A debate worth having

Unfortunately, I can’t make the event with my work schedule but I was asked to at least spread the word.

Christopher Summers of the Maryland Public Policy Institute invited me to a Maryland Policy Forum on A Better Way to Restore the Chesapeake Bay, to be held Tuesday night (the 28th of October) at Washington College in Chestertown. (It would be a close trip for my friends and fans up Cecil County way.) The event is billed this way:

Maryland officials expect that it will cost over $14 billion in the next decade to meet EPA pollution mitigation targets for the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. Yet Maryland has pointedly ignored a single, enormous source of the pollutants—the massive amount of water-scoured sediment and trapped nitrogen and phosphorus behind the Susquehanna River’s Conowingo Dam. Periodic discharges from the dam, such as the one following Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, spill enormous amounts of sediment and nutrients into the Bay, dwarfing the most optimistic cleanup targets that have been set for the watershed.

What should Maryland do to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution, and is current policy too much or too little?

In looking at the bios of the three panelists and moderator, it looks like a good mix of opinions will be had. Of course, there are those who believe the MPPI will put its thumb on the scale for the conservative side but it’s a side which isn’t often listened to in this state.

Personally I believe the cleanup behind Conowingo should take precedence over the regulations which have been adopted. Ditch enforcement of these tier maps, the seven-lot subdivision limit, and septic regulations which only serve to curtail growth in rural areas of the state like the Eastern Shore until the sediment behind that dam is cleaned up and we have a year or two of testing to see the difference. Instead of picking on agriculture, figure out ways to upgrade the real problem: failing urban sanitary sewage treatment plants.

I doubt either of the two candidates for governor will be there, but I think Larry Hogan should send a surrogate to hear what the MPPI and their panelists have to say. Obviously job creation is the key issue in this election, but a different, localized approach to cleaning up Chesapeake Bay would be a good secondary issue to discuss in the waning days of the campaign.

CAR/Salisbury Independent forum part 1: Wicomico County offices

As I noted the other day when I broached the subject, more than a dozen candidates shared the stage for a forum sponsored in part by the Coastal Association of Realtors and the Salisbury Independent newspaper. In this first part, I’ll discuss some of what the county candidates said.

First, the contenders:

For County Executive, two-term incumbent Rick Pollitt faced off with challenger County Councilman Bob Culver. Pollitt was elected in 2006 as Wicomico County’s first County Executive and narrowly won re-election over Republican Joe Ollinger in 2010. Bob Culver lost in a three-way Republican primary in 2006 for County Executive to eventual nominee Ron Alessi and B.J. Corbin before rebounding to win an at-large County Council seat in 2010.

Culver’s seat is being sought by two who join Republican Matt Holloway in attempting to win one of the two at-large County Council posts. Holloway was elected to County Council in the same 2010 election that brought Culver back; ironically those seats opened up because the two incumbents decided not to continue. One of those two was John Cannon, who unsuccessfully ran for the General Assembly in 2010 after one term on the County Council from 2006-10. Now John seeks a return after a four-year hiatus, noting that being a Council member was his “lifeblood.”

The lone Democrat seeking one of the two at-large seats is current Salisbury City Council member Laura Mitchell. Mitchell has served on the City Council since being elected in 2011.

(While there are 7 contenders for the five district Council seats, the forum only covered the pair of countywide posts.)

In the County Executive race, the two contenders disagree on a lot but agree that they would have “stark contrasts” in their approaches to governing. For example, when asked what the most pressing issue was, Culver was blunt: it was the loss of jobs over the last 18 months. (In the July 2013-July 2014 period, BLS statistics show Wicomico County lost 429 jobs as its labor force fell by 649.)

On the other hand, Pollitt asserted we were still in a recession and pleaded that “we have to rebuild our community.” He went on to describe how the needed to “leverage assets” like Wallops Island, Virginia, the port of Salisbury, and the Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development organization. It was part of a required overall strategy for the “new normal,” added Pollitt.

When it came to whether additional tax increases would be required, Pollitt pointed out that the property tax rates had to increase just to stay even – four cents of the five cent increase this year simply brought us back to constant yield, with the other penny being allowed under the revenue cap. Four of of six Republicans voted for this tax increase, which was the “only responsible thing” to do.

