Dealing with facts in Senate District 38 (first of four parts)

You’ve seen some of the flyers that have come to my mailbox: trust me, more have arrived and there’s probably more to come. But between the claims and counterclaims there’s one thing that is real – and it’s the very reason I created the monoblogue Accountability Project (mAP) eleven years ago.

Over the last four years, both Mary Beth Carozza and Jim Mathias have had the opportunity to vote on most of the 100 bills I selected to be part of one of the four editions of the mAP from 2015 to 2018. (A handful were committee votes, which seldom overlap – but did in one case in 2015.) So over the next few days I’m going to illustrate just what the differences were, beginning in this installment with the 2015 session of the Maryland General Assembly – their first as a team.

In 2015 Mary Beth Carozza received a score of 56 on the mAP by being credited with 14 correct votes but having 11 incorrect ones. Meanwhile in the Senate Jim Mathias reached his term high score of 40 on the mAP by making 10 correct votes and 15 incorrect. (Jim’s all-time high was when he scored a 53.12 rating in the 2007 Special Session, done in the days before I standardized the number of votes. That session was based on 15 total votes in the House of Delegates, where Jim served at the time.) Three of Jim’s ten correct votes, though, were at the committee level, and two were not common votes. They both voted against HB1094, Mary Beth on the House floor and Jim as part of the Senate Finance Committee.

What I’m going to drill down into are the featured floor votes where they parted company – in the case of the 2015 legislative session there are a total of 10 such votes out of the 25 I used for the mAP. Of those ten, there were eight which were correctly voted upon by Mary Beth Carozza but not Jim Mathias, and two that were voted on correctly by Mathias and not Carozza. Those two in Jim’s favor were both in the realm of civil liberties: one (SB651) was a provision to allow expungement of a crime if it’s no longer on the books (tailored for those convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana, which was on its way to becoming a civil offense as opposed to criminal) and the other (HB360) a reform of civil forfeiture laws. Yet while Jim was good on those two, he still opted to maintain the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a criminal offense rather than converting it to a civil offense (HB105). Jim was one of just three Senators saying no, even as the law did not pass in 2015.

Jim also voted badly on a number of measures that should have been left out of state law. Since health care has been a hot topic in this campaign, it should be noted that one of them (HB838/SB416) raised insurance rates significantly in order to allow a handful of same-sex couples coverage for in vitro fertilization.

Public records were a key topic in that session as well. Jim supported a measure which would allow those who undergo treatment for gender changes to also change their birth certificate without it being noted that this wasn’t an original document (HB862/SB743), but more importantly for most he also supported a $5.2 million annual fee increase for the public through court filing fees rather than allowing it to be charged to the attorneys (HB54.)

Another tax Mathias supported, even over the veto of the governor he swears he’s working with, was the so-called “travel tax” that allowed the state to collect full-rate sales tax on rooms where the rates were discounted (SB190.) And that’s not all the anti-business law Jim supported: no longer could employers and employees agree to waive certain types of paid leave (HB345) – of course, the state was kept exempt.

But perhaps the most misunderstood differences were in HB70 and HB72. HB70 was that year’s state budget, and it’s been the subject of one Mathias mailing already. So to recap: Mary Beth was fine with that budget until it was amended by the Senate and backroom dealings.

It appears the same thing happened with HB72, which was that year’s BRFA act. In order to make things work fiscally and keep a balanced budget as required by law, sometimes previous laws need to be changed, and the favored vehicle for that is generally called the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, or BRFA. In that session Carozza voted for the original House version but once the Senate got hold of it she didn’t like the changes and voted no. Meanwhile, her Senate opponent was just fine with doing as much as possible to thwart Governor Hogan’s intentions.

And to think: this is only the first of four years. Here is the second.

A day of significance

April 20 may have just seemed like a lovely and warm spring day around these parts, but in the counterculture community the date 4-20 has significance. Those who smoke the ‘ganja’ tend to attach a little more importance to today than others.

So perhaps this is a good time to question our approach to the war on drugs and marijuana legalization. (No, I’m not a charter member of NORML, but hear me out.)

Over the years, I’ve began to wonder what the point was in being so harsh on a certain substance when other addictive compounds are legal and even produce revenue for the state. Alcohol will soon be counted on to assist in making a dent in Maryland’s budget deficit thanks to a 50% increase in its sales tax, while tobacco is an annual target for increasing state income.

Meanwhile, support has been growing (no pun intended) for relaxing the state’s marijuana laws when it comes to the use of medical marijuana, which some claim is the only method which works for easing their pain. Obviously that system can be abused (Michigan may be one example) but this is a step toward a little more sensibility in marijuana statutes.

The way I look at it, I don’t see growing marijuana for one’s personal use as any different than home brewing or, if the climate allowed it locally, growing your own tobacco for rolling your own cigars. Certainly there should be penalties on the books for overindulgence in pot just as there are for drunkenness (since both marijuana and alcohol have adverse effects with overuse) but I fail to see the problem if someone wants to grow a few pot (as opposed to potted) plants in their house. In fact, I think the government cracks down on the sale of the stuff so harshly because they don’t get a cut – watch their attitudes change if Mary Jane ever becomes legal and taxable. (Then they can broaden the scope of their frequent anti-smoking screeds to include marijuana as well as tobacco. What a bunch of hypocrites.)

Now, before you start wondering, I don’t smoke the stuff nor have I had the desire to do so. But I have friends and family members who do or did at some period in their lives, and they haven’t had any long-term issues insofar as I can tell with society at large. This just goes with the libertarian streak I have about ‘live and let live’ and likely sets me apart from the average Republican who supports a robust war on drugs. (In reality, ‘just say no’ was simple enough as it was and didn’t really need millions of tax dollars behind it.)

The other argument regarding legalization centers around the situation in Mexico, where a significant portion of their internal strife stems from the fact that a number of crime families make their fortunes feeding America’s hunger for illicit drugs. Perhaps, the argument goes, legalizing marijuana would reduce the influence and cashflow of those crime families.

Well, the Eighteenth Amendment certainly fueled the rise of organized crime in America, but mobsters didn’t dry up and blow away once that ill-considered addition to the Constitution was nullified by the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933. Mexican crime families will have several other drugs which will (and probably should) remain illegal to push across our border. So I can’t see that aspect of the argument carrying a great deal of weight.

I suppose the question comes down to this: is marijuana a ‘gateway’ drug? For some, it certainly was – but many thousands of others never graduated to the harder stuff because they only smoked weed on an occasional, recreational basis.

Maybe the solution comes down to this: why not a trial legalization? For a period of ten years, wipe out the federal laws against pot and see what the effects are. After a decade, it will be apparent whether those who fret legalization will bring about a nation of stoners would be correct, or whether those who feel marijuana is essentially harmless will be vindicated. True, it could be difficult to put the genie back into the bottle but I tend to favor fewer laws over more restrictions and this would be a good test case for a number of theories.

My bet is that the drive for recriminalization will be inversely proportional to the amount of money government would make through marijuana’s taxation. As always with government, it’s all about the Benjamins.