead the state.

But there are those who like the Eastern Shore just as it is, preferring it remain rural and backward so they can look down on us and refer to us as the state’s “shithouse” as they fly through on the way to their beachfront Ocean City condo. Those are the people who need to be on the outside looking in politically in order for us to succeed.

Wicomico Farm and Home Show 2014 in pictures and text

It’s not a whole lot, but it is ours. Over the weekend another Wicomico Farm and Home Show – the 78th annual – was put in the books. As has been the case the last several years, I was there to help with the Republican table.

Of course, the indispensable part of the program was sitting at the table when I took that shot. Blan Harcum was one of many volunteers who helped out, though, so thanks to Helen, Marc, Jim, Woody, Leonard, Ann, and anyone else who spent some time there.

Some of the candidates stopped by over the weekend as well. Thursday afternoon brought two County Council members and a third who wants to join that body.

Marc Kilmer (left) is running to represent District 2 on County Council, and as he noted it’s the most rural district of the five. Arguably, Joe Holloway (right) represents the second-most rural district in District 5, while Bob Culver (center) is currently an at-large member who is now trying for County Executive. His watermelons were a hit.

I didn’t stay too long Thursday; my main job was to get set up and check on the photos we entered. (More on that in a bit.)

So when I came back Saturday, I wanted to see what else was going on around the WHFS, beginning with the exhibit hall.

It was dominated by one feature, which returned from last year.

The National Aquarium brought back its inflatable whale, along with a table and accompanying signage.

In a similar vein but parked outside was the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center bus.

But the main purpose of the show was to highlight the farms and crafts of Wicomico County. On the farm side, there were all sorts of barnyard animals, such as these.

Just outside there, nervous contestants waited as their animals were judged. I think these guys were done, though.

On the inside of the exhibit hall, there were crafts and hobbies galore. I can see why this quilt won, although the best in show was very nice too.

Fortunately, it wasn’t just these attractions. The kids had their own little tractor pull, although there wasn’t a version for the big kids this year like there was last time.

Not that they didn’t have tractors around.

I’m sure the old ones are priceless to the owners, but I was floored to find out a similar tractor to the one I pictured (a Case/IH model as opposed to a John Deere) can run well north of $35,000.

As they did last year, there was a car show – one with its share of trucks, naturally.

But the most interesting truck to me was this – one of the two military-themed trucks in the show.

The directional sign is supposed to resemble the one from the old TV show M*A*S*H, and it indeed includes Toledo in honor of Corporal Max Klinger. Actor Jamie Farr is a Toledo native.

This was a nice touch as well.

There was plenty of action in the horse pen, with an exhibition of Cowboy Mounted Shooting.

CMS is supposedly a fast-growing sport, with seven to ten new people signing up daily. It combines the agility of barrel racing with the accuracy of shooting – competitors try to shoot each of ten balloons on a preset course, with time penalties for missing a balloon or knocking a post over. Among the participants in this exhibition was the reigning Ohio state champion, who’s from Delaware but recently won the title in a competition in Wooster, Ohio. (By the way, the bullets are modified theatrical blanks.)

It would be interesting to see if they could get a real, sanctioned competition here next year. Unfortunately, the organizers really didn’t have much in the way of activities during the late afternoon hours leading up to the awards.

One of those awards came right back to my household, as my fiance Kim won Best of Show in black-and-white photography. And if you recall that old tractor I pictured above, my photo of the slightly-less restored version from last year won me a second place ribbon in its category. (Yes, I took it at the 2013 WFHS but didn’t use it in the post.) Not bad for a rookie who only entered three photos – although Kim and her daughter Kassie both had more first place ribbons than I had photos.

For next year, I’m sure the Wicomico GOP will have a presence, although it will be more muted after the 2014 election. If the creek don’t rise I’ll have some pictures and hopefully they’ll attract more events. The 2016 rendition will be the 80th annual so it’s time to build momentum.

AC Week in review: August 17, 2014

I put together a few things this week, and what’s apparent to me is that the political world doesn’t really take a break in August.

Take for example the late-session attempt to promote “Buy American.” Does it really have a chance in Congress before the session ends? Probably not, but it keeps Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown in the headlines and the favor of his friends in organized labor.

But labor should be more concerned about some of the points brought up by my AC cohort Ed Braxton in two articles this week, particularly if his assertion that manufacturing is moving beyond labor is correct. But he also contends that American-made is gaining credibility again in the global marketplace.

On the other hand, we seem to have an Environmental Protection Agency which is bound and determined to drive jobs back overseas. Coal miners and their allies came out in force to recent EPA hearings in Pittsburgh, driven by a proposed standard which they contend would all but wipe out their industry. As a buttress to their contention, it was also revealed that a separate EPA effort to reduce ozone standards to as low as 60 parts per billion (from a current level of 75 parts per billion, established in 2008) would cost the American economy dearly. Perhaps the worst thing is that the EPA doesn’t even know itself how compliance can be attained.