Culver wasn’t one of those Republicans, though. He contended the county needed to go back to zero-based budgeting and trim the fat one step at a time. “Right now the time is not for a tax increase,” said Bob. “We have to do it from a business aspect.”

Another bone of contention came in the question about how best to assist realtors. Culver argued that dropping the county’s impact fee had resulted in 54 new homes being built in Wicomico County, and pointed out that there was only 16% of the county’s land mass which could be developed and we had just 3 percent to go.

Pollitt shot back that the impact fee change was part of the overall budget Culver opposed, restated that government needs to provide services and reminded us that five of the seven Council members had been correct in voting for the budget.

Rick closed with a familiar theme of “building community,” noting as well his role as the Maryland Rural Counties Coalition legislative chair and in the Clean Chesapeake Coalition. The more plain-spoken Culver repeated his assertion that “I think Wicomico County government is broken.”

If you look at it stylistically, Pollitt is a sharper debater. But the approach he’s taken over the last few years has been pragmatic by circumstance rather than by choice. And since the zero-based budgeting Pollitt did as city manager of Fruitland and promised early on doesn’t appear to be the case now – because it’s a campaign issue – and he whined early on in his tenure about the voter-installed revenue cap,  one wonders what the budget and tax rate would be if not for the recession.

Rick Pollitt often talks about what he calls “quality of life” issues. But it has to be asked whether our quality of life is better when job numbers are going the wrong way.

The County Council members were asked a different set of questions. One of them was on how to take the good things happening in downtown Salisbury and jump start the area outside the metro core and the other dealt with thoughts on the comprehensive plan.

John Cannon got first shot at the former question, and he opened by praising the “refreshing” leadership of Salisbury City Council president Jake Day. But he believed the county had the responsibility to create its own environment for growth, and Cannon wanted to bring together the major players on a quarterly basis.

As far as tier maps went, John believed it was an argument of local vs. state control and was hoping for relief with the new administration, presumably a Larry Hogan one. He also advocated for enhanced transfer of development rights and perhaps even a wastewater treatment authority. He also noted that he had pushed for a reduction in impact fees six years ago when he was on County Council.

Matt Holloway outlined some of the accomplishments the county has achieved since he came on board: decoupling the personal property tax rate from the real property tax rate, phasing out the inventory tax, and making the manufacturer’s tax exemption automatic. He suggested a focus on public relations and enhancing our one-man economic development team.

Holloway also believed the comprehensive plan needed a “fresh set of eyes” with his goal being that of not impacting property values. But Matt cautioned that the state “has the trump card” under the law. They could help us with our septic issues, however.

Because she is on City Council, the initial question was right in Laura Mitchell’s wheelhouse: “That is why I’m running.” She wanted to translate Salisbury’s excitement to the county and talk about the positive things. She also thought the idea of an EDU bank, which allocates unused sewage capacity that developers donate back to the city, had merit on a countywide level.

Unfortunately, while it is “convoluted, to say the least,” Mitchell dropped the ball on even a rudimentary understanding of the tier maps. She advocated for infill development and sustainable growth, while addressing the double taxation and foreclosure issues in response to the realtors’ question.

Mitchell stressed her accounting background and budgeting experience as the key reasons to vote for her, portraying herself as sort of a budget nerd. But I found it interesting that the city budget had increased for three years in a row before finally declining this year. It’s still almost 7% higher than it was in FY2011, when she won election. (The first budget she would have approved would have been FY2012.)

And while you can’t expect expertise on every issue, her befuddlement on the tier maps was a bad sign.

It’s interesting that tier maps are an issue in this county, which now labors under the state’s default position that lots of any size can’t be subdivided into more than seven lots. Unfortunately, no county has found someone aggrieved enough by this terrible law that they could have standing to sue for the law’s nullification. (It’s doubtful the Democrats in the General Assembly would consider a repeal such as that tried in 2013.) Much as I’d love to force the state to pound sand, I’m not an injured party.

But there can be steps taken in the right direction. If we must have a tier map, the amount of land placed off-limits to development should be minimized because to do otherwise is an infringement on private property rights.

And while downtown development is indeed encouraging, the best way to replicate it isn’t to precisely duplicate it. While entertainment districts are nice, we need more industrial districts, more transportation hubs, and more encouragement of overall development. We shouldn’t shackle ourselves to one approach, either – if Chesapeake Shipbuilding, which isn’t exactly a glamorous company but a useful one that actually is seeking tradesmen, needs something to create another 150 jobs, that should take priority over yet another entertainment venue that may create 20 or 30.

