A change in the First?

In the First Congressional District, winning the Republican primary is tantamount to winning the race: the latest round of gerrymandering by Maryland Democrats made sure it would be by creating an R+13 district in a state that’s nominally D+26. So what do I make of an announcement by upstart former Delegate Michael Smigiel that he has a 2-to-1 lead over incumbent Andy Harris in a pre-primary poll?

If you read between the lines, you’ll see a few interesting tidbits. And my readers may recall that my co-writer Cathy Keim talked about a survey she took a few days ago. Chances are this was the same Gravis Marketing survey Smigiel is referring to in his work, which leads me to believe this was a push poll Smigiel did to build up his support. If you’re a relative unknown in much of the district, a tactic often used is that of driving up the negatives of the established politician.

Ironically, it’s much the same tactic Harris used to win the nomination in 2008 against a well-known incumbent, Wayne Gilchrest. Wayne’s biggest issue was the leftward drift of his philosophy and voting record, so much so that a clearly upset Gilchrest later rejected his party’s nominee and endorsed the Democrat challenger, Frank Kratovil. That and the Obama wave election led to Kratovil being a one-term Congressman before Harris defeated him in the TEA Party wave election of 2010.

As Cathy described it – a manner which isn’t reflected in Smigiel’s narrative – the issue questions came first:

Calls were made to over 20,000 voters with over 600 individuals answering the poll, and results indicate that when voters were informed that Rep. Harris had voted to fully fund Obamacare, 82 percent (82%) of the Republican primary voters surveyed would not vote for Harris.

When voters were aware that Rep. Harris had voted to fully fund President Barrack (sic) Obama’s unconstitutional use of executive power to grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens, 85 percent (85%) of Republican voters said they would not vote to re-elect Harris.

Likewise, 80 percent (80%) of those surveyed reported that they would not vote to re-elect Rep. Andy Harris if they knew he had made the statement that it was “just fine” for Planned Parenthood to sell baby parts as long as they did not use federal money to do so.

Nationally, Rep. Harris is known as the most outspoken critic of D.C. and states which have chosen to allow medical marijuana, decriminalization or legalization. In the 1st District, fifty-nine percent (59%) of the Republican voters surveyed reported they would be less likely to vote for Harris because of his anti-marijuana, anti-state’s rights stance.

In that context, it’s hard to believe Harris got 29% when over 80% of Republicans disagreed with him on one or more issues.

But there are two advantages Andy still enjoys in this race. While the FEC data is still from back in September, Harris had over a half-million dollars in cash on hand while Smigiel barely registered. Certainly Harris has been fundraising since then, and incumbents often enjoy the largest share of PAC money. In the 2015-16 cycle Harris had already amassed over $166,000 from various committees, a large portion of them in the medical field.

The second advantage is the IOUs Andy has built up through donating to local candidates. Here’s just a few that I noticed on his 2013-14 FEC report:

  • Bob Cassilly (Senator, Harford County) – $4,000
  • Matt Morgan (Delegate, St. Mary’s County) – $1,000
  • Theresa Reilly (Delegate, Harford County) – $1,000
  • Mike McDermott (former Delegate, Worcester County) – $4,000
  • Bob Culver (Wicomico County Executive) – $4,000
  • Carl Anderton (Delegate, Wicomico County) – $4,000
  • Christopher Adams (Delegate, Wicomico County) – $1,000
  • Jay Jacobs (Delegate, Kent County) – $1,000
  • Jeff Ghrist (Delegate, Caroline County) – $1,000
  • John Cluster (Delegate, Baltimore County) – $1,000
  • Johnny Mautz (Delegate, Talbot County) – $1,000
  • Justin Ready (Delegate and now Senator, Carroll County) – $4,000
  • Kathy Szeliga (Delegate, Baltimore County) – $4,000
  • Kevin Hornberger (Delegate, Cecil County) – $4,000
  • Mary Beth Carozza (Delegate, Worcester County) – $4,000
  • Nic Kipke (Delegate, Anne Arundel County) – $4,000
  • Rick Impallaria (Delegate, Baltimore County) – $2,000
  • Robin Grammer (Delegate, Baltimore County) – $1,000
  • Steve Arentz (Delegate, Queen Anne’s County) – $1,000
  • Susan Krebs (Delegate, Carroll County) – $4,000
  • Addie Eckardt (Senator, Dorchester County) – $1,000
  • Michael Hough (Senator, Frederick County) – $4,000
  • Herb McMillan (Delegate, Anne Arundel County) – $4,000
  • Ric Metzgar (Delegate, Baltimore County) – $1,000
  • Johnny Salling (Senator, Baltimore County) – $4,000
  • Maryland Republican Party – $49,500

