A ‘loophole’ is only bad if the government thinks it’s being stiffed

For what is being described as “financial stakes (that) are small, (yielding) just $3 million to $4 million annually.” the Washington Post sure has its collective panties in a wad over the prospect Larry Hogan may veto the “travel tax.”

When I did my last look at the idea, I didn’t really know how much the difference was to the state. Now that I know it’s only a rounding error in a $40 billion budget. the prospect of Democrats (and, sadly, a handful of Republicans) trying to fill in this supposed budget hole looks to me like a “gotcha” moment set up by General Assembly Democrats who will turn around and bash Hogan for enacting the “travel tax” in four years – after all, if they can perpetrate the fiction that school funding was cut this year (never mind the increase of over $100 million) they can make up anything to tell unsuspecting voters that the sky is falling.

But it’s really funny to me that the Post considers this a “travel agent loophole” and “undeserved windfall” when it’s actually a legal transaction. Even the Post admits it:

Rather than collect sales taxes from the agencies based on the actual prices they charge customers for hotel rooms, most states have accepted a reduced payment based on bargain room prices the agencies manage to negotiate with hotels.

That’s as it should be, so it sounds to me like General Assembly Democrats have some sour grapes. The transaction in question is at a reduced rate – why should the state collect the sales tax on the full rack rate if the place of lodging offers the rooms first to a reseller at a lower price? There is no gun being placed at the proverbial head of the hotel or motel to sell the rooms to an online travel agency; they can go it alone and try to market themselves without a middleman. (Hence, loyalty programs and other perks provided by hotels who prefer to keep bookings in-house.)

But it’s obvious that many hotel chains prefer the assurance of knowing they would get something – a “something” that is about 60 to 70 percent of full rate – for a room which will be paid for many times over before the paint dries on the renovation or new construction based on future reservations already on the books. Chances are your room rate is really paying for the employees who check you in and take care of the rooms moreso than the bricks, mortar, and furnishings in the facility, and that factor can be adjusted easily by management. (To use a local and somewhat extreme example, just drive through Ocean City in January and note how many hotels and motels shut down completely for the winter. No one is there to pay for the bricks and mortar, so no employees save a caretaker and maintenance are needed.) So even getting a reduced rate from a travel agency which reserves the rooms just in case isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a cause for complaint by a state which hasn’t completely given up the attitude that “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine, too.”

Conversely, to use another traveler analogy, you won’t hear the Post (or any of their liberal allies) tut-tutting if gasoline prices go up and the state collects more sales tax as a result – no one there would consider that an “undeserved windfall” for the state. I’ll explain.

Should the per-gallon tab for gasoline go up another 50 cents (as it has over the course of the last few months, from about $2 locally to north of $2.50) the state will make up the $4 million “lost” by vetoing the “travel tax” in no time. A 50-cent per gallon increase, as we have already had, nets yet an extra half-penny to the state per gallon come July as an additional 1% gasoline sales tax increase takes effect then. Just based on that 50-cent gas price increase alone coupled with the 1% increase (to 3%) – hence, the half-penny – and assuming the state consumes 7 million gallons per day (probably still in the ballpark despite these old statistics), they will make an “extra” $4 million from what they could have anticipated receiving when 2015 dawned in less than two weeks.

Yet the Post will not throw a pity party for motorists – I guarantee it. Ignore their whining and leave the hotel room rate system be.

The next big thing in Salisbury

Rumor has it that he’s going out the door by not standing for re-election as mayor, but if this is so Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton is declaring war on private property as his swan song.

On Monday, according to a press release from his office, Ireton will set the wheels in motion to eliminate the non-conforming “4 to 3″ or “4 to 4″ properties in the city, with the stated goal that all housing units in the city will either have no more than two non-related occupants or be single-family housing. Approximately 400 households in the city would be affected.

Ireton is also looking to hire a Community Development Specialist, with the stated goal for this new position being “someone who can identify funding sources, and coordinate with the various agencies involved to shepherd properties through the tax sale process.” That last part is interesting because it brings me to my main point: it looks to me like the city wants to become a much larger landowner. To wit:

According to Salisbury’s Vacant Building Registry, there are 187 vacant and/or abandoned houses within City limits. The effect of these properties on their surrounding communities is demonstrably negative, causing losses in neighborhood property values, increases in crime and vagrancy, and public health concerns. The proposed budget amendment would set aside $45,000 for a fund which the City would use expressly to purchase vacant and abandoned homes at tax sale. Starting in FY2016, an additional $500,000 in bonded debt would be earmarked for acquisition, rehabilitation, repurposing, demolition, and legal fees. Homes bought by the City would be determined to be either eligible for donation to Habitat for Humanity or Salisbury Neighborhood Housing Service, or unfit for rehabilitation and demolished.