Part 2 tomorrow will look at District 37 races.

AAA backs Question 1. But I don’t and here’s why

Thousands of AAA members across Maryland received an e-mail blast encouraging them to vote for Question 1. In it, the group’s VP for public and governmental affairs, Catherine Rossi, writes in part:

Over the last few years Maryland elected officials have “borrowed” over $1.5 billion dollars from your gas taxes, vehicle registration fees and other sources that were intended for local transportation improvements. Unfortunately, over $1 billion was never repaid and as a result, many local transportation projects have gone unfunded.

Year after year, many of our roads and bridges have been rated poor or in sub-standard condition, as Maryland motorists face some of the worst traffic congestion in the United States. While the State has a long list of state and local projects that would help improve safety and mobility and reduce congestion, these projects could all be derailed if Maryland fails to protect the Transportation Trust Fund, which is why it is so important that you vote FOR Question 1. (Emphasis in original.)

While it’s a compelling argument and outlines the principle of the problem, where I take issue with Question 1 is the substance.

But let’s begin by looking at the other source of the road funding problem. In 2012 it was noted that mass transit takes up 48% of the highway budget, compared to 23% for roads. Simply reversing that proportion would likely have alleviated the need for the additional gas tax passed in 2013 – a gas tax which may provide less income than expected because prices have retreated below $3 a gallon for the first time in a few years. Unfortunately, powerful political interests wanted to construct some useless light rail lines so it looks like we’re going to get them.

And those powerful political interests have enough allies in the General Assembly to make a “lockbox” comprised of a 3/5 majority all but worthless. In actual numerical terms, that’s 85 House members and 29 Senators and as long as the majority party exceeds those numbers there won’t be any sort of taxpayer protection in the TTF.

I know there’s an argument that says I shouldn’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, and just having a lockbox is a good step – basically echoing the AAA contention. But to me voting no sends a message that the proposal is not good enough. We should hold out for a “lockbox” of at least 2/3 – I’d prefer it to be 3/4, meaning that at least some GOP votes would be required. If we pass it this time, the issue will never be revisited, I guarantee it.

If I could trust the majority party any farther than I can throw it, that would be one thing. But I’ve seen the definition of some things they consider “emergency” legislation and there’s potential for abuse here.

If you’re messing with the Maryland Constitution, you should at least do it right. Vote NO on Question 1.

And now a programming note. Instead of burying my forum coverage on a weekend, I’m going to look back at that Monday through Wednesday – just in time for early voting. Tomorrow I have a music review slated and Sunday I’ll detail a special event I attended Thursday night.

A sea change in Maryland too?

In the midst of what’s good news about energy production in America – despite the headwinds created by an administration that believes global warming is a large problem while spending millions to prop up failing green energy companies – the question can be asked whether Maryland has achieved its share. I want to quote writer Mark Green from the Energy Tomorrow blog, who writes that based on Energy Information Administration data that:

This is a snapshot of America’s energy revolution – the fundamental shift from energy scarcity to abundance that would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago. The shift is the result of surging oil and natural gas production using advanced hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, harnessing oil and gas reserves in shale and other tight-rock formations. Safe, responsible energy development has made the United States the world’s No. 1 natural gas producer, and the U.S. could become the world’s top producer of crude oil related liquids before the year is out.

Larry Hogan has acknowledged that western Maryland has an “enormous” amount of natural gas and that he favors an “all of the above” energy policy. On the other hand, Anthony Brown is studying the issue to death. At the other end of the state and scale, Brown backs his boss’s offshore wind boondoggle while Hogan mentions that “proponents (of wind power) rarely mention the actual costs which include billions in state and federal subsidies.” In a separate statement, he also decries the potential for offshore wind’s “crony capitalism” under a Brown administration.

You know, there’s no question that the key issue in this gubernatorial race is the economy. Maryland is a state lagging behind its peers, and more and more people speak about pulling up stakes and relocating somewhere else: Delaware, Florida, Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee – name a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line and it’s likely someone you knew in Maryland moved there.

