A look ahead: 2015 in Wicomico County

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s telling that most of the issues I wrote about last year at this time are still with us.

And as I suspected when the pixels were placed in late 2013, we have a majority of “new” Council members and, as it turns out, a new County Executive in Bob Culver. That new broom is already in the process of sweeping clean as the county’s former public information officer was relieved of her duties and the longtime Parks and Recreation director suddenly opted for retirement.

Yet almost all of the issues I alluded to last year are still with us. One thing which may assist the county in moving forward, though, is that the County Executive and County Council will be working from the same political playbook, with elections now a relatively safe four years away. Maintaining the 6-1 Republican majority on County Council will mean that there should be few issues, although one might argue that the support certain GOP members gave to the former Democratic County Executive Rick Pollitt could make some votes interesting.

The three main issues of 2013 could be resolved at the state level, though, with a little help from a Republican governor. For example, a more farmer-friendly tier map which places less land off-limits to development may be doable with a less stringent Maryland Department of Planning, one which grants more leeway to county desires and less emphasis on the despised PlanMaryland guidelines. As a corollary to that, the “rain tax” may not get to Wicomico County, although the city of Salisbury approved its version late last month. This could provide some tension between city and county as those who would want access to city water and sewer may balk at the additional fees.

On the other hand, the quest for an elected school board will certainly get a boost since the three largest obstacles are all out of the way: Rick Pollitt, Norm Conway, and Rudy Cane all have left (or will leave) office. With the resident delegation now boasting two Republicans to one Democrat – all of whom are freshmen – electing a school board may occur as soon as 2016.

In short, the biggest issue facing Wicomico County in 2015 will be what it does (or can do) to arrest a lengthy slide in employment. Year-over-year employment in Wicomico County has declined all 11 months this year and in 18 of the previous 22 months, with the most recent peak in employment being 50,369 in July 2012. (As a rule employment in this county fluctuates by a few thousand each year, peaking in July.) And while the unemployment rate is down for 2014, the number is somewhat deceptive because a lot of that positive change came as a result of a labor force that averages 847 fewer workers while average employment is down 380. Job one of the Culver administration is to make Wicomico County a more business-friendly environment, although having a governor who also wants to decrease red tape at the state level will help. Still, the solution for our needs may be as simple as attracting business out of high-overhead urban areas across the bridge to relocate here.

There is also the prospect of a revitalized downtown Salisbury to help attract new residents. Salisbury will one of six county municipalities to hold elections for municipal office in 2015, with Salisbury’s situation this year being rather unique: a charter change put in place a few years back will allow all municipal offices to be contested in one election this year, rather than the staggered terms common to most towns and cities. They are also adopting a five-district system, the boundaries of which leave three current City Council members in one district. According to the Maryland Manual, the other municipalities holding elections next year are Delmar (3 seats in November), Hebron (3 seats in April), Mardela Springs (2 seats in August), Pittsville (2 seats in November), and Willards (2 seats in May.) Fruitland and Sharptown will have their next elections in 2016.

With the new administration coming in, along with a revamped County Council, it won’t take long to find out whether the management style of Bob Culver will feature the leadership our county needs to recover and compete. Tomorrow I will turn my attention to the state of Maryland, including what role a bevy of new local elected officials might play.

WCRC meeting – September 2013

For the third month in a row (and fourth overall this year), a gubernatorial candidate came to speak to the Wicomico County Republican Club. This time it was Delegate Ron George who graced us with his presence.

So once we opened the meeting in our usual manner, with the Lord’s Prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, and introduction of a growing number of distinguished guests, we turned the meeting over to Ron. He began by making the case that he was making the “sacrifice” of running because “I don’t want to leave the state (as it’s becoming) to my sons.”

And after giving a brief biography covering everything from being far enough down the sibling food chain to have to learn a trade instead of going to college, learning the business of being a goldsmith well enough to make his way to college at Syracuse University, making his way to New York City and briefly acting in a soap opera (“I died…but then I came back later,” he joked) it eventually ended with him meeting his wife and returning to Annapolis to start a family and business.

But it was his time in New York where “I saw a lot of people suffering on the street” that moved him the most. “I’m a man of faith,” continued Ron, and the experience gave him insight into the situation in Baltimore and other impoverished areas. One problem in Maryland was that “we don’t have an economic base in this state.” He pointed out that employment in the public sector in Maryland was up 7% while private-sector employment was stagnant. The budget had increased from $27 billion to $37 billion, and “they’ve squeezed you to death,” said Ron.