Imagine if you will an entrepreneur suddenly deciding to go out a purchase a whole bunch of houses at a tax sale, and the hoops this owner would have to jump through to secure all the permits, inspections, and other hassles a prospective investor would endure because the wheels of city government move so slowly. It’s a climate that discourages investment, so oftentimes properties sit vacant or abandoned. Factor in the difficult economic times of the last several years and there’s no question that too many people believe investing in Salisbury would be a losing cause.

So instead of addressing the situation of why investment is such a risk, the city will go into the business of home ownership. Not only that, they plan on running up plenty of debt to get themselves into a position to decide whether to renovate or tear down these dwellings.

It seems to me the better use of tax dollars would be to take care of what they do own. For example, I live across from a city park that is essentially an empty, semi-wooded lot with one lonely basketball hoop in the middle of it. For a few thousand dollars they could perhaps install a walking path, nice flower beds, and perhaps a couple trash receptacles. It’s not a large space, but it is a focal point of this little neighborhood.

If you believe the rumors that Jim is going to try and trade places with Jake Day, this isn’t the way to do it. Six years ago, we were promised that “help is on the way” but this isn’t going to be much help in making Salisbury an attractive place in which to invest. Why take a chance on buying a house when your next door neighbor could be a property owned by the city?

Sneaking laws into the books

Important update: Per the Maryland General Assembly webpage, the date of presentment was actually fixed as May 3. This means the legislative limbo can run as late as June 2.)

On Tuesday Governor Larry Hogan risked carpal tunnel syndrome by signing hundreds of bills into law. The extraordinarily high output was made necessary by two factors: the events in Baltimore that scuttled a planned bill signing back on April 28, and the desire to enact these laws within the period mandated by the state’s constitution. As a refresher, Article II, Section 17 (c) of the Maryland Constitution states:

Any Bill presented to the Governor within six days (Sundays excepted), prior to adjournment of any session of the General Assembly, or after such adjournment, shall become law without the Governor’s signature unless it is vetoed by the Governor within 30 days after its presentment. (Emphasis mine.)

There are a handful of bills which may make it into the books this way. Since the General Assembly session ended at the stroke of midnight April 14. 30 days hence would be tomorrow, May 14. (Update: presentment doesn’t happen with adjournment, as I have found.) Some of the bills in limbo happen to be those which are part of the monoblogue Accountability Project, so you can bet there are some calculations going on about whether a veto can be sustained.

Many of these bills Hogan has held off on signing establish or extend fees and taxes, with a few being issues local to Calvert, Charles, and Howard counties. Two of them extend or increase fees in state courts; in another case I wrote about the “travel tax” of Senate Bill 190 a few weeks ago. Senate Bill 183 would mandate the adoption of the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which would be a budget-buster. He’s also passed on extending the film production activity tax credit that the producers of “House of Cards” wanted.

Business interests, though, should be happy that Hogan hasn’t signed the de facto two-year fracking ban or the extension of flexible leave.

On the social issue end of the spectrum, we do not yet know the fate of bills which would decriminalize marijuana, allow for same-sex couples to have their IVF procedures covered under insurance, let those who have undergone the treatment to revise their gender to change their birth certificates to reflect this, or allow felons who are out of prison but still on probation or parole to vote.

These are less than 5% of the bills which were passed. Many others have already been vetoed as duplicative, but those above are the ones most likely to get an attempt at overriding the veto – or they can try, try again in the next term knowing that the votes for passage were there the last time. Some bills may be improved with a few minor changes that can be worked out while others should just be put out of our misery.

I’m hoping that Governor Hogan sends a strong message by vetoing the following bills I advised voting against:

If he wishes to let the decriminalization of marijuana become law without his signature, that’s quite all right.

This all goes to show that my monoblogue Accountability Project should be a hot-ticket item when it comes out. next week. The good news is that it’s free and available for the taking once I upload it Monday. (See the update above.)

Upping the ante

At our Central Committee meeting last night we had the pleasure of hearing from Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver. One thing we touched upon in the meeting was the aspect of public hearings for gauging public support of an elected school board in Wicomico County, at the behest of Senator Jim Mathias. We learned that none of these sessions had been planned yet, so I’m going to throw out the first ideas on this.

I don’t think anyone would say that there can be too few public hearings but I think that there can be too many. Sooner or later people would lose interest so I think the optimum number would be five.

To me, five is the fairest number because we could base one in each County Council district – important because the proposal would use those same boundaries for school board districts. As far as timing, I think August is the best month although September is acceptable as well. This has more to do with the availability of facilities than anything else, because in most cases schools would be the ideal location for these public hearings. Specifically, I think the hearings should be sited in the following facilities, all of which lie within that Council district.

  • District 1: West Salisbury Elementary School
  • District 2: Mardela Middle’High School
  • District 3: Wicomico Youth and Civic Center
  • District 4: Bennett High School
  • District 5: Pittsville Elementary/Middle School

These locations are somewhat spread through the county, although by necessity most are in the Salisbury area.