But one piece of the puzzle is energy, and those who toil in the oil and gas industry understand what the potential is. In his piece, Green closes by quoting American Petroleum Institute president and CEO Jack Gerard:

We need leaders who reject the outdated political ideology of the professional environmental fringe and the political dilettantes who advance the irresponsible and unrealistic “off fossil fuel” agenda. Because if we get our energy policy right today, we can be the generation that erases what for decades has been our country’s most potent and intractable economic vulnerability: dependence on energy resources from less stable regions and countries hostile to our goals, ideals and way of life.

Writer Rob Port at the Say Anything Blog also asks the pertinent question, and the answer on a state level can be found in Maryland.

I look at it this way. There was a governor and a majority in the General Assembly who were willing to risk over a billion dollars in ratepayer money on something which studies suggested might work but hadn’t been tried in Maryland before, offshore wind. Conversely, given the success of the Marcellus Shale formation in several surrounding states (most notably Pennsylvania), why not encourage the exploration of several other regions in the state which share many of the same characteristics? The worst that can happen is that we find these areas aren’t worthwhile for natural gas with current technology, but the rapidly evolving science of energy extraction means studies done even as recently as a few years ago may be rendered worthless.

Given the correct conditions for marketable extraction of coal and natural gas and an aggressive expansion of power plant capacity which uses those resources, it should be a goal to make Maryland self-sufficient in electricity by 2030. I don’t think offshore wind will get us there, but extracting those resources we have gives us a shot, and provides good-paying jobs for Maryland families who need them.

Stepping into the ring

Yesterday I pointed out the voting records of the two men who wish to represent those of us who live in Senate District 38, but another thing I alluded to was the disparity in amending bills. Granted, it’s rare that Democrats have to make floor motions because much of their work can be done as a collective at the subcommittee and committee level; moreover, Senator Jim Mathias sits on the Finance Committee and that committee reviewed the smallest number of bills among the four main committees in the Senate (Budget and Taxation; Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs; Finance; and Judicial Proceedings.) All but the Senate President serve on at least one of those committees. Some members also sit on either the Executive Nominations or Rules committees, but Mathias isn’t among that group.

As I pointed out, often the only way a member (particularly a Republican one) has to amend a bill going through a committee he’s not part of is via the floor and McDermott has done so on many occasions.

But another thing Mike does well is communicate with constituents, and he also has a good way of getting to the root of the issue. Take this recent example, part of a piece he wrote called “Politically Correct Farming”:

Farmers have always been the first conservationists, even though they are often the last one to get called to a “Round Table Discussion” when policy is being crafted. Those “Round Tables” are reserved for election years. Ask any farmer about fixing the Bay and they will first point to the Conowingo Dam. The next point will be to the metro core area septic plants. They would also point out that the farming community is way ahead of the mandated time lines already placed upon them by the government.

The fact is, we do not need any further mandates on the shore. We need action in the areas that are creating the problem! The areas of the Bay which receive the best environmental scores are those adjacent to the Eastern Shore; and they rest next to the shore county (Somerset) that has the highest number of poultry operations in Maryland. Go figure!

Our water does not travel from lower shore rivers into the upper Bay regions, rather it moves toward the Atlantic. In spite of the obvious, farmers are an easy lot to blame; and politicians often do so with food in their mouths.

It should be obvious that poor water quality at the Bay Bridge isn’t being caused by a Somerset County poultry farmer, but from an Annapolis point of view untreated chicken waste flows as if magnetized toward the otherwise-pristine waters of the Annapolis harbor.

Or how about another case, this regarding gambling. McDermott called this the “Capitulating vs. Negotiating” piece, from which I excerpt:

For several years, Worcester County and Ocean Downs Casino have been paying off Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. All of that money could (and should) have been utilized for local spending. When I was elected in 2010, I was keenly aware of this wealth transfer and I looked for a mechanism to bring it back home where it belonged.

That opportunity presented itself in 2012 during our 2nd Special Session when the expansion of gaming was being sought. The issue was no longer about whether or not we would have gambling, rather it was about allowing a 6th casino to be built in Prince George’s County at National Harbor. Gambling was no longer the issue.

This bill originated in the Senate and once again, I noticed that the payoffs to Baltimore City and Prince George’s County were still embedded in the legislation. There was no attempt by Mathias to remove these provisions from the bill.