It was interesting to me that Ron provided some insight on how he got into politics – in essence, his frequent testimony in Annapolis got him noticed, and he was asked to run in the same district as Speaker of the House Michael Busch. Ron stated that Busch spent $350,000 and turned to negative ads in the campaign’s waning days. At first the mudslinging appeared to work as George was behind on election night by about 50 votes, but absentees sent in before the negative campaigning began pulled Ron over the top by 53 votes when all was counted.

On the other hand, George did such an effective job in the General Assembly that he was the top vote-getter in 2010, finishing 1,636 votes ahead of Speaker Busch. “I never ran to the middle,” Ron reminded us, “I spoke to the middle.”

But the idea behind the 2006 run was also one of keeping Michael Busch from spending his money to help other Democrats. (Hence why I harp on having a full slate of candidates.)

Ron then turned to this campaign, stating the case that his 10-point plan was based on three things: “economics, economics, economics.” It was a message which played well in Democratic areas, alluding to polling he was doing on the subject.

He also revealed why he had the success he’d had in Annapolis. Liberals “like to feel good about themselves,” said Ron, but never thought of how their policies affect the average Marylander. By organizing opposition testimony on various issues, particularly the abortive “tech tax” – where he found dozens willing to testify and put a face to the opposition – Ron got bad laws reversed or changed. “I’m very solution-oriented,” he added.

As Common Core has been in the news, Ron weighed in on how Maryland adopted it. The package of bills was fourfold, he explained, with the first two not being too obnoxious – but once they passed the fix was in for the bad portions. Ron stated he was “very much against” the mandates in Common Core. It’s being forced on the counties, he later said, but was “totally dumbing down” students.

To conclude the initial portion of his remarks, Ron noted he was the Maryland Business for Responsive Government’s legislator of the year, in part for his work in capping the state’s boat excise tax, and promised that, if elected, “I will make sure (rural areas of Maryland) get their fair share.”

While Ron delivered his remarks well enough, though, I sensed he was almost ill at ease making the stump speech portion of the remarks, expressing several times the preference for a question-and-answer session. It wasn’t as somnambulant as David Craig can occasionally be, but wasn’t delivered with the passion of Charles Lollar, either.

As was the case Saturday at the First District Bull Roast, Ron seemed better with the give-and-take of answering questions. When asked about the impact of the banes of rural Maryland – the Maryland Department of Planning, Department of the Environment, and Chesapeake Bay Foundation – Ron launched into an explanation of how he got the state to revisit laws passed in 2008 and misused for two years afterward, noting that several of those overcharged for permits were quietly reimbursed after it was revealed they were interpreting the law too broadly in order to collect additional permitting fees. On that front, Ron also vowed to work toward repealing the “rain tax” and following Virginia’s lead in challenging the EPA.

He was equally as excited about the prospect of auditing state agencies. “I guarantee we’ll find about $5 billion in waste,” promised Ron. The Delegate blasted the current administration for its handling of highway user revenues, pointing out previous shortfalls were paid back, but not with real revenues. Instead, more bonds were issued, and rather than the standard five-year payback these were 15-year bonds.

Finally, Ron made sure to remark the Second Amendment “has my full support,” noting he was the only Delegate to actually testify at the afternoon regulatory hearing in Annapolis. He noted eight different problems with the regulations, where legislation was being written in. (It was also why Ron missed a planned appearance at the club’s happy hour.)

As Lollar did the month before, Ron was courteous enough to stay for the meeting, which meant he sat through my lengthy reading of the August minutes and our treasurer’s report. Deb Okerblom was pleased to report the Crab Feast did better than expected financially.

Jackie Wellfonder, in her President’s report, also thanked those who put together the club’s main fundraising event. She also noted an event to be held in Wicomico County October 20 but benefiting the Dorchester County GOP, which was represented by Billy Lee. She also announced “we have a new website” and asserted our happy hours are “going well.”

Speaking in the Central Committee report, county Chair Dave Parker reminded us of upcoming events like the Wicomico Society of Patriots meeting featuring Charles Lollar this Wednesday (as well as his appearance at a business roundtable the previous evening), the Good Beer and Autumn Wine festivals in October, and the state party’s Octoberfest on the 12th. Parker was pleased at the amount of attention we were getting from the gubernatorial hopefuls.

Parker also filled us in on some news, particularly the Common Core meeting fiasco in Towson. (Ron George noted the charges against the speaker have been dropped.) Dave also related a Forbes article claiming families will pay an extra $7,450 annually over a period of nine years for Obamacare. Apparently Maryland has the highest increase in the nation.

But this gave Ron George the opportunity to add that he created the Doctors’ Caucus in the General Assembly and reveal that 60% of doctors were near retirement age. Some are more than willing to hang up the stethoscope thanks to Obamacare.

