The War on Rural Maryland: a counterattack from the hinterland

In the ongoing quest by Martin O’Malley and his administration to burnish his environmental credentials for a possible presidential run, the farmers of the Eastern Shore have been placed squarely in his crosshairs. I suppose this is MOM’s way to catch the fourteen counties not yet affected by his “rain tax,” although some local municipalities are joining in on that fun without waiting on the mandate.

At the beginning of the month, the administration began once again to try and enact the Phosphorus Management Tool, or PMT. The timing was important because the mandated public comment period comes to a close December 31, three weeks before MOM rides off into the proverbial sunset. Appeals for a public hearing have thus far fallen on deaf ears, so the comment period is really the only opportunity to make our voice heard. (Comments should be addressed to Maryland’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Hance. His e-mail address is earl.hance@maryland.gov.)

Needless to say, the environmentalists are thrilled about this prospect, including a “Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition” which doesn’t have a single farming-related entity within it. They note the 48,000 pounds (24 tons) of phosphorus the PMT is supposed to alleviate. Remember that number because it comes up later.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC) chimed in with its appeal, which states in part:

In furtherance of this objective and in the interests of its individual county members, the Coalition opposes the re-proposed regulations and requests MDA to withdraw the regulations for the reasons explained below. In sum, the implementation costs to farmers, the costs to taxpayers, the adverse impacts on local and regional economies, and the overall added strain from more piled on Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) driven regulations far outweigh the purported reduction in overall phosphorus loading to Maryland waters and other speculative environmental benefits that may result from the PMT regulations.

In reading their ten-page letter to Secretary of Agriculture Earl Hance, the points made by the CCC appear to be as follows:

  • The economic effect on businesses is “grossly understate(d).” While the BEACON study was done in order to satisfy the demand for a study of these effects, its author admits it “was not meant to serve as a comprehensive economic impact study.”
  • Remember that 24 tons of phosphorus these regulations address, at a cost of $61 million over six years in increased expenses from farmers and state subsidies? The flow running through the Conowingo Dam spews out 3,300 tons of phosphorus a year – it’s like sticking your finger in the hole in the dike and ignoring the water pouring over the top. Meanwhile, the pond behind the dam has another 130,000 tons just waiting to be scoured out in a significant storm event.
  • Phosphorus concentration in tributaries of the Susquehanna River north of the dam is over 3.5 times greater than comparable tributaries on the Eastern Shore.

On that last point, it’s helpful to use the illustration the CCC provides:

Phosphorus is loaded into the Bay at an average annual rate of 3,300 tons (6,600,000 lbs.) from the Susquehanna River; not including what is scoured from the full reservoirs in the lower Susquehanna during storm events and on a more regular basis. Maryland’s annual average phosphorus loading to the Bay from agriculture of 985 tons (1,970,000 lbs.) is minimal when compared to the Susquehanna River.

Earlier this month, Exelon withdrew its request for renewal of its hydroelectric license at Conowingo Dam because more study of its effects on water quality downstream were desired. The utility has agreed to spend up to $3.5 million on studies of water quality downstream. It appears they’ve also become aware of the detrimental effects on the Chesapeake Bay, yet the environmentalists don’t seem to be interested nearly as much in Exelon and in the Conowingo Dam as they are the poultry industry.

A Washington Post story over the weekend noted the controversy, including remarks from Wicomico County farmer Lee Richardson, who seems to be something of a go-to guy when it comes to poultry growers. Many of the reader comments on the Post piece, though, illustrate the divide between the urban and suburban hipster whose idea of poultry is the organic chicken they buy at Whole Foods and the beleaguered grower who already has to comply with numerous state and federal guidelines without having to worry about arrangements to truck chicken droppings out of the area. The Post readers blame the industry itself, saying that its not carrying its weight in addressing the concerns about water quality – bear in mind these are the people who were just fine with enacting a nickel-per-bird “chicken tax” called the Poultry Fair Share Act which was supposed to raise $15 million a year.