Obviously elected officials may not be able to make each of these hearings, and the idea is to hear from as many voices as possible. But if the respective County Council members can act as hosts and facilitators, the process should be satisfactory to all involved.

Then we can get to the business of passing this bill in next year’s session. The people’s voice delayed should not be the people’s voice denied.

Secession over energy

You might recall that an ongoing, back-burner thought we on the Eastern Shore have had is the idea of seceding from the state of Maryland – a state which otherwise belittles us, doesn’t share our concern about the agricultural community, and tries to lord it over us because we only have a small percentage of the population. With a Republican governor that sentiment has diminished somewhat but it’s still active among a few.

The southern tier of counties in the state of New York have a similar beef. Their state is controlled by the denizens of the Big Apple, which overshadows both the urban enclaves of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany and the rural areas upstate. Those who represent the urban areas have prevailed on the state government to ban fracking in the state, which means areas within the Marcellus Shale formation can’t tap into that valuable resource, while just a few miles away Pennsylvania towns and cities are thriving. This story by Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times makes it plain that residents in that area are frustrated, just as those who live in the western end of Maryland have been pleading for the state to lift its de facto ban on the practice. Instead, the Maryland General Assembly put yet another two-year delay on the books.

In both cases, the problem lies in the small minority of citizens who are blessed to live in an energy-rich portion of a state being forced by a majority who thinks they know better to suffer, watching those who live just a few miles away prosper.

Also in both cases, the chances of secession vary between slim and none, with slim vacating town to pursue a fracking job in an adjacent state.

Of course, this is the small drawback to having 50 different state governments: it allows for some to fail in their economic efforts. Both New York and Maryland have an economic engine which depends on the growing alliance and partnership between Wall Street and the federal government, with thousands of financial sector workers in New York City and thousands of federal employees in Maryland. In their worldview, we can secure all our energy needs from renewable sources and oil and natural gas are dirty, nasty fossil fuels. Problem is we still use an awful lot of those fossil fuels because renewables are extremely expensive or highly subsidized.

Perhaps what needs to secede is the crazy idea that fracking is something to be avoided at all costs from the laws of the several states. Until then, those poor people in New York and western Maryland will continue to see prosperity from afar.

Irrelevant?

As I relaxed after a long Mother’s Day weekend with family, this story from the Washington Times piqued my interest. Here’s Jeb Bush, who most consider the “establishment” Republican candidate, trying to make believers out of the religious Right as the graduation speaker at Liberty University. You may recall LU is where Ted Cruz kicked off his own 2016 campaign, and the school founded by the late Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell seems to be a popular stop on that circuit.

Yet I contrast this to the idea, popularized by some and echoed by that s0-called “establishment,” that the only path to victory is to moderate or even capitulate on some social issues, particularly gay “marriage.” Where are the Republican presidential candidates who are choosing to cater to this crowd? I think the answer is simple: there’s not enough voters there to really matter.

Something I’ve seen over the years, in many elections, is that it’s rare that a Republican can succeed by being Democrat-lite. I will grant that the most recent Maryland election could be seen as a case where the avoidance of social issues – despite the bait continually laid by desperate Democrats – may have assisted in a GOP victory. Or maybe it didn’t because there was only a tiny percentage of Maryland voters who are militantly pro-abortion or fanatical in their support for gay “marriage.” Regardless of whether the issue were brought up or not, most of those would have supported Anthony Brown. I can even turn the question on its head and ask those who are in a group like Millennial Maryland: let’s say Larry Hogan had come out against abortion and for traditional marriage. Would you, as nominal Republicans, have still supported Hogan?

You see, this is the question those who are considered “values voters” continually have to ask themselves when we see an otherwise conservative candidate fall all over themselves trying to pander to various centrist groups who would rather not see social issues be prominent campaign issues. I think most who are social conservatives realize it’s the economic message that carries the day overall, but having an evangelical candidate could be the difference between maybe just voting for the candidate (with the risk these discouraged voters may stay home or just vote down-ballot races) or being active in knocking on doors, making phone calls, and opening the checkbook.

Until someone can prove to me that there are millions who will beat down the doors to the GOP if they would just throw the values voters under the bus, I think I would lay my money on a conservative nominee who can stand on all three legs of the conservative stool – fiscal, social, and national security – and appeal to values voters. Is it not worth pointing out that Falwell’s Moral Majority was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election? I think he did pretty well for himself.

It seems to me that this part of the Republican Party needs to find its voice and make sure it nominates a clear alternative to the morally bankrupt policies of the political insiders. Yes, we call that Judeo-Christian values.

Taking less of a toll

It wasn’t completely unexpected. but just in time for the height of tourist season travelers around the state will retain a little extra in their pockets when they cross one of Maryland’s toll roads or bridges, including the Bay Bridge. Yesterday Governor Hogan announced a toll reduction he claimed would save Marylanders $270 million over the next five years. For those coming to the Eastern Shore, it will save them $2 on the trip – not much, but the symbolism is strong.