When the bill arrived in the House, the Democrats were hunting for insurance votes to pass the bill. I took advantage of the situation and spoke to the leader on the bill about the possibility of my supporting it. My demand was straightforward: return the local impact money to the citizens where the casinos are located. Depending on revenues, this could amount to $2 million each year that would remain on the lower shore.

To our benefit, they agreed to amend the bill and cut out the funding for Baltimore City and Prince George’s County as soon as Baltimore’s casino was open for business. In turn, I cast a deciding vote for the National Harbor expansion. The amendment was introduced by Delegate Dave Rudolph (D-Cecil) whose county also benefited directly from these local impact grants staying on the Upper Shore in Cecil County.

I could not help but see the irony of these two separate votes from two Delegates representing the same area:

  • Mathias casts the deciding vote that brings gambling to Maryland, establishes a casino in Ocean City’s backyard, and agrees to give Baltimore City and Prince Georges County $2 million of our money every year.
  • I cast the deciding vote that expands gambling to Prince George’s County alone and only after seeing the bill amended to strip Baltimore City and Prince George’s County from receiving one dime of our local impact money (returning $2 million to the Eastern Shore.)

Let me state for the record that both voted for this bill, a stance with which I disagreed because it punted this responsibility to the voters instead of in the General Assembly where it belongs. One could argue that McDermott sold his vote, or it can be termed horsetrading. But what horsetrading have we received from Mathias?

I also wanted to see what those on the other side of the political spectrum think. This is from a blog called Seventh State, which is a liberal site. In handicapping the 38th District races, David Lublin wrote back in March:

Backed by Rep. Andy Harris, one of my Eastern Shore sources describes McDermott as “to the right of Genghis Khan” on both social and fiscal issues. No one would confuse comparatively moderate Mathias with a Western Shore liberal but the difference between him and McDermott cannot be missed.

Actually, I would pretty much confuse Mathias with a Western Shore liberal given the preponderance of his votes. But honestly I don’t think the 38th District at large would truly mind “to the right of Genghis Khan” because it’s a conservative district. (It’s also an interesting comparison given what we know about the Mongol ruler.) Ours is also a district which chafes at the influence of Annapolis in its affairs, and considering Mathias has received a large portion of his six-figure campaign account from PACs and out-of-area donors, you have to wonder which of these two would be fighting out of our corner.

In a recent PAC-14 interview, McDermott said, “(W)e need leaders from the shore to go up there and represent our values.” Having heard Mike McDermott speak on a number of occasions, I think he would be a great addition to the Senate because he has shown over the last four years that he does the better job of that than his opponent.

Jim Mathias is a nice guy, but in this instance nice guys should finish last.

To re-coin a phrase

It took a few days for word to filter out through the local media, but I was very pleased to see Larry Hogan borrow a phrase which has become a rallying cry to some here on this side of the Chesapeake. According to Gail Dean of the Dorchester Star:

For the past eight years in Annapolis, Hogan said, “There’s been a war on rural Maryland. There’s been a war on the Eastern Shore and there’s been a outright assault on watermen and farmers” and other small businesses.

Dean describes what Hogan said about watermen and farmers, and they were all very good points. But those only cover a few fronts on the War on Rural Maryland and its impact on the Eastern Shore.

For example, let’s start a conversation about private property rights in this state. Due to the ill-advised Senate Bill 236 of 2012 – better known as the septic bill – counties are forced to either draw restrictive tier maps or endure an even more draconian rule on subdivisions cast upon them by onerous state law. In 2013 there was an effort made by local Delegates to repeal the so-called “Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012,” the original of which incidentally was sponsored by a Governor who was a former mayor of Baltimore and five Senators from suburban districts. What they know about either sustainable growth or agricultural preservation is probably less than the intelligence of the average farmer or waterman’s pinkie finger.

(It should also be noted that Norm Conway voted FOR Senate Bill 236 [and against farmers] and so did Jim Mathias on the original Senate third reading. He changed his vote to no on the conference bill, perhaps because he knew what the fallout would be.)

Obviously my question is whether Hogan would look to repeal that bill, or make other moves to restore county autonomy in zoning. I know Hogan is gun-shy about repealing law already in place – and yes, that phrase was intentional – but he should know downzoning isn’t popular in local farming circles. Another whisper for Hogan’s “open ear” on that same front would be a moratorium imposed on new Chesapeake Bay regulations until after the Conowingo Dam sediment cleanup is complete.