In that fiscal note from the Senate bill, it’s noted that the Eastern Shore has “over 700″ poultry farmers. For ease of calculations, I’ll set the number at 750. If the cost to farmers is $22.5 million over 6 years – as estimated in the BEACON study – it works out to $30,000 per farmer over the six-year period or $5,000 a year. That’s a significant compliance cost – assuming, of course, it’s really true because government estimates are generally optimistic on revenues and short on expenditures.

So here’s hoping that our efforts can bear fruit and stop this particular piece of madness once and for all. There’s still time to comment.

The start of something good?

Last week, Mark Green at the Energy Tomorrow blog posted a critique of the proposed fracking regulations Maryland may adopt in the waning days of the O’Malley administration. In his piece, Green stressed that Maryland needed to adopt “sensible” restrictions but feared Maryland would go too far. It was echoed in the Washington Post story by John Wagner that Green cites.

But the money quote to me comes out of the Post:

“In the short term, as a practical matter, the industry will probably choose to frack in other states than Maryland where the standards are lower,” O’Malley said. But in the longer term, he said, “it could well be that responsible operations may well choose to come here.”

Or maybe not, which seems to have been the goal of O’Malley and Radical Green all along. It’s funny that they don’t seem to have the objections to wind turbines dotting the landscape despite their own health issues. Certainly no one studied them to death.

Being a representative of the energy industry, Green naturally argues that “sensible” regulations are similar to those already in place in states which already permit the practice. As he notes:

Hydraulic fracturing guidelines developed by industry – many of them incorporated into other states’ regulatory regimes – offer a sound approach proved by actual operations.

I can already hear the howling from Radical Green about the fox guarding the hen house, and so forth. But is it truly in the interest of industry to foul its own nest?

On the other hand, the success of fracking and other domestic exploration may create an interesting situation. Even back in October, when oil had declined to $90 a barrel from a June peak of nearly $115 a barrel, analysts were speculating on the effects the drop would have on the budgets of OPEC member nations. Now that oil in closing in on $60 a barrel, the economic effects on certain nations will be even more profound, and contrarian economic observers are already warning that the oil boom is rapidly turning into a bust with a ripple effect on our economy.

Even the revenue scheme by which Maryland would collect a sales tax on gasoline depended on gas prices staying somewhere over $3 a gallon. Assuming the price of gasoline stays at about $2.70 per gallon through the first of the year, the predicted 8-cent per-gallon rate will only be 5.4 cents. (The sales tax on gasoline is slated to increase to 2% on January 1.)

In any case, there is a price point at which non-traditional oil extraction such as fracking or extraction from tar sands – the impetus for the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline – becomes economically non-viable. I had always heard that number was $75 per barrel, which was a number we had consistently hovered above for the last half-decade. Now that we are under that number, the question of exploration in Maryland may be moot for the short-term, although the price of natural gas is only slightly below where it was this time last year so that play is still feasible.

Whether the decline in oil prices is real or a manipulation of the market by a Saudi-led OPEC which is playing chicken with prices to try and restore its bargaining position by outlasting domestic producers, it may be yet another missed opportunity for Maryland as it could have cashed in during a difficult recession and recovery if not for an administration which believed the scare tactics and not what they saw with their own eyes as neighboring Pennsylvania thrived.

‘Made in America’ gains strength in November

It was good news in November for manufacturers, at least as expressed on the employment front – based on the November jobs report and revisions to previous reports, the sector gained 48,000 workers over that timeframe.

Naturally, manufacturing supporters were cheered by the news, with the union-backed Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) noting that Barack Obama is now over 1/4 of the way to his promise of a million new manufacturing jobs in his second term, while economist Chad Mowbray of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) trade group pointed out robust growth in new orders was beginning to translate into new employees.