Commuters, though, will get more of a break as their tolls drop from $2.10 to $1.40 per trip. Factor in the elimination of the EZPass service charge – which cost Maryland drivers $1.50 a month and probably drove some of that business to other states which don’t charge a service fee – and you’re closing in on a $30 per month break. That’s the same as getting a 15-cent an hour raise.

Of course the Maryland Democratic Party found fault with this:

Today, Larry Hogan announced that tolls at the Bay Bridge would go down.

Meanwhile, the cost of in-state tuition at State Universities went up 7%.

Despite his campaign promises, Marylanders are paying more under Larry Hogan.

Since I don’t go to an in-state university but occasionally use the Bay Bridge, this is yet another desperate attempt at spin by Democrats. It’s also worth pointing out that July 1 will also see a 2.5 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax – an increase Democrats failed to stop when they had the chance this term. This will decrease the benefit for commuters who use the Bay Bridge and other toll facilities and take more from the pockets of the rest of us, to the tune of a dollar or two per month.

The complaint I’m waiting for from the mouths of Democrats is the one where they will begin to complain about the prospect of neglecting maintenance on these toll roads and spans. But Hogan’s Secretary of Transportation was confident the money will be there:

“I have thoroughly reviewed the toll-reduction plan, and I’m confident the MDTA will continue to maintain its sound financial footing and commitment to safety and quality services,” said MDTA Chairman and Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. “A lot of hard work went into the development of this proposal, and I’d like to thank MDTA board members for their careful analysis and approval of this toll-reduction plan.”

Another gripe sure to come from our tax-and-spend friends on the left is that the O’Malley fare increases for mass transit weren’t cut as well – I can see the carping by representatives in areas dependent on mass transit. That, however, is a money pit as farebox revenue comes nowhere close to meeting the expenses of those services.

This all leaves one other transportation shoe to drop, and advocates for the Purple Line are pressing for Hogan to keep the rail line going. However, if Hogan pulls the plug on that and the Red Line in Baltimore most of the justification for the O’Malley gas tax and farebox increases is gone, or the funding could be used for more important projects like some I’ve detailed before, such as completing the intended route of I-97 with Virginia’s help or improving the U.S. 13 corridor through Delaware with their assistance.

So I consider this news to be a pleasant surprise in a situation where input from the General Assembly majority was not needed. When the chips are down, though, it seems the Republicans are the only ones we can count on to truly help the working family.

A First State failure

As a person who now has a job created in Delaware, I’m taking more of a vested interest in what goes on in the First State. I’ve been on the mailing list of the 9-12 Delaware Patriots for some time now, and today they sent out an update from the state’s Senate Republican Caucus. (Like Maryland, the Senate GOP is on the short end of the stick insofar as numbers are concerned, but the deficit is closer as it’s only a 12-9 Democrat majority there.)

The one thing I found interesting was a twist on the trend of states becoming right-to-work states. In Delaware, Senator Greg Lavelle had the thought of creating small “right-to-work zones” encompassing specific employers. I’ll let the Delaware Senate GOP pick it up from here:

The Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee declined this week to release a bill aimed at revitalizing Delaware’s manufacturing industry.

By not releasing Sen. Greg Lavelle’s (R-Sharpley) legislation to create right-to-work zones in Delaware, the Democrat-controlled committee has essentially killed the bill.

Under the measure, workers within these zones could not be forced to join or financially support a union as a condition of employment. It would also exempt manufacturing businesses adding at least 20 new workers from paying the Gross Receipts Tax for five years.

During Wednesday’s hour-long public hearing in Legislative Hall advocates of the bill, including representatives from several business organizations, argued such an initiative would create a more competitive environment, attract new businesses to Delaware and generate more jobs.

Sen. Lavelle identified multiple Delaware locations where the idea could take root, such as the former General Motors Boxwood Road plant near Newport, as well as other existing facilities in New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties.

His feeling after the meeting was that while the bill may be dead, the idea is not.

“For me, what came out of the meeting was that this was the first formal discussion that we’ve had about this issue in Delaware,” he said. “The fact is, coming out of the recession, where many other states have added manufacturing jobs, Delaware has lost another 3,000. So the conversation on how to turn that around has to continue. And judging from the many comments we heard in committee supporting this bill, there’s no doubt this conversation will continue.”

Worth pointing out is that Delaware has lost many of its manufacturing jobs over the last decade, declining from 33,800 such jobs in 2005 to 25,500 a decade later. That’s a 25% decrease, meaning for every 4 manufacturing jobs the state once had one was lost over the last decade. If you were the unlucky one to lose your job, it means you either had to relocate out of state or change careers, with the unfortunate byproduct of that choice being that skills gained atrophy over time.