Now, as far as the War on the Eastern Shore, I think one step in assisting us would be to waive the sales tax for the nine counties on that side of the Chesapeake in order to better compete with sales-tax free Delaware. (All but one of those counties shares a border with Delaware.) If the state can have the precedents of tax-free days for school clothes and various regulations which only apply to certain counties or regions, I think this is one way of jump-starting the local economy and encouraging growth in a region which generally lags the state in employment. It’s also an idea which has been tried and failed in the General Assembly on several occasions, so perhaps it needs a gubernatorial champion. And wouldn’t it be neat to see the phrase “By Request – Administration” on some good bills for a change?

So I’m glad Hogan gets it as far as Eastern Shore matters are concerned, because we would likely never reach our potential under a third term of Martin O’Malley in the guise of Anthony Brown.

Twisting in the wind

No, I’m not talking about a political figure today. Instead, I received an e-mail from the American Wind Energy Association telling me about the state of the wind industry and how its costs are falling rapidly. (This blog post at Into the Wind, the AWEA blog site, has the same information.)

If you look at points 1 through 4, they make varying amounts of sense. With the maturation of the market, it’s no stretch to assume that costs would go down just as they would for any technology. Personally, though, I disagree with the premise that additional carbon emissions are necessarily bad, particularly when the idea is to blame them for climate change. Nearly two decades of steady temperatures combined with the increasing emissions seem to me a fairly good testament that increasing emissions aren’t the problem.

It’s point number 5 that’s the payoff for me, because I knew it would be coming sooner or later.

5. Policy support is still essential for the U.S. to keep scaling up renewable energy

The Lazard study also highlights the need for clear, long-term policy support for renewable energy. While projects located at some of the best wind resources in the country are now cost-competitive, it notes that this is still not the case in most regions. The most recent expiration of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) resulted in a 92% drop in new wind projects from 2012 to 2013.

The PTC helps correct for flaws in our electricity market design that do not value wind’s benefits for protecting the environment and consumers. Wind energy creates billions of dollars in economic value by drastically reducing pollution that harms public health and the environment, but wind energy does not get paid for that even though consumers bear many of those costs.

Wind energy also protects consumers from price increases for fuel, but that is not accounted for in the highly regulated electricity market because other energy sources get to pass their fuel price increases directly on to consumers who have little choice in the matter.

Policies like the PTC correct for those market failures to reach a more efficient market outcome. The PTC has expired, however, for any project not started by the end of last year. An extension is now urgent to avoid shutting down the U.S. manufacturing base, and to ensure that more wind farms are built so that more consumers can benefit from these record low prices.

Yet what if the lack of subsidy isn’t a market failure as they describe? In the original blog post there’s a graphic which shows that every time the tax subsidy is cut, the amount of wind capacity installed plummets. Between that subsidy and the various renewable portfolio standards enacted by many states (including Maryland) it seems to me they artificially prop up the wind energy market, which can’t stand on its own otherwise. This approach is the same argument which posits a carbon tax is necessary because fossil fuel users aren’t paying for the supposed destruction of the environment and public health they create, but discounts the increased standard of living brought on by the usage of reliable sources of electricity to, among other things, improve public health.

Another thing worth pointing out about these studies and reports is that they look strictly at land-based wind turbines. While they are falling in price, researchers around the world are finding that residents nearby are complaining about a litany of health issues derived from the constant noise. Naturally, naysayers would contend that other methods of power generation, such as fracking, also have ill effects but these are anecdotal as well.

So while offshore wind would seem to be a solution, the cost is far more prohibitive. Maryland’s 2013 offshore wind bill, for example, subsidizes the effort through both an increase in the required renewable energy portfolio and $1.7 billion in direct subsidy over 20 years, parceled out as an $18 annual surcharge to residential consumers and a 1.5% hike for businesses. (A business paying $1,000 a month, such as a restaurant, would have to add $180 a year.) Naturally this doesn’t take into account the penchant for our General Assembly, once a new tax or surcharge is enacted, to declare it’s not enough and raise the tariff accordingly. I give it no more than 5 years before someone demands to raise the fee to $30 or $40 annually and hike commercial users up to a 2% or 3% a month surcharge just to keep the business in Maryland’s waters.