Well over $100,000 went from Andy’s campaign coffers to help build the GOP state bench with several new legislators being the result. I don’t look for a lot of those folks jumping ship to support (in several but not all cases) a more recent former colleague. That’s a significant part of the state GOP delegation, including all three who defeated Smigiel in the 2014 Republican primary. And electability is a legitimate question mark for Smigiel.

In the 2014 Republican primary, Smigiel was fourth among seven candidates, four of whom hailed from Smigiel’s Cecil County portion of the district – those four finished fourth through seventh. (Mike finished third in Cecil behind fellow resident Alan McCarthy, who finished a distant fifth overall, and Jay Jacobs of Kent County, who was second overall.) Smigiel was third among five candidates in 2010 (all three winners were Republican) and while he kept the seat in 2006 based on the overall district vote he actually lost in his home Cecil County to Democrat Mark Guns. Smigiel was barely second out of five when he won his first term in 2002, so he’s never been overwhelmingly popular at the ballot box – just good enough to win three terms in a very safe GOP district. The fact that three other people challenged Smigiel from Cecil County – knowing only one of them could win due to an election law stating only one person could advance from any particular county – indicates there was some dissatisfaction with him, just as many are now displeased with Harris.

That anger toward Harris attracted Smigiel to the race and produced a poll result like this. Since he won the election in 2010, Harris has had little in the way of a challenge from either party until now. It’s a race perhaps reminiscent of the 2004 primary between Wayne Gilchrest and then-Maryland Senator Rich Colburn – the fact Colburn got 38% against a sitting Congressman may have opened the race up four years later when state officials could run from cover again without having to risk their own seats.

If I were to handicap the election today I would put it around that 60-40 range with Harris prevailing. A lot can occur in 3 1/2 months, though, and it’s probably good for Harris that there are a couple of other lesser known hopefuls in the race to split the protest vote.

This may be a good time to point out that Andy has a couple of townhall meetings slated for the Eastern Shore. On Monday night the 18th he will be at the Black Diamond Lodge in Fruitland for a 6 p.m. meeting. (Right next door is the site of Andy’s chicken suit affair of a few years back.) Then Tuesday at noon he will be the host at the Easton Volunteer Fire Department headquarters on Aurora Park Drive.

Unfortunately, I already have a commitment for Monday night so I will have to hear second-hand about what the Congressman has to say. It will be interesting to hear how all that goes down.

The spread of success

December 7, 2014 · Posted in All politics is local, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics, State of Conservatism · Comments Off on The spread of success 

A few days ago I, along with other Central Committee members and “interested parties,” received a memo from the Congressional campaign of Andy Harris. While the information I received probably isn’t public knowledge in its format, it is possible to find all of the facts provided through diligent searching and I believe revealing a little bit of it will help me to make a larger point.