This is a different approach than the one tried in Maryland, where Delegate Warren Miller has annually introduced a statewide right-to-work bill where the compelling arguments in its favor unceasingly fell on deaf Democratic ears in the Economic Matters Committee. Personally I think the way to go about it is a piecemeal approach, beginning with the Eastern Shore. Far from what Big Labor critics believe, Indiana – a recent convert to right-to-work – added 50,000 union jobs last year as part of an overall surge in employment growth. We can use the Eastern Shore as a petri dish for a right-to-work experiment, because Lord knows they try to impose everything we don’t want on us (tier maps, onerous septic regulations, and the PMT, to name a few.)

One big difference between Maryland and Delaware is the fact that over half of its Senate will be at stake in the 2016 elections – it is possible for the GOP to gain a majority by winning 6 of the 11 contested seats. The state GOP should make this an issue in trying to decrease joblessness – after all, a union does you little good if you are not working and over 8,000 onetime factory workers are doing something else because the state lost its competitive edge.

Delaware has always had a reputation of being business-friendly, but in this changing employment climate they have to step up their game. Going into an election year, an issue has to be made of how the state will compete going forward – after all, my job depends on it.

Maryland: contrarian again

It’s been awhile since I looked at the energy industry, what with legislation, riots, and other general mayhem. Fortunately for me, I have several sources in that industry to return me to speed and one is writer Marita Noon, whose piece on NetRightDaily today detailed the efforts of forward-thinking states to repeal their renewable energy mandates - some by whopping margins in their legislature. In those states, the market-bending allocations to renewable energy are coming to an end, leveling the playing field and perhaps saving their taxpayers millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, Maryland isn’t one of those states rolling back its mandates; in fact, the only piece of legislation dealing with the renewable portfolio was a liberal Democrat-backed scheme to expand it some more. House Bill 377 and Senate Bill 373 both were aimed at significantly increasing the percentage of renewables up to 40% by 2025 – current law peaks renewables’ share at 20% by 2022. (Both these figures are a pipe dream.) The Senate version lost in the Finance Committee by an 8-3 vote, and the House version was withdrawn before it was voted upon.

It was good that a bad bill was thwarted, but it was unfortunate that no bill was introduced to repeal these mandates. Maryland would be in far better shape energy-wise, eventually with lower utility rates, if true reform was achieved: repeal of the renewable energy portfolio, the withdrawal of the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, repealing the subsidy for offshore wind, and encouraging energy production from hydraulic fracturing and offshore drilling.

Over the course of the O’Malley administration, energy companies took the brunt of new regulations and changes in the market; in particular, their cost of doing business was affected by the renewable energy portfolio and the RGGI. If you assume the goal of the utility is to provide energy as cheaply as possible to make a profit – while keeping prices low enough to maintain and grow a customer base – having the dead expenses of the “alternative compliance payment” made necessary by falling short of renewable goals and the CO2 allowances auctioned off by RGGI as a sweet redistribution scheme aren’t helping the cause. Meanwhile, more exploration and investment in energy infrastructure could bring Maryland closer to being at least even as opposed to a net energy importer.

I wouldn’t expect any repeal of these bills to pass on the scale that they’ve moved through some state legislatures, but 71-70 and 24-23 are perfectly fine margins to me. It would also likely require getting around the committee process and bringing the package directly to the floor. (The portfolio repeal, RGGI withdrawal, and repeal of the offshore wind subsidy could be one bill: call it the Maryland Energy Reform Act of 2016.)

The trick is getting the right people to advocate for the changes by showing how much can be saved by consumers. That portion seems like a job for a group like the Maryland Public Policy Institute, while the lobbying on the part of the energy providers should include a pledge of reducing rates. Shaving 2 cents a kilowatt hour off the bill may not sound like much, but it translates to about $216 a year based on average residential usage of about 900 kWh a month. I don’t know about you, but an extra $18 a month would be nice for me. Just think of the economic benefits we received last year when gasoline skidded to $2 a gallon – benefits being lost now as prices have edged back up over $2.50 a gallon.

To help in prosperity, Maryland needs cheap energy. As it stands now, we don’t have it but I think we can get it if the political will is there.

A city’s black eye

All of us in Maryland, whether we were born here like my better half’s family or came here as I did, have been glued to news and social media over the last few days as the rioting in the city of Baltimore reached its peak yesterday, the day before the Maryland National Guard arrived in force and a citywide curfew took effect. While it seems like strong medicine to some, sometimes the role of government is to restore order in a crisis and here’s hoping the MNG’s stay is short and uneventful.

But there is another side of this which I think will last far longer. In the coming months and years, much discussion will occur about how Baltimore can bounce back from this crisis. There are the immediate effects in certain neighborhoods which have suffered the brunt of the damage and whether these business owners will reopen, but few outside the neighborhoods or city at large will know. Even the facts the Orioles had to postpone two games, will play a third in an eerily quiet stadium closed to the public, and will have to become the St. Petersburg Orioles for a weekend as they play scheduled home games in their opponent’s stadium will eventually become a historical oddity, particularly if the Orioles advance in the playoffs.