Having sat down and written a couple pieces for next week, I can tell you trade will be on my radar screen. As is often the case, politics will play a role there but you’ll have to wait and see how I interpreted it.

Posing as the saviors

Perhaps it’s a case of sour grapes because he wasn’t asked to the photo-op and his opponent was, but Mike McDermott makes the case that the three politicians plastered across a recent edition of the Daily Times are “posers” in more ways than one.

Here’s a little of what McDermott had to say:

What is disturbing is when politicians stand up in front of the public, hold up those giant prop checks, and, in turn, hand them over to a local group or official as if it came out of their personal bank account. This is the great ruse of politicians and it is all done with (other people’s money.)

US Senator Ben Cardin poses with a Cheshire Cat grin holding a “check” signed by “U.S. Treasury” and takes a bow for a runway project that is simply part of ongoing improvements and upgrades at an airport that we pay for! To add more irony to the mix, Cardin and Jim Mathias pose with the check standing with a US Airways Turboprop in the background. After all, it is that private sector company (US Airways) who pays fees and taxes along with every passenger who flies in and out of the SBY terminal that have foot the bill for that runway. Heck, we even pay for the politician’s flights when they use the runway!

Taking credit is what politicians do best. Especially in an election year. Are we to believe that a state senator holds sway over the Federal government? No way! However, as a means of political control and illusion, whenever the Democrat power brokers show up with one of those checks they wrote on our account, they always put their arm around their local democrat politicians and infer that they had something to do with it. We saw the same thing in Crisfield following the devastation of Sandy. Frankly, it is shameless.

It is no different with school construction allocations or highway money; all of these things are projects on a list that are placed on a timeline. When their turn comes up, we will hear how hard the politician worked to aid in the process, but it is all just smoke and mirrors.

Ben Cardin and Jim Mathias had little to do with the decision to improve upon a runway at SBY. They simply acted as government couriers. After all, when someone sends you a beautiful bouquet of flowers, do you fall all over yourself thanking the delivery person from the florist for the thoughtful gift?

After reading the Daily Times report from Phil Davis, one thing jumped out at me:

Federal aviation inspectors have encouraged the airport to apply for the grant to renovate the runway for the past seven years, said Bryant, as the airport has been written up in each of those seven years for “maintenance issues” with the runway.

So they have known this is a problem with the “alternate” runway – the one which runs more north to south – since 2007, which rather neatly coincides with the tenure of office of both Cardin and Mathias. One would think if these officeholders had so much pull that this would have been addressed several years ago, rather than the airport be written up for seven straight years. Maybe now the airport won’t lose money as it has this year, with just under $1.13 million in revenues reported for the first eleven months of FY2014 vs. just over $917,000 in revenue. It still needs a lot of work.

In all honesty, it doesn’t matter about the particular project – what does matter is that Jim Mathias and Laura Mitchell received some media attention for something they had little to do with, but looks good for campaign literature.

And that’s the problem with a lot of our politicians. They participate in the photo-op, ribbon-cutting, or groundbreaking which implies that they actually had something to do with the new enterprise, but in reality it’s often the capitalist who’s either risking their own wealth or having it taken from them to pay for the project. That’s not to say this airport runway improvement won’t do the area good, but McDermott’s point that it’s really the private sector who is paying the freight (with only a select few getting the benefit) is a valid one. Moreover, one has to ask how many other public facilities elsewhere benefited from our money because their representatives had more pull.

It’s a question of priorities, and for those in the photo-op it appears their priority is maintaining their elected position. We can do better.

The war over e-books

August 13, 2014 · Posted in Business and industry, Personal stuff · 1 Comment 

This particular piece has a little more meaning to me than to most of you. The other day I received an “Important Kindle Request,” which is reprinted at this website. It basically compares the current situation in the e-book market to that of the era paperback books were introduced.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive. (Emphasis in original.)

The gist of the story is that Amazon and Hachette, a distributor of e-books, are in a pricing dispute – Amazon thinks they should be cheaper while Hachette releases them for $15-20. That’s for an e-book, folks. We’re not talking the hardcover $30-40 tomes, we’re talking about something which loads to your Kindle or other reading device and takes up negligible space on its hard drive. In essence, to buy the book is to transfer a copy of the file from source to customer – no need for book sellers or trying to predict the market and risking either selling out too quickly or having thousands of unsold books to unload at a reduced price. Instead, supply adequately meets demand.

And volume is king – would I rather sell 1,000 copies of a $14.95 e-book or 100,000 at $4.99? Truthfully, it does no harm for my e-book to sit on their servers, and the hard copies are created as needed.

There was some interesting synchronicity between the arrival of this e-mail and a request to buy an autographed copy of my book. (Yes, I keep a few on hand.) It got me to thinking about book number 2, which has been on the back burner for quite awhile, and what to do about my first e-book.