However, both groups saw some clouds among the silver linings. In the case of AAM, their complaint was the “failure to stop currency manipulation by China and Japan” while NAM cited “headwinds such as rising health care costs and regulatory burdens.”

Each complaint has some validity, but for the majority of manufacturers the specter of operational costs is a key deterrent to expansion or even staying in business. While it’s not manufacturing in a traditional sense – and certainly applies on a more limited scale than federal edicts which can overturn an entire industry – one example could be how the local processing of chicken would take a blow from ill-advised state phosphorus regulations that have the potential to drive the poultry business to different areas of the country. Needless to say, such a result would be devastating to this part of the state, leaving just tourism and some limited local services to provide the employment to support our region.

And while I’m mentioning Maryland politics, I may as well make one other pronouncement here. As I followed his gubernatorial campaign for a year, I paid attention to how Ron George studied and shared his thoughts on the prospect of making things in Maryland. I hope Larry Hogan can utilize Ron’s passion and expertise in his administration. While we would love to score an auto plant or other similarly large employer in this area of the state, a more realistic goal might be to, as Ron stressed during his campaign, fill up the existing facilities and areas several towns on the Eastern Shore have already laid out for manufacturing. To use a local example, adding 100 jobs for Wicomico County residents would immediately shave 0.2% off our unemployment rate, not to mention bring up the standard of living for everyone else.

A week ago yesterday we celebrated Small Business Saturday, but the best way to support them (other than shopping there) would be to make their lives easier by calling off the government regulator’s dogs and encouraging them to grow so that sometime down the road we can be the manufacturing power we once were.

Baltimore keeps their bags (at least for now)

Back in November I informed you about the bag tax in Baltimore that turned into an outright ban. Well, the same folks who alerted me to the ban let me know that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed the measure, a veto which is expected to survive a Council vote.

I do have to comment about my PR friends’ assessment of the situation, though:

It was outrageous for the Baltimore City Council to think it could play games behind the scenes and pass a bill without any public input. Thankfully, this abuse of power did not go unchecked.

I suspect if they were a cloth bag maker, though, this ban would have been just hunky-dory. Regardless, the needs of Baltimore grocers and retailers will continue to be served in part by Novolex, the plastic bag supplier who hired the PR firm. It’s likely many of those bags come from one of Novolex’s 12 plants, with the closest being in the central Pennsylvania hamlet of Milesburg. With the exception of one Novolex plant in Canada, you’ve got to like that American manufacturing.

Yet the question has to be asked: why does a plastic bag company need a PR firm aside from having to deal with these ill-advised bans and taxes?

At the risk of dating myself, I came of age before the question of “paper or plastic” ever came up, and long before the paper bag became a rare commodity. In my youth, those paper bags were filled by the pockmarked teenage bag boys who took the items from the checkout lady who keyed in the prices (stamped with ink onto the can or box) in rapid-fire fashion on her cash register. That bag boy also took the paper bags out to your car.

So I remember how skeptical people were about the plastic bags because they were so small and it took four or five to hold what it took a couple paper bags to handle – not to mention the fact the bag boy was rendered obsolete. But you rarely had to worry about a plastic bag tearing apart, and while there were lost opportunities in creating book covers and having a handy supply of bags for the burn barrel (yes, we lived in the country) we eventually found plastic bags were much more useful. Moreover, for every plastic bag which ends up polluting a stream or blowing down the street, there are probably twenty to fifty which were recycled or disposed of properly.

But my original question still remains: with the crime, poor schools, and lack of opportunity in Baltimore, why is a plastic bag ban even taking up the time of their City Council? Rest assured they will try it again in a year or two, as will the Maryland General Assembly even with a pro-business governor. Liberals never seem to take ‘no’ for an answer.

So I suspect that Edelman will keep my name on their mailing list and let me know of any other local threats to their plastic bag-making client. Cloth bags just aren’t my style anyway.