Some have already touched on how things appear looking forward, whether at the tourism angle as Rick Manning does or just the absolute disgust with the situation expressed by Joe Steffen. However, I tend to look at things from the political side and there are a number of effects this recent unrest will create.

Fortunately for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a 2012 law change changed the Baltimore City elections from 2015 to 2016; otherwise, this unrest would have been a more current campaign issue. But it still should be a topic of campaign contention, and it’s likely several aspirants may spring up seeking to take the Mayor’s chair from Rawlings-Blake. Certainly her actions in this crisis don’t add to her resume for another term should she seek one.

But the problem is that most of these contenders will be the same politicians who got the city into the situation to begin with. In Baltimore City, based on recent results, the real election will take place in April when the Democratic primary is held. 2011′s election featured just eleven Republican candidates in total, with the only two contested elections being two-person GOP primaries for mayor and city council president. (Only 7 of 14 Council districts had a Republican running.) GOP mayoral candidate Alfred Griffin got just 13% of the vote in that election. Republicans can pay lip service to reaching out to the minority community, but this is a process that could take several elections and change is needed now.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that in 2011 the real big winner was apathy – Rawlings-Blake received 40,125 votes but 324,885 voters didn’t show up so the task may not be as Herculean as imagined. Just get some of those who were disinterested to show up and vote for real change.

Yet the politics of the problem extends far beyond who actually votes for whom. It’s easy to complain about lack of opportunities and blame problems on those officials at the state and federal levels – particularly if they happen to be of the opposite political party. But this rioting was years in the making; it just needed the right series of events to occur to touch things off and the death of Freddie Gray was the spark.

One of the Baltimore images that’s etched on the minds of many was a scene where a young rioter was berated by his parent. Yet my question is this: where was mom during the previous 16 years? And what about dad? Most boys raised in two-parent families would have faced the wrath of both their mom and dad if they even breathed in the direction of that riot, but Baltimore is a city of single mothers who have to enlist help from their own parents to raise their children because, in many cases, the fathers are absent. In a city that’s roughly 2/3 black, and at a time when over 7 of 10 black births are to unmarried women, the odds are pretty good that a Baltimore City child is raised in a single-parent household and that government does more to support these children than the father does.

To be perfectly blunt, Baltimore doesn’t change until that statistic changes. To me the best way to change that is for the upcoming generation to stay in school, go to church on Sunday, and keep things zipped up until marriage. But what did the black generations pre-Great Society know, anyway?

Another way to help is to try and create job opportunities for blue-collar workers. Former gubernatorial candidate Ron George said it first, but it should be on the mind of Larry Hogan as well: “I want to build a tax base in Baltimore.” I realize it’s not that simple – particularly given an entitlement mentality exhibited by some in that community – but if the right conditions can be created the rebuilding can be permanent, and we won’t be revisiting this situation in a dozen years or so.

Needless to say, my perspective on Baltimore is definitely that of an outsider: I live 2 1/2 hours away on the other side of a significant body of water in a place where the culture is far different. But common sense is common sense, and the lack of it over the last few days is doing significant damage to Maryland’s flagship city. Maryland doesn’t need to have the reputation as a real-life version of “The Wire,” so those citizens who really want to help improve Baltimore (as opposed to those who want to enhance their political and/or criminal empires) need to step up their games and show some of the leadership that has been sadly lacking.

WCRC meeting – April 2015

We ha an unusual meeting tonight. It wasn’t devoted to club business; after we did the usual Lord’s Prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, and introduction of several distinguished guests we were a treasurer’s report away from the first of three main events of a packed program.

Our first event was the presentation of the WCRC Scholarship to Andrew Boltz of Mardela High School. Boltz is active in the community, including an Eagle Scout project involving backpacks for the homeless. Boltz plans on attending Salisbury University to begin his pursuit of an engineering degree.

Sarah Rayne next addressed the group on behalf of 1st Saturday, a “free, family-friendly” event in downtown Salisbury intended to focus on the performing arts, as opposed to the visual arts highlighted at 3rd Friday.

She noted that the event was timed to be after Saturday chores but allow for patrons to partake in the downtown entertainment venues and restaurants afterward, adding that no food trucks would be present to help with steering business to local eateries – in turn, they would be encouraged to make known their specials for the evening. It’s a “bring your own chair” event, modeled on a similar set of gatherings in Georgetown, Delaware, Rayne added.

Just as clarification, I asked if it was an all-year event. Sarah responded that 1st Saturday was “a warm-weather event” which would run April to October.

The final part of the evening was something that turned out to be a roundtable discussion of the latest General Assembly session by the Republican members of the Wicomico County delegation: Senator Addie Eckardt and Delegates Christopher Adams, Carl Anderton, Jr., Mary Beth Carozza, Johnny Mautz, and erstwhile member Charles Otto, who was redistricted out of the county.