So what I decided to do about the latter is try and boost its market share by cutting the price in half. Unfortunately, to do so I had to cut my commission half again, for Amazon wouldn’t let me sell below a certain price with full commission – so I have to sell fourfold the number of e-books to make the same amount. But it’s a risk I’ll take to see what the market will do, plus it’s been two years since its release. (That’s hard to believe.)

As for book number two, I make no promises. The idea is there, but I haven’t figured out a particular direction to take it quite yet. It may wait until after the election.

The e-book industry is probably going to see its prices decline, because marketers will likely see this Amazon’s way. Given the amount of material out there, thanks in part to a far more lucrative compensation setup than most authors going the regular route can dream of, there may not be a choice.

The drive to be Delaware

As you can see, the state of Maryland is once again exhibiting its generosity by not charging sales tax this week on clothing and certain other goods. (I took the picture at my local Walmart, actually to send to Kim as a reminder.)

I’ve often advocated for the reduction or elimination of the sales tax – at least for those counties on the Eastern Shore – as a way to compete with nearby Delaware, which charges no sales tax. However, unlike my recent idea of ridding ourselves of the corporate income tax, which raises about $1 billion annually, I realize it would be a lot more difficult for the state to rescind the sales tax entirely. The state expects over $4.4 billion a year from the sales tax – about 11% of revenue – so getting rid of that would be a lot less likely. The sales tax is the third-largest revenue stream for Maryland, behind the individual income tax and the 27% of our revenue we receive from Uncle Sam.

But would it be a bad thing to make the Eastern Shore a tax-free zone? Obviously I can hear from here the wailing and gnashing of teeth from those of you on the other side of the bridge, but when you think about it the chances are pretty good those from the Western Shore have to pay a toll to get over here anyway. So why not give yourselves that break?

In rough terms, the Eastern Shore is 1/10 of the state’s population, so in theory it would cost the state $440 million a year to exempt the Eastern Shore from the sales tax. I’ll assume we do a little better than that given the tourism attraction of Ocean City and several close outlet malls, so call it $500 million. Certainly the state can figure out a way to excise 1% or so from its budget, with the additional income and jobs created for people on this side of the Bay making a significant dent into that perceived loss to the state. That’s borne out in part by what Comptroller Peter Franchot told the Daily Times – lost revenue from exempt items is partially made up by extra non-exempt items purchased. By that same token, the sales tax loss would come back in the form of extra gasoline tax collected, more income tax from increased employment, and other revenue from enhanced economic activity.

We’ve tried to exempt ourselves from the sales tax increases before, but all those General Assembly members from the other side of the Bay want us to pay our fair share – never mind we are already taxed, regulated, and dictated to death over here. We carved out certain parts of the state to pay a “rain tax” so why not go the other way and allow some counties the economic relief?

When Larry Hogan is trying to figure out some of the taxes he can cut to assist hard-working Marylanders, why can’t he do those of us who have to compete with Delaware a favor and make this part of the state a sales tax-free zone? You just might bring some business back from Delaware as a bonus.

AC Week in review – August 10, 2014

Thanks to a slow week a few days back I skipped an installment of my AC week in review – but I’ve come back with some new stuff.

On Friday I posted a piece about Andy Harris’s Salisbury town hall meeting. It was intended to be a followup of sorts to this piece I posted at the AC site regarding questions which should be asked at these gatherings – and as you hopefully read Friday, my question in that vein was indeed answered by the Congressman.

Oddly enough, the answer to my question at that town hall touched on a concern expressed by my AC blogmate Ed Braxton, who wrote about America’s high tax rates in a piece he did a week ago. But in a seeming contradiction, Ed penned a piece dealing with the decline in the necessity for manufacturing labor because workers today are much more productive than our forefathers were, while I noted that manufacturing employment was on the upswing last month.

One thing I didn’t ask Andy Harris about was his inclination to support the Ex-Im Bank, a saga which has played out over the last few months as some manufacturers would like to keep it going while conservatives consider it a piece of corporate cronyism. There aren’t too many session days left before the September 30 deadline, a fact I mentioned in this piece from last week.

There is one more item I wrote last week, and I’m hoping it gets on the site early next week because it looked at the recent EPA power plant emissions hearings in Pittsburgh. Regardless, it’s a topic which deserves comment and the opportunity is still there.

As I recall, there are a couple other stories I’ve been following which reach milestones as well. We may learn the fate of the OCTG complaint against South Korea this week, and there’s movement elsewhere on the trade front, too. I might see about writing a piece on something I learned Thursday night as well.

So hopefully my next installment will be chock full of good information. Generally I spend time on the weekends writing for AC so it’s ready early in the week. Looks like I may be busy.

Border security, VA among chief concerns at Harris Salisbury townhall

It was a fairly packed house at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 194 in Salisbury as Congressman Andy Harris held the second of four proposed town hall meetings in the district. After speaking in Easton on Wednesday, many of those same topics came up last night.