In this memo, Harris outlines the “work (the campaign) did this cycle for candidates in Maryland and around the nation.” Just before the election we found out about A Great Maryland PAC and some of the assistance it gave in promoting candidates or pointing out flaws in the record of incumbent Democrats, but Harris did more – a lot more. As the memo explains:

On the Eastern Shore, maximum contributions through the Andy Harris campaign and Chesapeake PAC were made to delegate candidates Carl Anderton and Kevin Hornberger, both of whom defeated long-time Democrat stalwarts. Carl defeated 28 year incumbent Norm Conway, who also is the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, in a Wicomico County based district. Kevin defeated 16 year incumbent David Rudolph, who is the Vice Chair of the Economic Matters Committee, in a Cecil County district. Every seat on the Shore other than the democratically drawn majority-minority district is now held by Republicans. The lone Democrat State Senator on the Shore, Jim Mathias, regrettably, barely held on to his seat despite investments of time and financial resources in the race. All three delegate seats in his State Senate district went Republican, but Mathias held on by the skin of his teeth.

Another big highlight on the Shore was the defeat of Democrat Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt by Republican Bob Culver. Congressman Harris donated significantly to Bob’s campaign, and Culver was able to pull it out. In addition to these Democrat-held seats, four candidates running in open seats and supported by Harris were able to put their races away with ease. Mary Beth Carozza (Worcester) won 74% in her single member district. Chris Adams (Wicomico) and Johnny Mautz (Talbot) each doubled the amount of votes received by their Democratic challengers. Jay Jacobs (Kent), Steve Arentz (Queen Anne’s) and Jeff Ghrist (Caroline) all ran strong victorious delegate campaigns. With the election of Jeff Ghrist, Caroline County has for the first time in decades a resident delegate.

Every Republican Delegate or Senate candidate who represents a part of the First District received some level of financial support from Congressman Harris.

A good illustration of the impact outside help can make is found with Anderton’s race. Throughout the campaign. incumbent Norm Conway’s bankroll fluctuated in a range of $75,000 to $100,000 on hand. With most candidates, it’s difficult to overcome that much of a financial disadvantage; indeed, it turned out Carl was outspent in the race by more than 4 to 1. While Anderton put in a tremendous amount of sweat equity, having the money to wage a little bit of a media campaign and not completely cede the airwaves made a big difference.

But another local race illustrates the problem a statewide minority party has. That “skin of the teeth” victory by Jim Mathias also was won at great cost – like Anderton, Republican challenger Mike McDermott was outspent by better than 4 to 1. For Mathias, though, the victory was won on the airwaves as he spent $268,850 over the last month at a company called Screen Strategies, which is a really big gun in that it’s worked for several statewide Democratic campaigns and leftist interest groups, including anti-traditional marriage and pro-abortion entities. On just that firm alone, Mathias spent 2.3 times what Mike McDermott spent on his entire campaign. And since it’s a more far-flung Senate district – as opposed to the relatively compact confines of House District 38B in the immediate Salisbury metro area – the impact of media is much greater because no candidate can be everywhere in three counties every day.

What the Maryland Republican Party needs is more people to pull in money like Harris does and spread it around. While Democrats have a registration majority of roughly 2 to 1 over Republicans and 56% of the overall electorate, they hold a margin larger than their proportion in the Maryland Senate and prior to this year’s election did the same in the House – and that’s not to mention their 9 to 1 advantage in Maryland’s Congressional delegation. When Jim Mathias and Norm Conway needed financial help, their party and interests were able to provide it. Unfortunately, it’s only because of Andy Harris that the First District is the one portion of the state where the GOP can counter this – the rest of the state exists more or less on its own. The loss of Dan Bongino in the Sixth Congressional District was troubling because that end of the state could have received the same assistance down the road.

One big, big problem with the Republican Party in Maryland is that they can’t fill out their ballot throughout the state, and even in certain county races. While Republicans have outdone their registration disadvantage in Wicomico County for the past several years, we still could not find candidates willing to go after two open seats, one for Delegate and one for County Council, in majority-minority districts. Granted, one only became open when the current Delegate withdrew at the last possible minute AFTER the filing deadline, but the GOP still could add a name to the ballot for a few days afterward. We tried, but no one would make that commitment. Now that people are becoming aware they could get at least a little financial help, though, that problem could be solved in 2018.