Each representative began by speaking a few minutes about their perspective on the recently-completed session. As the one with the most experience, Senator Eckardt assessed our group as “a wonderful team…this is not a shy group.” She was pleased to have the opportunity to try and get our highway user revenues back, and called it “exciting” to have a Republican governor to work with on the budget. And while the goals of the administration were to cut spending, taxation, and regulation, the sad fact was that most of the governor’s initiatives did not pass.

Some of the budget battles that were fought included funding for the Geographical Cost of Education Index and maintaining the promised $300 million catch-up payment for state pensions. While the budget passed wasn’t fully in line with the initial expectations, Eckardt thought the governor “was in a good position going forward.”

Getting PMT regulations as opposed to statutes and repealing the rain tax law allowed Addie to declare a couple victories. “From my perspective, I was floored” with the things accomplished during the session, Eckardt concluded.

From the House perspective, Delegate Otto was rueful that Wicomico County residents could no longer vote for him, but added he still represented us as the chair of the Eastern Shore delegation – a group that was expanded to include residents in the 35th District, covering Cecil and part of Harford counties. He was pleased the budget grew by less than projected revenue growth, a departure from the previous administration.

Otto noted that “everything bad for agriculture” came out at the House this year, including the “chicken tax” bill and a measure eliminating sales tax exemptions farmers can employ.

Delegate Adams felt “blessed to be a Republican in Maryland” right now because it enabled him to stop items detrimental to our interests, especially at the committee level. One highlight to him among the bills passed was several enacting the recommendations of the Augustine Commission, which included a cabinet-level Department of Commerce. His assessment that Maryland was too dependent on federal employees made him hopeful that the business climate could be changed.

“What a strange, fun, exciting ride it’s been,” said Delegate Anderton. He urged us to ignore people who say “you can’t do it” because he did get things accomplished: the Evo bill which will add 50 jobs in Salisbury while preventing 70 others from leaving, a grant to Three Lower Counties to assist them with a new OB/GYN clinic, and money for improvements to Perdue Stadium essential to keeping the Shorebirds here. And while he was “scared” about the PMT regulations, Anderton believed we had “built a great foundation.” Overall, his first year was “an experience better than I could have imagined.”

Delegate Mautz said the Eastern Shore is “working closely together” and trying to get leverage for its legislative goals. However, he noted that watermen and seafood producers were “under tremendous pressure,” detailing abuses by the Department of Natural Resources. As it turned out, watermen, hunters, fishermen would have been the beneficiaries of many of the bills Mautz worked on, while cheese producers will get a boost.

Yet while Mautz believed Governor Hogan “controlled the debate” on fiscal issues, there was still “serious partisan divides” in the General Assembly. He predicted “a lot of legislation” in the next session.

Johnny also called the events going on in Baltimore “a major setback” for the area and state as a whole. Delegate Carozza picked up on that, asking the group to take a moment of silence and prayer for the city, adding the National Guard had finally been sent in.

Mary Beth also believed we had a “terrific Shore delegation,” agreeing that Governor Hogan had “set the tone’ in his first session. While the budget had a smaller increase than previous years, though, she only voted for the original House budget. She voted against the conference budget because of the raids it made to the pension funds.

“We still need your help,” she added. “Divided government is really tough.” We were encouraged to express our opinions on issues like charter schools, tax relief, and regulations because opponents were relentless and having the constituents as backup strengthens our position. And Democrats “are already coming after (Larry Hogan),” she said.

She gave a couple examples of bills she worked on. One that passed with ease was a bill allowing Seacrets to move its distillery operations to Maryland – Mary Beth got support from Senator Jim Mathias and convinced lawmakers that bringing jobs back from Delaware was worth fighting for.

On the other hand, a veterans procurement bill which sailed through the House had a tough time in the Senate for several reasons, at least one of them territorial as a particular committee chair wanted to do a more large-scale procurement bill next session. She learned that she had to sometimes sell bills, and ended up with a compromise that doubled veterans procurement from 0.5% to 1%.

Once this part finished, we opened the floor to comments and questions. Naturally, a perspective was sought on why we did not get an elected school board vote and what we had to do.

“It’s an easy fix,” said Delegate Anderton. “Eliminate the excuse.” By that, he meant have the public hearings Senator Mathias sought, as two people noted he was on record as supporting the idea with public input. We also learned the Wicomico County Education Association actually supports a fully elected board.

But Senator Eckardt added we “need both Senators in agreement” to get the bill through.

A related question came about school vouchers, which weren’t brought up in this session. Rather, a lot of discussion went toward charter schools because it was the governor’s initiative, said Delegate Carozza. Delegate Adams added charter school reforms enjoyed bipartisan support, while Senator Eckardt noted the BOAST tax credits had been introduced again – these would allow private businesses to direct funding to private and public schools.

On that same front, it was asked if a Religious Freedom Restoration Act-style bill was introduced, and none was to their knowledge.