But the first order of business was recognition. After pointing out that unemployment among veterans was higher than the average – “I can’t figure that out,” Harris said – Andy presented a Congressional Citation to Chris Eccleston, who operates Delmarva Veteran Builders, a local construction firm which specializes in giving veterans job opportunities upon return to civilian life.

Once that presentation was out of the way, Harris introduced his “three things of great concern.”

As opposed to past negativity about the situation, Andy considered the declining deficit as a piece of good news, noting that federal spending had been fairly level for the last three years. The annual deficit is down $550 billion from its peak, although the aim of the House is to eventually bring the budget back to balance. Andy, however, conceded that the “House’s goal is to balance the budget in ten years.” So while it was still important, Andy wasn’t as concerned about this as he was the following three.

He also said there was “good news on the energy side,” pointing out we now produce more oil than we import and should be the leading world producer of both oil and natural gas by year’s end. The oil production was helped by technology which allowed what he called secondary and tertiary production from existing wells, as opposed to the primary production from new drilling.

On the other hand, Harris believed that, “in terms of immigration, the system is broken.”

“The border is just not being enforced,” he added, noting that Texas Governor Rick Perry has called out his state’s National Guard to assist with border security. In legislation recently passed by the House, added Harris, funding was included for governors who, like Perry, decide to call up their National Guard to address the situation.

“We can’t afford to have a border that’s not secure,” explained Harris.

The news was equally troubling on the foreign policy front. “The world is more dangerous now than it was six years ago (before Obama took office),” said Harris. It wasn’t just the Middle East, either – Andy touched upon the Chinese carriers now patrolling the South China Sea, well outside their territorial waters.

And while we were reaping the effects of our decrease in defense spending, Andy continued, we were also suffering from a lack of trust. Our allies could now doubt our sincerity based on recent actions.

After expressing his main concerns, Andy took questions from the audience. As my editorial license, I’m going to cluster them into areas of concern – on top of the list was our most recent crisis.

Immigration. Many of the questions dealt with various aspects and concerns from those attending about the situation on our southern border and the resettlement of “unaccompanied children.”

Much of the problem could be traced to the passage of a 2008 bill intended to counter human trafficking. Andy noted that the law as written provided the assumption that children from certain Central American countries were being brought for the sex trade, which was a problem at the time. It was estimated that perhaps 2,000 children a year would be affected, with the idea being that these children would get a hearing to ascertain their status.

Unfortunately, the crush of those claiming status under this law and the DACA order signed by Barack Obama in 2012 means that the waiting period for these hearings is anywhere from 18-60 months – and only 46% of those called show up, Andy said. One third of them are “granted status,” he added.

“We should close the loophole,” said Harris. “I don’t see how you get out of the problem without changing the law.” We also needed more judges on a temporary basis to expedite the hearing schedule.

A solution the House could offer to rescind Obama’s order would be that of defunding the executive action, for which there was a bill. And while some were pessimistic about such action given the Senate, Harris stated that the Senate could agree to “a compromise deal over a much larger package.” My concern would be what we would have to trade away.

Andy also pointed out that the resettlement of these children was more or less being done without telling local officials, noting when the Westminster facility was being considered the word came down late on a Thursday afternoon in a week the House wasn’t in session on Friday. It eventually led to the question about those being placed in Maryland.

When asked how many were in the First District, Harris conceded he had “no idea…nobody’s telling us.”  But he continued by saying, “your school system will be affected,” adding that many of these children can’t read or write in Spanish, let alone English.

And the fact that these children aren’t necessarily being screened, vaccinated, or quarantined if necessary was also troubling to Harris. “The CDC is cognizant of it,” said Harris, who had spoken himself with the CDC head. Of course, the children are but a small portion of those crossing – perhaps 10 percent, said Harris.

“The real solution is you have to secure the American border,” concluded Harris. Rapid hearing and swift repatriation would send the message to parents in the host countries that it’s not worth the expense and risk to send children northward to America.

The VA situation. Given that the town hall meeting was being held in a VFW hall, there were concerns aplenty about the state of the Veterans Administration and its health care.

As part of a VA reform bill which recently passed and the VA has 90 days to implement, veterans who live over 40 miles from a VA facility are supposed to have the option of a private physician to address their needs. But Harris pointed out there was some interpretation involved based on whether the VA would extend that standard to an appropriate facility for the type of care needed – for example, something only handled in Baltimore. Harris hoped the interpretation would allow veterans on the Lower Shore to use closer local facilities, for which our local regional medical center could be a substitute provider, rather than make them travel to Baltimore because there was a VA clinic inside the 40-mile range but it couldn’t address the need. “They regulate, and we have to watch them,” said Andy.

The ultimate goal was “to make the VA system compete,” said Harris.

Entitlements. On a related note, one questioner asked about protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Andy believed that “you can’t change the law retroactively,” meaning that the status quo should prevail for those 55 and older. On the other hand, those in the younger generation “don’t expect all of it,” so the time was now to begin the discussion on preserving what benefits we can. The question was no longer if we got to zero in Social Security and Medicare, but when – Social Security tax receipts peaked two years ago and were now slowly declining . “We know the figures,” added Andy.