Though they have an uphill battle at best, those sacrificial lambs serve a noble purpose by making the Democrats spend money on their campaigns, money that they can’t send off to a vulnerable fellow candidate someplace else in the state – as many “safe” Democrats did to help Mathias. With few exceptions, Democrats found people willing to carry their banner in Republican-held areas so we had to pay some attention to them.

And there’s always the possibility of catching lightning in a bottle because once in awhile miracles happen – everyone and their brother thought District 38B was gerrymandered into a safe seat for Norm Conway, but the voters proved otherwise.

Those District 38B voters were better informed because they have a Congressman who’s willing to not just vote conservatively in Congress, but help in building a viable conservative movement in Maryland. In the meantime, state Republicans could stand some lessons from Carl on how to win an uphill battle.

Hershey appointed to District 36 Senate seat

The word came down last night from the victor himself:

I just received a call from the Governor’s office appointing me as the new Senator for District 36 – I am both thrilled and humbled by all the support I received during this appointment process. I am looking forward to serving the 36th District in this new role. Thank you again to all those that offered support, prayers and well wishes this was truly a humbling experience.

Steve Hershey wasn’t the longest shot, but going in he may not have been the favorite, either. Yet he secured the votes of two Central Committees in the four-county district and that was enough to forge a tie with fellow Delegate Michael Smigiel and throw the fate of the seat into the hands of Governor Martin O’Malley. Given Smigiel’s forceful opposition of O’Malley’s onerous gun law package this spring, you knew he would be punished by not getting the appointment he sought.

So Hershey gets the seat vacated by the resignation of former Minority Leader Senator E. J. Pipkin, who followed Rick Perry’s advice before the commercials even came out and moved to Texas. Now the scene shifts to the battle over Hershey’s vacated Delegate seat. As I recall, it cannot be filled by a resident of a county already represented in the district, so residents of Cecil County (Smigiel) and Kent County (Delegate Jay Jacobs, who did not seek the Senate post) would be excluded – but their Central Committees would have a vote.

Out of the original field of 14, all but three hailed from either Queen Anne’s County or Caroline County, which is the lone Maryland county without a resident Delegate. Not all of the remaining ten would seek the Delegate seat, but several probably would and they may be joined by a few others – one being Caroline County commissioner Jeff Ghrist, who made a lengthy plea on Facebook which I excerpt here:

Governor O’Malley will soon be selecting our new District 36 Senator and subsequently one of two House of Delegate seats will become available. This will require someone to fill a Delegate seat. Caroline County has been without a resident of our county representing us in Annapolis for nearly two decades. While I sincerely enjoy being a Commissioner in Caroline County…I would love to take my passion and experience for limited and efficient government to Annapolis.

(snip)

The first goal is to build a concensus (sic) throughout the district that I am the best appointment for Delegate. Not only do I have a strong legislative and executive track record but Caroline County deserves resident representation.

Ghrist has been seeking higher office for awhile; he briefly campaigned for Congress in 2009 before withdrawing and endorsing Andy Harris.

So we will probably have much the same circus we did for the Senate seat, with the real possibility of another split vote and Martin O’Malley breaking the tie.

Meanwhile, Hershey’s tenure may be short-lived. Former Delegate Richard Sossi is actively planning a run for the seat, as is 2010 U.S. Senate nominee Eric Wargotz. The same sort of situation may occur in the District 36 Delegate race next year, with several jockeying for position to be the top vote-getter in a particular county.

Long-term, the solution to that issue may be to enact 141 separate House of Delegate districts, instead of the confusing mishmash of having some three-person districts as well as a handful which are split in a 2-1 configuration. But in the meantime, the political races on the Eastern Shore may be some of the most interesting in the state with the District 36 openings, a primary challenge to the incumbent in District 37A, the opening in District 37B thanks to the selection of Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio to the David Craig gubernatorial ticket, the forced move of Delegate Mike McDermott to a challenge for the District 38 Senate seat due to redistricting, and a brand new District 38C with no incumbent.