A lack of standards

In 2007, Congress passed (and President Bush regrettably signed) a bill which was, at the time, a sweeping reform of energy policy. As part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the EPA was supposed to regulate the Renewable Fuel Standard on an annual basis, with the eventual goal of supplying 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022 – the 2014 standard was set at 18.15 billion gallons (page 31 here.) By the way, this is the same bill that did away with incandescent light bulbs.

Unfortunately, for the second straight year the EPA is late with its update and last month they decided to take a pass altogether on 2014. Mark Green at the Energy Tomorrow blog writes on this from the petroleum industry perspective, while the ethanol industry took the decision as news that the EPA was staving off a possible reduction in the RFS.

We all know hindsight is 20/20 but it should be noted that, at the time the EISA was written, the conventional wisdom was in the “peak oil” camp, reckoning that American production was in a terminal decline. Yet we’ve seen a renaissance in the domestic energy industry over the last half-decade despite government’s best attempts at keeping the genie in the bottle. So the question really should be asked: is the Renewable Fuel Standard worth keeping in this new energy era, or should the market be allowed to function more freely?

It goes to show just how well the government predicts activity sometimes. They assumed that the technology behind creating biofuels from agricultural waste would supplant the need for corn-based ethanol in time to maintain the amount required and also figured on gasoline usage continuing to increase. Wrong on both counts; instead, we are perhaps in a better position to invest in natural gas technology for commercial trucks as some fleet owners already have – although long-haul truckers remain skeptical based on better diesel engine fuel economy, which ironically came from government fiat - than to continue down an ethanol-based path.

But the larger benefit from removing ethanol-based standards would accrue to consumers, as corn prices would decline to a more realistic value. Obviously the initial plummet in the corn futures market would lead to farmers planting more acreage for other crops such as soybeans or wheat as well as maintaining virgin prairie or placing marginal farmland, such as thousands of acres previously reserved for conservation easements, back out of service.

Poultry growers in this region would love to see a drop in the price of corn as well, as it would improve their bottom line and slowly work its way into the overall food market by decreasing the price consumers pay for chicken.

I believe it’s time for Congress to address this issue by repealing the RFS. Unfortunately, it would take a lot to prevail on many of the majority Republicans in the Senate because they come from the major corn-growing states in the Midwest and agricultural subsidies of any sort are portrayed as vital to maintain the health of rural America. Yet the corn market would only be destabilized for a short time; once the roughly 30% share of the crop used to create ethanol (over 4.6 billion bushels) is absorbed by the simple method of planting a different crop or leaving marginal land fallow, the prices will rise again.

Until the common sense of not processing a vital edible product into fuel for transport prevails, though, we will likely be stuck with this ridiculous standard. Corn is far better on the cob than in the tank, and it’s high time the EPA is stripped of this market-bending authority.

A long, cold winter

I’ve referred to this writer recently, but energy maven Marita Noon had a piece at NetRightDaily today talking about the difficulties customers in the Northeast may have this winter with electricity. It got me to thinking about the local situation, as we had a rough winter last year and indications are we’ll have more of the same this year.

While the Eastern Shore of Maryland is situated in a slightly better place for solar electricity than the Northeast, the reality is that very little of our electricity comes from renewable sources. Instead, the two closest power plants in the Delmarva Power region where we live are in Vienna, Maryland and Millsboro, Delaware. Both of those plants were once owned by Delmarva Power, but were sold in 2001 to NRG. According to NRG, the Vienna plant is a 167 MW oil-burning plant while Indian River in Millsboro uses coal to create 410 MW (and has a 16 MW oil-burning unit as well.) Another plant under construction in Dover, owned by Calpine, will add 309 MW of natural gas-fired capacity once it comes online beginning next year. Calpine also owns a number of small, locally-based “just in case” plants in the region as well – two of these oil-burning facilities are in Crisfield, Maryland and Tasley, Virginia.

The other regional power supplier, Choptank Electric Cooperative, produces about 2/5 of its supply from plants in Cecil County, Maryland and Virginia with the remaining electricity being purchased from various regional suppliers.