Turning to taxation, Senator Eckardt stated that few tax rollbacks were surviving the Ways and Means subcommittees.

Farming issues were the subject of a couple queries, and the industry as a whole was considered “low-hanging fruit” by environmentalists, said Delegate Adams. Even though 27 percent of Chesapeake Bay’s phosphorus could be traced to the silt behind Conowingo Dam – according to the Army Corps of Engineers, a fact which came out in a hearing on one of the PMT bills – environmentalists still demanded more regulations on agriculture.

Finally, Anderton responded to a question about road funding by noting he had helped bring it back to some extent through his memory of where the money was placed last year. The state found it again, to the tune of $19 million to municipalities and $4 million for counties. However, he added, some counties were reticent about full restoration because they wanted to use it as an excuse to have their own gasoline taxes.

All in all, it was a chock-full meeting you should be kicking yourself for missing. Because the next fourth Monday of the month is Memorial Day, we next meet June 22.

The other side of session

Since the General Assembly session came to a close last week, I’ve received my share of end-of-session wrap-ups from a number of members. But one has stood out because it focused as much on what wasn’t done as it did on the accomplishments. Sometimes keeping bad ideas from becoming law is as much a victory as any bill which is signed.

So when I read Mary Beth Carozza’s assessment of the recent session, I noted that a significant part of her remarks focused on what did not pass.

While serving you here in Annapolis, sometimes the bad legislation we are able to stop is just as important as the bills we are able to pass. This year a number of new tax increases were proposed but did not pass due to our efforts to stop them. Among the worst of this year’s proposed tax increases was the so-called “Chicken Tax,” which would place a 5-cent per chicken tax on every chicken raised in the State of Maryland.

Another agriculture-related tax increase we were able to kill this year was a proposal to repeal the sales and use tax exemption for agricultural products and equipment, such as feed and tractor fuel, that go into producing a final good for sale. The repeal of this exemption would have increased taxes on our state’s farmers by approximately $212 million starting next year and increasing to $251.2 million by 2020.

Other taxes which did not pass this year include the “death tax,” which would have eliminated the “death tax” repeal passed by last year’s General Assembly, a “bottle tax” that places a 5-cent tax on every bottle, a “bag tax” that would ban plastic bags and place a 10-cent fee on paper bags, a $90 million increase in the tobacco tax, and a tax on utility bills for solar and wind that would eventually ramp up to a $566 million annual tax.

Having studied the General Assembly for several years, I can tell you that many of these tax proposals reappear session after session. The “chicken tax” was around last year, a number of Democrats were upset that the death tax repeal passed last year (as they were the ones who voted against it), and the others are proposals which are perennial. The repeal of the agricultural products exemption is a fairly new one to me, though.

To hear Democrats tell it, we need all those new revenue streams for various pet causes. As examples, one version of the “chicken tax” was going to pay for cover crops and to help replace failing septic systems, one previous incarnation of the “bag tax” was intended for stream cleanup through the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and a small portion of the increased tobacco tax was (ironically enough) slated for a smoking cessation fund. (Most was intended for that vast fiscal hole we call the General Fund.)

But taxes weren’t the only thing needing to be stopped:

Members of the Eastern Shore Delegation also were able to kill another bill that would have increased the regulatory burden on farmers known as the “Farmers’ Rights Act.” This bill would have required the Attorney General’s Office to review all livestock production contracts before they are approved. In order to meet the bill’s requirements, the Attorney General’s Office would have had to hire three new, full-time Assistant Attorneys General at an expense of over $200,000 per year. This proposal is another example of an attempt to grow government bureaucracy at the expense of our citizens, especially our farmers.

I also worked closely with the Hogan Administration and local small business owners to pull regulations that would have hurt small arcade businesses in Ocean City and across the State of Maryland. For the last several months, the State Lottery Commission had been attempting to advance a proposal which would regulate these small businesses in the same way the state regulates casinos. I am happy to report that Governor Hogan directed the Lottery Commission to pull these proposed regulations.

These were all well and good, but I remain disappointed by the PMT regulations which will disproportionately affect local farmers, who are the victims of the “good faith negotiations between all stakeholders on this issue.” Remember, the eventual success of these regulations hinges on being able to use the excess chicken manure that local farmers can no longer use. If these schemes of creating energy or other by-products don’t succeed in creating a viable market, the state either has to continue to subsidize these failing enterprises or will simply leave local farmers hanging. Given the usual preference of Annapolis to side with environmental interests over those of farmers, I suspect the latter will eventually be the case, although we may be forced in the meantime to use millions more in taxpayer subsidies as the state tries to goose that manure market along.

I can tell you that I have picked out all the bills I will use for the monoblogue Accountability Project. Over the next few weeks I will be compiling the votes and seeing how all the new Delegates and Senators (as well as the holdovers) did. Will the change to a Republican governor be reflected in a more conservative overall voting pattern? Stay tuned.

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