Pipkin bids farewell to Maryland Senate

It wasn’t how you’d expect the political career of a man who served as Minority Leader of the Maryland State Senate – and who was brash enough to seek statewide office just two scant years after upsetting a longtime incumbent to enter the Senate in the first place – to end. But no one ever said E.J. Pipkin did the expected as a politician.

In a letter written on Maryland Senate stationery but addressed as a “Letter to the Editor”, I found this in my e-mailbox tonight:

Dear Sir,

First, I want to thank the citizens of the Upper Shore and the State of Maryland for giving me the honor of representing them in the Maryland Senate. My eleven years in the General Assembly has been a time of challenge as a Republican, a time of accomplishment as a State Senator and a time when I have learned much about people and what can be achieved when people are determined.

One’s responsibilities to family and oneself often change the direction of life. So, it is with regret that I am resigning as Senator from District 36. My last day will be Monday, August 12, 2013. I will carry with me both the bitter and the sweet memories of the past eleven years. My family will be moving to Texas, where I will pursue studies at Southern Methodist University for a Masters of Science in Sport Management.

I chose to resign now, rather than serve out my term, which ends in January 2015, in order to give the Republican who fills the 36th District Senate seat the advantage of serving the people until he or she runs for re-election.

Again, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity and honor to serve as your representative.

Sincerely,

E.J. Pipkin

I’d actually first heard this at our Central Committee meeting this evening. But while the multimillionaire Pipkin follows his dream of higher education, those in his district have to consider a successor and, for the rest of us, the battle to become new Minority Leader among the other eleven Republican Senators is on.

I’ll look at the successor first. The obvious choice would be to elevate one of the three sitting Delegates from the district – who are all Republicans – to serve as the new Senator. In terms of seniority in the House, there is no contest because Delegate Michael Smigiel was elected in the same 2002 election which saw Pipkin win office. The other two Delegates, Steve Hershey and Jay Jacobs, were first elected in 2010. Smigiel also has the advantage of greater name recognition as he’s taken a lead role in the fight to uphold our Second Amendment rights.

Moreover, elevating Smigiel could allow the Central Committees within District 36 to correct a grievous wrong which has affected Caroline County for several years – it is the only county in Maryland without a representative in Annapolis, basically owing  to its small population and unfortunate geographical position of always being part of large, multi-county districts. While District 36 covers all or part of four counties, the Cecil County portion is also in two other House districts, with District 35A being exclusive to the county.

On the other hand, the race for Minority Leader boils down to just a few possibilities. Starting with the eleven remaining Senators, we can probably throw out three who are leaving the Senate next year: Nancy Jacobs is retiring, while Allan Kittleman and Barry Glassman are seeking County Executive posts in their native counties.

Senator David Brinkley, though, served as Minority Leader for two years (2007-08) and more recently was Minority Whip (2010-11). His counterpart George Edwards was the House Minority Leader from 2003 to 2007 under Governor Ehrlich, though.

The only other members with leadership experience in the General Assembly: Senator Joseph Getty was a Deputy Minority Whip in the House from 1999-2002, and he was succeeded by fellow Senators Christopher Shank from 2002-03 and J.B. Jennings from 2003-06. Shank was Assistant Minority Leader from 2003-06, though.

Since it’s probably going to be more or less of a caretaker role I wouldn’t be surprised if Brinkley doesn’t get another turn, although the newer members may want a fresh start with a new face. With only 11 votes (or 12 if a new Senator from District 36 is selected before the leadership change) the winner only has to convince five or six others.

Such is the sad state of affairs for Maryland Republicans when a former statewide candidate decides a gig in a master’s program is better than politics. I must say, though, it’s a good exercise in citizen legislation since Pipkin wasn’t a lifer and went on to something new after 11 years. I wish him the best of luck in Texas, and suspect he’ll like it there.

Disingenuous

As you might know, one of the traditional items I do for my readers is compile the monoblogue Accountability Project, with this year’s version likely to come out next month. (I have to do some slight tweaking to the format, which may take a little more time.) But a few days back I received an item from the Maryland Campaign for Liberty regarding speed cameras, from which I excerpt:

We had no illusions that the Statists in Annapolis would seriously consider a pro-liberty proposal like getting rid of speed cameras throughout the state.