The system is “not sustainable…shame on us” in Congress for not addressing it.

Foreign policy. There were a couple questions which dealt with this topic, one on Ukraine and one on defunding Hamas.

Regarding Ukraine, one piece of “bad news” which could affect us locally was Russia’s decision to halt chicken imports from America. Their preference for dark meat nicely complemented our love of white meat, so while it wasn’t a large market it was an important one.

But in the geopolitical sense, Harris was relatively blunt. “We let it all go too far (and) should have put a stop to this in Crimea.” Andy pointed out that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the Budapest Memorandum, which we were a party to along with Great Britain, Russia, and Ukraine. As expected, Russia violated its end of the deal, but Harris noted “I don’t know where it ends.”

As for defunding Hamas, the House did so in its FY2015 budget. In it is a provision that states if Hamas is included in a Palestinian Authority government, we would withhold funding from them.

Andy added that he was “disappointed” in the administration’s lack of Israel support, and blasted Hamas for “purposefully aiming (their rockets) into civilian areas – that’s terrorism.” He added, “The war was started by Hamas…Israel has to end it.”

Impeachment/lawsuit vs. Obama. It actually started as a comment from the audience while Harris was explaining his answer to the immigration issue and Westminster situation.

“I think Obama is an enemy of the country,” it was said. And when Andy pointed out he was duly elected as President, stating, “nobody is claiming (Obama) wasn’t elected fair and square,” the audible murmur in the audience indicated otherwise.

But Andy believed suing Obama over his lack of adherence to the Constitution was the best choice. “Let the Supreme Court decide,” he said, as the proper procedure for changing law was supposed to lead through Congress. He would not vote for impeachment, but would rather the lawsuit run its course. I don’t think that was the popular sentiment of those assembled.

Term limits. This was actually the first question out of the chute, and Andy was clear about the questioner’s desire to see them enacted: “I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Harris. He bemoaned the lack of co-sponsors to a Joint Resolution he introduced last year holding both Senators and members of Congress to 12-year limits. “Part of the problem is that people view it as a lifetime job,” said Andy. Most agree term limits are necessary, so Andy held out hope that the 2014 campaign will bring out a new “Contract With America” promising a vote on the issue.

Common Core: It was actually asked as an awareness question regarding the new AP history framework, to which Harris could only promise to “look into this.” But there was language being considered for the appropriations bills which stated the federal government couldn’t provide incentives to adopt Common Core, as they did for Race to the Top federal funding.

Transportation/energy. Answering a question about bringing light rail to this area, Harris opined it was “some of the least efficient ways to transport people.”  He preferred a surface transportation system, such as busses, because they’re more flexible – if the development doesn’t follow the rail system, there’s no chance of adjusting it to suit.

On the related subject of energy, Harris believed it was easier to produce fossil fuels while researching the next generation of energy harnessing, such as fusion or hydrogen cells. At this point, “fossil fuels are the coin of the realm,” Harris said.

Maximizing our resources also provides us an opportunity to counter Russia’s “ability to use energy for bad ends.” He also warned that Canada would either send its crude to us through the Keystone XL pipeline or ship it to China.

Manufacturing. Finally, we’ll get to the question I asked about making things in Maryland and America.

Andy began his answer by referring to the practice of tax inversion, which has made news lately. He blamed our “horrendous” corporate tax rates for being an incentive for companies to stray offshore, or even just across the border to Canada (which has a 15% corporate tax rate compared to our 35%.) “We live in a global environment,” said Andy, so the obvious solution was to cut our corporate tax rates.

Rather, Washington was thinking about trying to make the practice more difficult. Harris feared it would encourage more inversions.

Other steps to getting things made in America were to continue promoting cheap energy – as methane is the basis for many plastic products, having an abundant supply would be crucial in that area of production. We could also work on scrapping some of the over-regulation plaguing our job creators.

After the hourlong forum, Andy stayed around for more questions and answers. I thought the give-and-take was excellent, and it’s a shame more local media wasn’t there.

Fighting ‘behavior modification’

Fortunately, we are about five months (and one election) away from the “90 days of terror” which comprises a regular session of the Maryland General Assembly. We have no idea yet just who will be representing us in Annapolis, but there is one agenda item a familiar group is out to stop in its tracks.

As Bob Willick of Maryland Liberty PAC puts it:

Maryland Liberty PAC is ramping up efforts to drive a stake in the heart of the proposed VMT tax before it gains any more traction.

Their aim is to pass a bill prohibiting the practice, similar to one which was introduced last year but went nowhere. In that effort, they have compiled a half-page flyer and video describing their reasons for concern.

Aside from blaming a few current and former legislators for their votes on the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2009 – indeed, a poor vote but just one – the video does a nice job of illustrating what the bureaucrats of the state have wrought and why it should be stopped.