Infrastructure is also a concern. Several years ago there were plans to create the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway, a transmission line which would extend from Virginia to Delaware, connecting the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant and others in that region with the aforementioned Vienna and Indian River plants. But those plans were scrapped a few years ago due to slowing demand, which is unfortunate because our transmission otherwise comes exclusively from the north through Delaware.

In order to create good jobs, we need reliable sources of energy. Unfortunately, regulations aren’t on the side of plants like Vienna or Indian River so it may be time to think about encouraging investment in another natural gas-based power plant on Delmarva, with the requisite infrastructure to ensure supply. According to Calpine, the Dover site can expand to double its capacity but that would only partially replace the Indian River plant if it is forced offline. Realistically, though, the new power plant would probably be best sited in Delaware as it’s closer to the main body of pipeline infrastructure for natural gas.

But the new power plant is good news for the region, particularly in light of the issues Noon points out in her piece on the Northeast. With thousands of consumers using electricity to heat their homes in one way or another – either directly through baseboard heating or with a furnace and blower or pump – reliability is key. And when solar panels are buried in snow or wind turbines are frozen in place, they’re not much use.

Unhinged

Rather than talk about the executive amnesty that I fear the Republican leadership in Washington will find a way to accommodate, I want to show you how the other half lives.

Many months ago I somehow got on the mailing list of a liberal Democratic candidate named Rick Weiland, who ran and lost this month for the Senate seat in South Dakota. Senator-elect Mike Rounds crushed Weiland by 20 points in the election but for some reason Weiland still thinks he’s relevant and decided to take out his frustrations using the Keystone XL pipeline vote as the vehicle. While I took out the fundraising appeal links, this is still fun to observe:

The only crock bigger than the Keystone Pipeline is Senate Democrats dumping on our environment to try to save one of their own.

Talk about business as usual, talk about midterm lessons unlearned, talk about just plain stupid!

You’ve already lost the Senate. Polls show that Mary Landrieu, whose runoff election you hope to influence, has absolutely no chance of winning. So what do you do, backstab your president, our Native Nations and the entire environmental community on behalf of a pipeline that will not only not create jobs or any energy security, but will pour additional billions in profits into the hands of the big money special interests who just spent a fortune to crush your party at the polls.

That’s genius, DC Democrat style. And it is the reason my campaign is not over. In fact, it has just begun. As a political party, and as a country, we have one chance and one chance only. END THE HAMMERLOCK BIG MONEY HAS ON BOTH OUR POLITICAL PARTIES.

If you would be willing to help us, click here.

For 18 months we ran for Senate with little more than my videographer son Nick, myself, a lot of shoe leather, and the help of a handful of friends with more passion and skill than common sense.

I want to keep that team together, retire our small debt, and get back into the fight, right now. If the DC Democrats selling us out on Keystone XL doesn’t show why we can’t wait, what will?

Please, send just a few bucks and stay tuned. We may have gotten washed over by the same wave that drowned so many Democrats. But unlike them, we’re not rolling over, belly up and bloated, we’re fighting on.

We are going to make South Dakota a demonstration project, and a nationwide beacon for the fight against big money.

And if you don’t think that matters to you, think about this. Does Elizabeth Warren’s voice matter beyond the boundaries of Massachusetts, or Bernie Sanders beyond Vermont, or did Paul Wellstone make any difference outside of Minnesota?

If you can help, click here.

We have assembled a merry band of very low maintenance truth tellers out here on the prairie. Keep us going with a buck or two and you’ll get the most entertaining, noisy, truth to power megaphone in America. Maybe you’ll even get a new song or two!

So stay tuned. We are not done yet, and Keystone XL shows why.

The fight for a constitutional amendment and other reforms to drive big money out of politics and put the most constitutionally ignorant Supreme Court in American history back in the jack in the box from which it sprang has got to be won or it will be Keystone XLs and stolen Presidential elections as far as the eye can see.