Why would we be satisfied with just accomplishing these three goals you might ask?

Because we were able to get politicians on the record.

And boy, did we get them on record.

Between now and the next legislative session we’ll be holding politicians accountable for their votes in committee.

Our job as activists is to connect the legislative season to the electoral season.

The goals they were alluding to were to have the speed camera bill introduced, get a hearing on it, and put it to a vote, which it received in committee. All three were accomplished, but to the surprise of many (including me) neither the House bill nor a Senate companion received a single committee vote – this despite the fact three of the bill’s co-sponsors (Delegates Jay Jacobs, Wayne Norman, and then-Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell) sit on that Environmental Matters Committee. Norman was excused from the vote, but O’Donnell and Jacobs voted in line to kill the bill. The same was true for Senator Nancy Jacobs, who did nothing to back the Senate version she co-sponsored, although that vote was likely a perfunctory formality because the Senate vote document notes the bill is “Dead in House.”

Still, one would think a sponsor would at least vote for his or her bill, so I wonder how that vote came about in committee.

I’ll cheerfully admit I don’t know the ins and outs of how these committees work when they sit down to vote, but I would venture to say I know more about the legislative process than 99% of Maryland residents because I study the votes. It’s sort of sad to consider that not all of the 2700 or so bills introduced in the 90 day session receive a committee vote, although Environmental Matters voted on about 85% of the bills they were assigned this year. Many of those were rejected in a similar manner.

And the Campaign for Liberty people make the same point:

Wouldn’t you think that at least a few Republicans would have voted the right way on such a no-brainer liberty bill?

Think again!

I make it my business to study bills and voting patterns, so I know that not all bills being considered in a committee are voted on in a unanimous manner. Take the three examples I’ll be using for the mAP from that same Environmental Matters Committee: HB44 failed on a 16-7 vote, HB106 (the Septic Bill repeal) failed 19-5, and HB252 (also sponsored by Delegate Smigiel) died in a 17-6 vote. I actually look for split votes, because unanimous votes generally show either broad support, a complete lack of guts, or a bill simply way too far out of the mainstream to even get a motion. HB251, in my opinion, fell into the second category.

So perhaps the Campaign for Liberty is correct in chastising those who didn’t vote to support the speed camera repeal, because there were several other votes where they were unafraid to stand in the minority. Hopefully next year their effort will gain steam, since the other side typical introduces bad bills several years in a row before legislators are cowed into approving them. Maybe the same is needed for good bills, too.

Expected: McDermott Tier Map repeal dies in committee vote

Update 2-21-13: Surprisingly, the Senate companion bill (SB391) received a vote in their Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. It failed 7-4, with the committee’s three Republican Senators (Jennings, Reilly, Simonaire) being joined by Democrat Roy Dyson – that part was no shocker.

I knew this would primarily be a symbolic bill because Democrats in Annapolis weren’t going to cede back any sort of planning control to the counties upon gaining it in 2012. But I was disappointed in the vote on Delegate Mike McDermott’s House Bill 106 for two reasons: the lopsided 19-5 margin and the abandonment of common sense by two Republicans: Delegates Cathy Vitale and Herb McMillan, both of Anne Arundel County.

It’s also worth pointing out on a local level that Delegate Rudy Cane, who is the Chair of the Agriculture, Agriculture Preservation, and Open Space Subcommittee within the Environmental Matters Committee, voted to retain a bill which won’t do a thing to preserve agriculture – although it may increase the amount of “open space” as farms go bankrupt and become overgrown.

While there is a companion Senate bill, Senate Bill 391, the common procedure once a crossfiled bill is killed in one chamber is for the measure to either be withdrawn or simply not get a committee vote since the other chamber rejected it. We’ll see if Senator E.J. Pipkin, who sponsored the bill, presses for a vote anyway to put people on the record.