But let’s leave aside the peak-hour tolls and tracking just for a moment and look at the impact a simple VMT might have.

Let’s say you work here in Salisbury but choose to live in a rural part of Wicomico County, such as around Tyaskin or Powellville. Every day you may drive 20 to 30 miles round trip to work, plus there are those 15 to 20 mile round trips for grocery shopping, taking the kids for extracurricular activities, and the like. It would be easy to put 20,000 to 25,000 miles annually on your car and if a VMT is set for every mile above some artificial limit such as 10,000 miles it could run into several hundred dollars a year, almost regardless of what kind of car you own. (Chances are certain models would be exempted from a VMT, regardless of how useful they are to one’s needs.)

The VMT became seriously discussed when the effects of the fuel economy standards adopted by the federal government in the wake of the 1970s oil embargoes became painfully obvious. As cars became more efficient, they used less gasoline so a per-gallon tax became less and less lucrative. If you drive 20,000 miles a year in a car that gets 40 miles to the gallon, you’re only using 500 gallons of gas a year as opposed to a 20 MPG car that takes in 1,000 gallons. At a federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, that’s a “cost” to Uncle Sam of $92 a year for being a “good citizen” and purchasing a more efficient car. As they often say, “no good deed goes unpunished,” so with the advent of GPS tracking systems it became more possible to accurately gauge a car’s true mileage and perhaps make up all of that $92 or even more.

As I see it, though, the VMT tax is just a small part of a larger drive to decouple people from their cars. Maryland is doing little to enhance the traffic situation in parts of the state insofar as highway work is concerned. Sure, they may replace the occasional bridge or repave a perfectly good highway, but the bulk of their transportation money and effort is going to be concentrated on two boondoggles called the Red Line and Purple Line. Before that, it was the ICC toll road, which should serve as a signal for what’s to come: variable tolls based on time of day, collected by electronic means with an EZPass or – for a “service fee” – a bill sent to the car’s registered owner. I predict this same “makeover” will be on the Bay Bridge within the next decade, with sky-high tolls at rush hour and on weekends.

Obviously this process of enhancing specific, politically correct traffic is well underway – witness the HOT lanes in urban areas or proposed “transitways” for busses only. Maybe that’s great for urban dwellers, but that doesn’t help people trying to get into Ocean City or through Cambridge or Easton at the height of tourist season. Forget the logic of building another Bay Bridge connecting southern Maryland and Dorchester County to save motorists coming from the Washington area time and hassle.

There’s no question we need to invest money in our transportation infrastructure. The problem with Maryland is that it seeks to create demand where none exists and ignores logical extensions of the existing overburdened system in the name of addressing a “global warming” problem we couldn’t change if we tried.

The idea of the VMT should be the first thing scrapped, but let’s not stop there. It’s time to give up on the folly of reducing our greenhouse gas output because that equates to reducing our standard of living as well as our liberty.

By the way, since I’m on the subject of boondoggles like the Red Line, Purple Line, and VMT, I’ve been meaning to work this editorial on ethanol by my Patriot Post cohort Mark Alexander in for a few days. Here’s a good chance to read it.

Addressing the challenge

Many years ago, when I was a mere political babe in the woods, I volunteered to help out a candidate by the name of Maggie Thurber. At the time, she was running for a full term as Clerk of Courts in my former home of Lucas County, Ohio, having won the office in a huge upset two years earlier. She went on to win that election and one more, plus serve a term as a County Commissioner before leaving politics.

She parlayed that political success into a stint as a radio host and also has blogged for several years at a site called Thurber’s Thoughts, although now that seems to be used as additional material for her work on Ohio Watchdog (a subsite of Watchdog Wire.) And that’s where I pick up the story.

I happened to come across a piece she wrote regarding the “Live the Wage” challenge, something set up by this website. This movement is backed by the same people who connived Maryland into raising its minimum wage earlier this year.

The premise of this challenge was to buy groceries and gas on $77 a week, which was the amount deemed to be left over once taxes and housing expenses are paid. Thurber writes that:

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave up. He started on a Sunday, but ran out of money by Thursday, he explained in a column for Politico. He said he skipped meals to save money and ate smaller, less healthy meals.

“Because fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find at a price within a minimum wage budget, I turned to bread, peanut butter, bananas and bologna more than anything else,” he wrote. “That was what I could find when I took this budget to the grocery story (sic) last Sunday. And that’s why I ate lunch from the McDonald’s dollar menu.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, spent his money foolishly, paying $7 for sardines and crackers, $5 for a Burger King Whopper, $2 for a cup of coffee and his “last couple of dollars to buy trail mix,” he explained on his Facebook page.

It’s obvious to me Strickland and Ryan didn’t take this seriously; otherwise they would have done as well as Thurber and her husband did. She bought a week’s worth of gasoline for $44 (using points from her local Kroger grocery store) and spent $82.83 on a basic menu of groceries for the week, with a couple splurge items. As for the leftover money?