It would seem that wind power is a logical way to create electricity in certain locations and situations, but for general use it has the drawback of not being as strictly reliable as fossil fuels are. The fact that we have to create a renewable energy portfolio tells me that the market has otherwise spoken.

We really haven’t heard about this as an issue for the 2014 election, but I would presume the Brown administration would continue on this path as they promise to:

Expand our renewable mix with investments in (read: subsidies for) Maryland-based solar and wind, which can both create new jobs and reduce air pollution that affects the health of everyday Marylanders.

It would be my hope that Larry Hogan would revisit this effort, backing legislation to eliminate this expensive renewable energy portfolio and repealing the prospect of higher electricity rates come 2017 – at the very least, recast this scheme as an opt-in program just like consumer choice has already created with companies like Ethical Electric, which I wrote about last year. Let the market decide how much it wants to support the renewable energy boondoggle, and how many of us simply crave the reliability of knowing that when we flip the switch, the light will turn on.

Reliable bogeymen

You know the other side has nothing in their bag of ideas when you see this recycled old chestnut of an appeal for cash:

This from the side with a President who regularly finds millionaires willing to fork over big bucks to get their slice of the government pie.

But I presume these guys are counting the Americans for Prosperity as part of the “hundreds of millions of dollars,” which is funny because while reports attempt to spin the news that the Koch brothers are raising up to $290 million to spend, it’s not like Democratic backers like Tom Steyer and the venerable George Soros are standing still.

Yet what do all these participants stand for? In the case of Soros, he’s donated millions over the years to reliably left-wing causes and opined after the 2010 election wipeout that Barack Obama didn’t fight hard enough for cherished progressive causes. Instead:

While Soros’s comment gave some attendees the impression that he’d cheer a primary challenge to the president, the point, sources say, was different. Rather, it is time to shuffle funds into a progressive infrastructure that will take on the tasks that the president can’t or won’t take on.

“People are determined to help build a progressive infrastructure and make sure it is there not just in the months ahead but one that will last in the long term,” said Anna Burger, the retired treasury secretary of SEIU. “Instead of being pushed over by this election it has empowered people to stand up in a bigger way.”

“There was frustration,” said one Democratic operative who attended the meetings. The main concern was about messaging. I think they are frustrated that the president isn’t being more direct. But I did not get the sense that anyone’s commitment to the progressive movement was wavering… The general consensus is that support has to move beyond being about one person and more about a movement. I don’t know if we’ve moved beyond there.”

One of those “movement” ventures is an outside-government arm to match conservatives in the 2012 elections. For several weeks, discussions have been led by Media Matters for America founder David Brock about the need to create a group that will run advertisements, conduct opposition research and perform rapid response functions. (Emphasis mine.)

As an example of this concept, just look at the movement to increase the minimum wage. I don’t think the SEIU is doing this by themselves.

In Steyer’s case, he’s out pushing for the extinction of fossil fuels, despite being a major benefactor from them over the years. (This would be a fun debate to watch.) Imagine the increase in costs and decrease in living standards a wholesale overnight embrace of renewables would cause. Until we can make the sun shine and the wind blow steadily 24 hours a day, we have a problem. (In terms of naturally occurring energy gathering, it would seem hydroelectric would be the best choice, but that’s also climate-dependent: a drought would dry up supply.)

So consider what the Koch brothers have helped to create: the Cato Institute, a libertarian, small-government think tank and Americans for Prosperity (who would be against prosperity?) They also built up the family business and became billionaires in the process – isn’t that the American Dream writ large? (They also support other causes, as this tongue-in-cheek post notes.)

If the Democrats have to use the Koch brothers – who built a successful life for themselves with a minimum of government assistance and would like others to follow in their footsteps – as an example of evil because they support Republicans, we know they have nothing.

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.

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.

This will leave a mark

Although Jenna Johnson’s Washington Post piece described Governor Martin O’Malley as “brusque…terse and often lack(ing) patience” during a Board of Public Works meeting, that meeting still netted Dominion Resources another small step toward investing $3.8 billion into upgrading their Cove Point facility by allowing them a tidal wetlands license. O’Malley joined Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp in approving the permit, leaving only federal authorities in the way. The permit was for a temporary pier to offload construction supplies for the project, which environmentalists fear will lead to further extraction of natural gas in the region for export.