Since the repeal bill was defeated in committee, it will be up to counties to now either defy the state’s edict or go along with it. There is another bill pending – House Bill 1385, also sponsored by Delegate McDermott – to extend the deadline to July 1, but any artificial deadline defeats the purpose of localizing zoning decisions. Wicomico County residents will have their say on the issue Wednesday evening at 6 at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center; also worth mentioning for my Cecil County audience is they’ll have a similar hearing on the Tier Map they already passed tomorrow night at 7:00 at the Cecil County Administrative Building, apparently because the state overlords don’t care for it.

Finally, it’s very likely that this HB106 vote will be one of the three Environmental Matters Committee votes I use for the 2013 monoblogue Accountability Project. So it looks like Delegates Hogan, Jacobs, Norman, O’Donnell, and Otto have an early lead on getting Legislator of the Year honors. I’d like to publicly thank them for voting for the people (and agricultural industry) of Maryland, even if it was in vain.

MTA toll hearing comes to the Eastern Shore

Last night over 250 people came to listen or generally express their opposition to a series of proposed toll hikes at the Bay Bridge and several other structures operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority.

This was a panoramic shot I took just as the event was beginning.

Of course, the MTA had flyers, a video, and a series of presentation boards available in an adjacent room to state their case. As you can see in the first photo below, they had a room full of boards. Below that are a few examples.

The sum of their case was that they needed toll increases to fix their aging infrastructure, while other goals were to standardize their toll structure, incorporate the cost of collection into the toll, and have vehicles pay a “proportionate share” of their costs.

On the other hand, Nick Loffer of AFP-Maryland was outside rallying the troops to sign a petition against the toll increases.

And the media was there as well. For all I know, I was on the news.

The two local Delegates also made their presence known. Norm Conway was being interviewed by the media while Mike McDermott chatted up the crowd; in this case fellow local blogger G.A. Harrison.

Delegates Charles Otto of Somerset County and Jay Jacobs of Kent County were also there and testified in opposition.

The hearing itself started a short time after those in the room had assembled. We watched the short MTA video stating its side, and their members pled the case that “Maryland has some of the lowest tolls in the country.” But Board Chairwoman Beverley Swaim-Staley also wanted to point out the toll increases were intended to “generate enough revenue…to maintain (our) bond rating.” It was also pointed out that EZPass patrons (except communters) would get a break.

Interestingly enough, the Board sat silent through the testimony, as one ground rule laid out was that they wouldn’t respond to questions or comments.

Elected officials were allowed to pull rank and testify first. It began with Wicomico County Republican Central Committee member Dave Goslee noting, “people’s wages are not going up…government should live within its budget.”

It set the tone for remarks by Pocomoke City Mayor Bruce Morrison, who stated he and the three members of his City Council all came to show their opposition to the proposal. “Think of us on the Shore, too,” he pleaded.

But Mike McDermott got the crowd on its feet.

McDermott thundered, “The Bay Bridge is a cash cow for the state of Maryland!” He also wondered how the MTA came up with an $8 toll figure, feeling that was “arbitrary.” “No one would be here for (an increase of) 50 cents,” said McDermott.

Then he asked what the need was. Answering his own question, Mike claimed that I-95 improvements and the Inter-County Connector are going to be financed by “you and me” on the Eastern Shore.

While he went way over the allotted five minutes, the patrons didn’t mind and gave McDermott a standing ovation once he was through.

“I want (the Bay Bridge) to be as strong and dependable  as it can be,” remarked Norm Conway. But the audience booed Conway when he said “most people would consider” a $5 toll to cross the bridge. He asked the MTA board to listen to people across the state and perhaps readjust the toll structure for SUVs.

Speaking on behalf of State Senator Jim Mathias, Linda Donaldson stated the Senator’s suggestions to proceed were:

  • A “significant discount” for EZPass
  • A “significant” commuter discount
  • Be mindful of the overall cost of operating vehicles
  • The fundamental need for public safety on the structures

Delegate Jay Jacobs, who was on his third hearing for the toll increase, believed that “a 300 percent increase in tolls, I guarantee, will send people to Delaware shopping.”