Yes, this guy is apparently serious. Dude, you didn’t fall victim to a “wave” when you got less than 30 percent in a statewide election. Nor does Weiland admit that there were big-money donors on his side as well – then again, the guy is way out on the edge on some issues, like ethanol, so there will always be some who think he’s the best thing since sliced bread.

While Weiland has a point about the cynical political games being played in Washington, the problem isn’t the Keystone vote, the fate of Mary Landrieu, or any sort of political contribution. In fact, I would argue the Keystone XL pipeline would be the best bet for the environment because Canada is going to extract those tar sands whether environmentalists like it or not. We can pipe the oil underground in a vessel which would provide relatively trouble-free transport or we can ship it by rail car with the inherent safety risks. (Or Canada can pipe it to the Pacific coast and send it by tanker to China, which has its own set of perils.) To me, Keystone XL makes a whole lot more sense than growing corn to be fuel for the family SUV and not food for the dinner plate.

But I suspect Rick Weiland would have found something to complain about besides his dismal electoral record – he’s now lost statewide elections in 1996, 2002, and 2014. His “fight against big money,” though, is truly against the wrong source of that massive pile of cash – after all, we spend more on many other common items than all the 2014 federal campaign spending put together.

But the $3.7 billion spent on the 2014 election is a rounding error that’s a factor of about 1 to 1,000 what the federal government spends each year. THAT is the pile of money which we need to address by shrinking it to a more appropriate Constitutional size. As I see it, less money in Washington would lead to less incentive to spend a lot on campaigns.

The example of Weiland well illustrates how the other side feels. To them, it’s all about the feelgood issue du jour, whether its the Keystone XL pipeline, the Citizens United decision, or one of another hundred things where life is unfair and the only solution is bigger government. Yet we have tried it their way for over 80 years now and problems aren’t being solved. This is the question they need to honestly ask themselves: with their track record, is government the answer to problems or does it perpetuate those issues to maintain a reason for existence? To bring it closer to home, ask yourself what happens to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation if the waterway is ever cleaned up?

We have entered the era of the perpetual campaign, which in and of itself provides a reason for being. If government was truly practiced in the best interests of the people, the big news of the day wouldn’t come from Washington or the state capitals but from the achievements of the common man which still occur throughout our nation. Getting money out of politics isn’t the answer – the solution really lies in rightsizing our government.

A bad deal all around

There are actually a couple things I want to tie together in this piece – they may seem disparate at first, but I think there’s a common thread in something I write about on a frequent basis.

For a guy whose party took a good old-fashioned ass-kicking in the midterms, Barack Obama sure is governing like he didn’t hear any of the voters, whether they showed up or not. We may like these gasoline prices which are the lowest they have been through his time in office, but he’s still determined to decimate our economy in the name of combating global warming. It was a point Peter Ingemi (aka DaTechGuy) made with some hashtag and messaging suggestions today.

In order for our economy to grow, we need to use energy. Like it or not, the vast majority of energy sources for our needs in the near-term future will be fossil fuels – thanks to advances in technology, oil and natural gas prices are reasonably cheap and supplies are plentiful.

And even if you say that cutting our greenhouse gas emissions is a worthy goal, we still are allowing China – you know, that country which seems to send us every product under the sun that’s not made here anymore because manufacturers bailed on America a couple decades back – to continue to increase its emissions. They say they would like their emissions to “peak” around 2030 – of course, that’s no iron-clad guarantee and since when have communists ever told the truth or lived up to an agreement? It’s a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Chinese and it lasts for 15 years – meanwhile, we cripple what little industry hasn’t abandoned us yet due to shortsighted government policies and the obvious feeling that corporations are cash cows for exploitation to increase spending.

So, just like Obamacare has become the descriptive term for bad health care policy, “Obama China deal” and “Obama EPA regulations” should become part of the political lexicon. Admittedly, it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well as Obamacare but all three are detrimental to our economy.