We approached the challenge as if we had both lost our jobs and taken minimum wage jobs to get by. Under this scenario, we’d have some items on hand, like paper towels, detergent, aspirin, condiments and corn to make popcorn for snacks.

But with $27.17 remaining in our budget, or going without our two splurge items, we’d be able to purchase those supplies as we needed.

Of course, the banshees came out of the woodwork in the comments section and shrieked that she should live like this for a year or so before talking. Well, these (very well-paid) politicians didn’t even try hard to make it through a week – what does that say about their compassion, let alone their eating and cooking habits?

As I noted above, Thurber expanded on this Ohio Watchdog piece on her own site, which gave politicians a new challenge:

Don’t you think it’s funny that no one ever tries to live like a small business owner for week? To feel what it’s like to try to make a payroll, deal with government forms and mandates, handle local government rules and regulations, deal with happy and angry customers, supervise a work staff, promote your business, do the accounting and somehow find time for family and friends and an actual life outside of work?

One day in the life of small business owner is much more difficult and stressful than trying to live on $77 a week.

That’s the reality of this ridiculousness – and that’s why the whole “live the wage” publicity sham is such a travesty.

I talk about business climate a lot on this site because, as a state, Maryland is far too dependent on one industry – the federal government. In that, it mirrors the city of my birth which is overly reliant on the auto industry. But in catering to the auto industry you at least do things which benefit other businesses around the state, and overall Ohio is a diverse state with several distinct metro areas as well as a significant rural component.

In contrast, Maryland seems to work only toward enriching government and those businesses connected to government by hook or crook. So raising the minimum wage was no big deal to most of Maryland – it’s a world of almost automatic annual raises and the job security one receives when you work for a government which rarely, if ever, cuts itself. People can shoulder that burden more easily along the I-95 corridor.

But when you come out to the forgotten parts of Maryland, a minimum wage raise means jobs lost – there’s no other way around it. There were efforts to waive or slow down the increase for counties here on the Eastern Shore, but they were rebuffed in the General Assembly.

And if you think buying groceries on minimum wage is difficult, just try it being unemployed. That’s going to be the result of these shortsighted policies once the political stunts and game playing are forgotten.

Climbing rather than digging

I saw Delegate and Senate candidate Mike McDermott at a tri-county Republican Central Committee meeting the other evening, and he updated us on his campaign – in a nutshell, he said turnout would be key. Pretty basic stuff.

Unfortunately, that basic stuff seems to elude Maryland Democrats when it comes to the economy, as McDermott explained in a separate statement I received Wednesday:

As Americans, we understand that people can make mistakes. As we grow up, we learn from our mistakes so that we do not stumble a second time. Wise people do not often make the same mistake twice.

There is an old proverb which states, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Governor O’Malley and Senator Mathias are not exceptions to this rule.

Eight years ago when these two men took office together, Maryland enjoyed a billion dollar surplus at the end of Republican Bob Ehrlich’s first term as governor. Our state played host to 11 Fortune 500 companies. We were #25 on the list of “Business Friendly States,” poultry operations were expanding, and the future of agriculture in Maryland looked bright. Our people were happy to live here and most had no thoughts of moving away.

Eight years with O’Malley and Mathias have shown the devastating effects of their big government economic policies and made it clear that they do not learn from their past or their mistakes. Their shared philosophy promoting government as the answer to any problem has turned our surplus into deficits. While every state experienced the recession, Maryland has struggled to regain its footing, and some of our counties are simply not recovering. It is a failure of policy, not our people.

Of those 11 Fortune 500 companies…only 1 remains in Maryland and that is McCormick Inc. Based on recent news accounts, even the folks who gave us “Old Bay” seasoning are soon to relocate to Pennsylvania. These companies have not gone out of business, they just cannot afford to operate in a state run by folks who do not know how to be “business friendly.”

Being known as a “Business Friendly” state should be our goal. O’Malley, and his apologists like Mathias, have moved us from #25 all the way down to #42. We are surrounded by businesses that have closed shop, companies that simply do not exist anymore, and large retailers that have boarded up and moved away. Business has a thin bottom line that liberal lawmakers have never understood. Every increase to the cost of doing business must be passed on to consumers who have less money to spend. Liberals apparently skipped their Economics 101 class to attend Advanced Hole Digging 301.

It’s obvious that Maryland’s not doing it right. Just look at the survey of small business people I cited yesterday and compare us to Texas or even Virginia. We could do far worse than to replicate the business climate of Virginia or Texas – although every aspect may not be a perfect fit, the overall change would likely steer us in the right direction. Just look at North Carolina as another example – while they ranked 44th in State Business Tax Climate (Maryland was 41st in the same survey) the Tax Foundation study authors noted:

While not reflected in this year’s edition, a great testament to the Index’s value is its use as a success metric for comprehensive reforms passed this year in North Carolina. While the state remains ranked 44th for this edition, it will move to as high as 17th as these reforms take effect in coming years.