And while Delegate Charles Otto called the Bay Bridge a “godsend” for the Shore, he pointed out it may cost trucks an extra $1 per mile to go from the Bay Bridge to Salisbury when the tolls are factored in. “I hate to get political, but all I heard this time last year was that a fee was a tax,” concluded Charles.

I testified at the event as well. This is how I wrote the draft of my remarks; it wasn’t quite the Gettysburg Address but it got applause:

Good evening.

My name is Michael Swartz and I’m proud to be an elected member of Wicomico County’s Republican Central Committee.

First of all, I’d like to thank the MTA for bowing to demand and having a hearing on the Eastern Shore. By my count, the closest MTA facility is about 90 miles from here so one might think we’re not affected by a toll increase.

But we are. It’s going to affect tourism, it’s going to affect commuters, and most importantly I see a negative impact on our agricultural industry.

After all, $8 to cross a bridge isn’t a large part of someone’s vacation budget. But increasing the rates on commuters could hamper growth and progress on the Eastern Shore. Over here we already feel shellacked as victims of the “War on Rural Maryland.” They couldn’t take away our septic systems, but they can throttle development in other ways like making the Eastern Shore a more expensive place to live.

More importantly, one should consider the impact a toll increase would have on commerce. Because we have little in the way of railroads or port facilities on the Eastern Shore, over-the-road trucking is truly our one option for both delivering and providing goods and commodities, as Mr. Goslee and Delegate Jacobs pointed out before. A large toll increase would be detrimental, and basically amounts to a redistribution of our wealth to other parts of the state.

A smarter plan would be to keep the tolls where they are, but if an increase is necessary it needs to be smaller and phased in over a longer period. It’s not our fault you didn’t raise tolls earlier, so don’t make us bite the bullet now.

Thank you.

From the AFP perspective, Nick Loffer made the overall suggestion of running the toll facilities as a business and regionalizing the operation. He chided the MTA for a lack of forethought and felt that created the anger in the audience.

Other speakers from the audience termed the toll increase a “soft tyranny,” believed the decision is already made, and called the increases an “assault on the middle class.”

There were also several business leaders who spoke up. The toll increase would be “a wedge…that turns the Bay into a barrier,” claimed Brad Bellacicco of the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce. One business owner, who runs a turf farm in both Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties, believed the increase would add a $150 per acre cost to his business, tripling the tax on his four-truck fleet from $16,000 to $48,000.

Needless to say, tourism and Ocean City officials chimed in, too. Tourism creates 134,000 Maryland jobs and $1.6 billion in revenue, according to the Maryland Tourism Council. Their official warned of “unintended consequences” from the hikes. “Without tourism, we have no jobs in Ocean City,” added the director of their hotel and motel association.

Closing the testimony, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, who stated that his town attracts 8 million visitors a year and creates $150 million in state revenues,  pleaded with the board to “moderate your position (and) discount EZPass.”

I look at this more as a development issue, however. If fewer people come to the Shore as tourists, fewer jobs are created and fewer people have an incentive to locate here. And while that may suit a lot of Shore natives just fine, the corollary effect of increasing business costs will be to drive jobs out of the area. We already lose a lot of our local college graduates who can’t find good-paying jobs in the area.

Not one person last night said $8 was a great idea. Yes, there was one crank who considered this part of the war on the middle class promoted by greedy corporations and rich Republicans like Andy Harris, but we can ignore his screed. Some on the conservative side also strayed well off the topic at hand, which was a problem.

As I’ve said, a modest toll increase may be required but not a giant jump as is planned. A suggestion I didn’t hear last night but will toss into the hopper: perhaps they can bring construction costs down by eliminating “prevailing wage.”

Alas, I think the die has been cast. All we opponents did was have our say, but the state needs the money. Think of it as a prelude to this fall when the General Assembly really loots our wallets.

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