EPA regulations restricting the use of fossil fuels would interrupt what’s been a promising rebirth of an American energy industry many thought was dying just a few short years ago. Instead, they are at a point where the need for workers is great as the industry continues to expand, and writer Marita Noon hit upon a great marriage of supply and demand just in time for Veterans Day. As she notes:

The U.S. oil-and-gas industry has added millions of jobs in the past few years and expects to add more and more—especially with the new energy-friendly Republican-controlled Congress. Just the Keystone pipeline — which is now likely to be built — will employ thousands. Increased access to reserves on federal lands will demand more personnel. But finding potential hires that fit the needs of the energy industry in the general labor pool is difficult, as they lack discipline, the ability to work in a team and, often, can’t pass a drug test.

Obviously our veterans have these qualities in spades thanks to their military experience, (Similarly, veterans have been integrated into a successful local construction firm led by one of their own.)

The question of climate change isn’t one of whether it occurs, as our planet has veered between ice age and warm periods ever since its creation untold eons ago. It’s always been one of responsibility and corrective action – my view is that the sun is the prime driver of the climate and we can’t do a whole lot about that fact. Just the fact that global temperature has held near-steady over the last 18 years and not constantly risen with the amount of carbon emissions punches a hole in a lot of the global warming theory, and is a prime reason they’ve gone to the term “climate disruption.” If we ceased using energy tomorrow it wouldn’t make a dime’s worth of difference to the climate but millions would starve.

Fortunately, what Obama has proposed with China isn’t binding until the Senate says so and a climate deal is probably dead on arrival in a GOP-controlled Senate. But the EPA and other regulators can provide a backhanded way of putting our end of the China deal in effect without lawmakers having a say.

Bagging the plastic

November 11, 2014 · Posted in All politics is local, Business and industry, Maryland Politics, Politics, Radical Green · Comments Off 

In a proposal that’s wrong on so many levels, the Baltimore City Council passed a surprise measure to ban plastic grocery bags beginning next April, according to the Baltimore Sun and their reporters Yvonne Wenger and Luke Broadwater. Perhaps most interesting to me was the fact they were originally going to slap a nickel fee on each bag but changed their mind based on election results:

Baltimore Councilman James B. Kraft, the bill’s sponsor, said he backed off the idea of charging a fee for plastic bags after last week’s election. He noted the victory of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a Republican who frequently criticized Democrats for passing too many taxes and fees.

“Last week’s election around the country showed us two things: People care about progressive issues; and they do not want to pay any more taxes or fees. We got the message,” Kraft said.

Naturally, the ban would induce an additional cost on businesses because paper bags are more expensive than plastic ones.

I actually heard about this a week or so ago. I’m on the mailing list of a company called Edelman Digital Public Affairs, and one of their clients is a plastic bag manufacturer, Novolex. They’re a little behind the times with this page, but apparently the proposed ban caught a lot of people off guard.

Yet a bag tax isn’t unprecedented in the region. Washington, D.C. put a nickel-per-bag tax out in 2010, and Maryland legislators considered this same measure shortly afterward. There wasn’t a push to ban them outright until now, though.

Can plastic grocery bags cause unsightly litter? Yes. But on balance they are far more useful than paper bags and more sanitary than reusable bags that have to be washed occasionally. (Frugal people like us haven’t bought a liner for our little wastepaper baskets in years because plastic grocery bags work just fine, so we are recycling.)

To me, it’s just another intrusion of the nanny state, and an indication that Baltimore City Council has its priorities wrong: with joblessness, crime, and failing schools plaguing the city, you’re worried about plastic bags? Yet with its margin of passage in this reading, even an expected mayoral veto would do no good.

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail next week, but I’m not holding my breath.

A debate worth having

October 24, 2014 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics, Radical Green · Comments Off 

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.

Next Page »

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