A leap like that would take North Carolina from a ranking which lags behind all its adjacent states and vault them into second behind Tennessee.

And while McDermott doesn’t get into policy specifics, let me whisper something into his ear: a complete elimination of corporate taxes would only “cost” the state $1.011 billion, or less than 3% of its budget. The year-over-year increase was larger than that! If Larry Hogan has that $1.75 billion of waste in his pocket, someone should get that corporate tax elimination proposal on his desk before February is out. It would be nice to have the first session after an election be devoted to major tax cuts rather than big hikes like 2007 and (to a lesser extent) 2011 were. (See update below.)

It truly is Economics 101: if you take a smaller slice from business, their profitability grows and they can be larger players in supporting the regional economy by investing in new workers and equipment. Those new workers and equipment provide more value, which builds the tax base and allows government to cut rates just a little bit more.

At one time, Maryland was booming – a condition I can attest to because that’s why I came here in the first place. Let’s see what we can do to get back to those conditions.

Update: In a subsequent release, McDermott gave me half a loaf, advocating for a 50% reduction in corporate taxes. Not bad. On the economic front he also calls for cutting income taxes, streamlining bureaucracy and relieving the regulatory burden to give Maryland ”an attitude as a state that our job is to ‘permit’ not ‘deny’,” and allow the first $50,000 of retirement income to be tax free.

More evidence of business unfriendliness

For three years, the folks at Thumbtack.com, a service for entrepreneurs looking to trumpet their wares, has partnered with the Kauffman Foundation to produce a Small Business Friendliness Survey for much of the country. I’ve referred to this survey before on several occasions.

Out of 38 states which had enough data to analyze, Maryland falls in a range between 25th and 27th with a “C-” rating, placing it in a group with Michigan and Wisconsin. While it rated top grades (an A+) for training and networking programs, it had only one other good grade – a B+ in ease of hiring – and several D+ grades in regulations, tax code, licensing, environmental, and zoning.

There are a couple caveats to bear in mind for Maryland’s grade. There aren’t a whole lot of businesses surveyed, and the written responses came from a small area of the state representing Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard, Frederick, and Baltimore counties as well as Baltimore City. Those are the areas which generally represent the Democratic strongholds of the state, which leads me to wonder whether the grades are inflated because the responses tend to skew toward a liberal population or whether their frustration level is such because they are conservatives in a liberal state. Regardless, you have a number of survey answers like this one from Severn:

Maryland is all about taxing entrepreneurs and driving them to other states.

To be fair, there were a lot of positive responses, too, like this one from Hyattsville:

I have no complaints. The state of Maryland does a very good job in providing incentives for small business owners like myself to continue to conduct business.

If you hold your cursor over a dot on the page, you can read the good and bad reviews – by my count there are 32.

But to me this is a good primer for politicians to read – real responses from real business people who are hustling daily. And you can easily compare notes with a state like Texas, where responses were plentiful (at least from the urban Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio areas) and the grades were outstanding across the board – Texas was the lone state to not have any B grades whatsoever, just straight A’s. (Virginia was also in a fairly elite category as well, along with Idaho and Utah.) That’s a very useful facet of this survey in my eyes.

Having three years of data to work with can be telling as well. Out of ten sub-categories the survey measured, Maryland slipped in eight of them between 2013 and 2014. (Only the “training and networking” improved, while “employment, labor, and hiring” stayed put. These were the two best categories for Maryland.)

It is a legitimate question to ask, though, whether the frequent talk over the last couple years about how bad Maryland businesses have it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy insofar as these survey responses are concerned. While there’s obviously been changes in law and regulation, they didn’t seem as bad as some of the grade drops may seem to indicate. But then these are the people in the trenches.

With the timing of the survey, I suspect it will be taken next year in the opening weeks of either the Hogan or Brown administration, and the responses may hold a key to what we can expect over the next few years as far as businesses see Maryland.

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    First District - Congress

    Andy Harris (R)
    Bill Tilghman (D)

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    Maryland General Assembly (local)

    Senate District 37

    Addie Eckardt (R)
    Christopher Robinson (D)

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    House District 37B

    Republican

    Christopher Adams (R)
    Johnny Mautz (R)
    Rodney Benjamin (D)
    Keasha Haythe (D)

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    Senate District 38

    Mike McDermott (R)

    Jim Mathias (D)

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    House District 38A

    Charles Otto (R)
    Percy Purnell, Jr. (D)

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    House District 38B

    Carl Anderton, Jr. (R)

    Norm Conway (D)

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    House District 38C

    Mary Beth Carozza. (R)

    Judy Davis (D)

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    Wicomico County

    County Executive

    Bob Culver (R)
    Rick Pollitt (D)

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    County Council at-large

    John Cannon (R)
    Matt Holloway (R)
    Laura Mitchell (D)

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    Council District 2

    Marc Kilmer (R)
    Kirby Travers (D)

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    Council District 3

    Larry Dodd (R)
    Josh Hastings (D)