To me, it wasn’t a vote O’Malley wanted to take, and he really didn’t have to – his vote against would have only made it a 2-1 decision. But to do otherwise would have left another black mark on his administration’s legacy of making Maryland one of the states most unfriendly to business in the nation, even though the permit would have gone through.

And it’s not like environmentalists aren’t winning the war despite losing that battle – the prospect of fracking in Western Maryland is growing dimmer by the day given some market saturation and the outlandish regulations proposed for drilling – never mind the possible benefits that would bring. But O’Malley had to disappoint the few hundred who are passionately opposing the remodeling of the LNG terminal in Calvert County.

Cove PointAt this point, though, it’s all about promoting the legacy and let’s face it: are the environmentalists going to vote for Larry Hogan? Well, there is that slight possibility but when the Washington AFL-CIO and other trade unions support Cove Point, O’Malley can’t afford to alienate that group. That’s hundreds or even thousands of motivated voters he has to keep in the Anthony Brown camp. So Martin O’Malley will hold his nose and vote for Cove Point, all the while hoping that his buddies at the EPA or somewhere else in the federal government will bail him out by turning thumbs-down on the project at a late stage. After all, if they can stall the Keystone XL pipeline for this long, pushing back a project just a few miles outside Washington, D.C. is almost a no-brainer to them.

So when Martin O’Malley acts like a petulant child in a meeting because he knows he has to take an unpopular vote, we shouldn’t feel any sympathy for him. He’s left a whole lot on the table insofar as benefiting from our American energy boom goes and he knows it.

 

The bad news for good performance

If you go to the gas pump, you’ve probably noticed the little sign that says the blend is “10% ethanol.” For several years, the EPA has mandated a certain amount of ethanol be used to slake America’s thirst for gasoline, with a 10% blend of ethanol being just enough to cover the mandate. Unfortunately, with less gasoline being necessary to meet demand thanks to both a stagnant economy and more fuel-efficient cars, the mandated amount of ethanol isn’t being used anymore. I noted the other day that the oil companies were calling on the EPA to scrap the proposed mandate increase this year.

When I wrote that I wasn’t aware that a movement is out there to not just stop at E-15 but go all the way to E-30. Oddly enough, I saw a piece from Rick Weiland, who I referred to in my dark money post, which brought it to my attention. (Damn, that dude has made it on here twice in one week. After he loses that race, he’ll probably move to Maryland and run with his newfound name recognition here.) So I did a quick bit of research and found there is a movement out there which believes E-30 is actually the optimum amount of ethanol to take best advantage of its attributes. Weiland is obviously driving a vehicle tuned to that specification and there are actual service stations which have the blend in his region – in both cases, the average motorist isn’t usually going to have that condition. A check of this site revealed no such stations around Delmarva, so it wouldn’t do us much good.

Needless to say, what the market won’t do government will force. So Senate Democrats are pushing the EPA to increase the mandate, meaning that they’ll artificially create a market for higher ethanol blends. (Flex-fuel cars are supposed to be able to handle E-15, but they’ve never been a popular option because they’re not as fuel-efficient running an E-15 blend. It’s telling that you see a lot of government cars with that option, but not a lot of private cars.)

But let’s say the mandated number of gallons increases. The scarcity will be in the E-10 or straight gasoline which smaller motors need to run properly; in addition, the cost of anything which consumes or has corn as an ingredient will rise. It’s why so many different groups advocated for a smaller ethanol mandate.

If we really wanted to do something to use less gasoline, it makes more sense to me to impose part of the Pickens Plan. Now I don’t think wind power is the way to go because it’s not as reliable as fossil fuels, but I think running fleets on natural gas is a fairly good idea for the reasons they state. To me, using food as fuel for automobiles doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – and yes, I know Brazil uses sugar cane for their ethanol. Brazil can use all the sugar cane it wants.

But I look closer to home, and our chicken farmers want their feed to be as inexpensive as possible. Corn growers already have plenty of mouths to feed, so they really don’t need to fill our gas tanks, too.

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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)
    Chris 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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    Carl Anderton, Jr. (R)

    Norm Conway (D)

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    Mary Beth Carozza. (R)

    Judy Davis (D)

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    Rick Pollitt (D)

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    Matt Holloway (R)
    Laura Mitchell (D)

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    Kirby Travers (D)

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    Josh Hastings (D)