Blan Harcum chimed in to alert us to a Maryland Farm Bureau campaign seminar in Annapolis October 14 and 15. Then it was my turn as I updated those in attendance on the status of our candidate search.

In club business, we found a chair for our upcoming Christmas Party, I reminded the folks they could sign up to help at the upcoming festivals, and we secured space for equipment one of our members urged us to purchase. These are the mundane things which seem tedious, but can turn out to be important.

The same may be true about our last three meetings with gubernatorial hopefuls. Next month we go back to local races and speakers, although the exact keynoter is to be announced. We will see you October 28.

Is redistricting a done deal?

Well, perhaps, and that’s how my sentiments lean when it comes to the question of redistricting in Maryland.

But Saturday around 30 interested observers sat in the brand-new Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University to listen to eight observers testify before the three members of the Redistricting Advisory Committee who could be present – while Chair Jeannie Hitchcock, President of the Maryland Senate Mike Miller, and board member Richard Stewart were there, board members James King and Speaker of the House of Delegates Michael Busch were unable to attend. The size of the room made the crowd look smaller, too. While Hitchcock said the group was “here to listen, primarily” I noticed some of the members seemed a bit disinterested at times.

Out of eight speakers, five of them represented Democratic interests while the other three (including myself) were Republicans. However, there was one piece of common ground expressed by both sides, that being the issue of resident Delegates. As you’ll read, though, the ideas on how to achieve this were somewhat different.

Continue reading “Is redistricting a done deal?”

Rushing through redistricting

Something seems awful fishy about this scheme.

On Monday, the Maryland Department of Planning released a schedule of hearing dates for those interested to speak out about the proposed Congressional and legislative redistricting. Today, just five days later, those in western Maryland will have just a few hours to speak up about how their region will be sliced and diced by the majority Democrats (and RINO who now consults for the O’Malley administration) into gerrymandered blobs suitable only for a Rorschach nightmare. On the other hand, the entire Eastern Shore will be covered in one Saturday at the start of ‘second season.’

Here’s the schedule breakdown:

  • Saturday, July 23 – Hancock (Washington County) and Frederick (Frederick County) at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. respectively
  • Monday, July 25 – Largo (Prince George’s County) at 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, August 10 – Rockville (Montgomery County) at 7 p.m.
  • Friday, August 12 – Baltimore City at 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, August 24 – La Plata (Charles County) at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, August 27 – Bel Air (Harford County) and Towson (Baltimore County) at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. respectively
  • Tuesday, August 30 – Anne Arundel and Howard counties, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. respectively
  • Saturday, September 10 – Salisbury (Wicomico County) and Wye Mills (Queen Anne’s County) at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. respectively

So the Republican areas of the state seem to be stacked up with multiple hearings on one day, while the Democratic and minority areas will have theirs mostly in the evenings. Yeah, that’s a fair hearing opportunity. Also, seven of the twelve hearings will be on weekends where people want to relax and may have made vacation plans.

Speakers addressing both Congressional and legislative redistricting will have five minutes to speak, which means at a maximum there’s going to be only about 15 to 20 able to testify at any weekend hearing. My guess is that hearings will likely be held to a two-hour maximum, particularly if you’re the first in a line of two – far western Maryland, Harford County, Anne Arundel County, and the lower Eastern Shore seem to be getting the short end of the stick here. (So what else is new?)

The other interesting item is requesting speaking time in advance. (Don’t worry, I’ve already signed up for the Wicomico County hearing so there should be at least one voice of sanity.) Who says that Democrats weren’t already tipped off to allow them to get the prime speaking slots? Maybe that’s overreaching a little bit, but the biggest problem with this hearing is that we don’t have a plan to criticize yet (aside from the Republican Congressional redistricting plan.) If we had a preliminary plan put out by the Governor, it would make for more meaningful discussion. We already know some Democrats dream of an 8-0 sweep in the Congressional delegation, and with just a few tweaks in the First and Sixth Districts (like pushing the First into Baltimore City and the Sixth into Montgomery County) they may achieve that goal – a nightmare scenario for the Maryland GOP.

Trust me, I think the die is cast already. But we should put our opposition on the record and perhaps use this momentum to fundraise for a court fight.

A different opportunity to have input

Most of us have concerns about Maryland’s tax policy insofar as it affects jobs and businesses, but there are other sneaky ways the state impacts our local communities. You may recall the controversy regarding new stormwater regulations and whether existing developments would be grandfathered in or not – it threatened to put a lot of projects on hold as they returned to the drawing board for reworking.

We in our local area have an opportunity for input on new plans as the Maryland Department of Planning is touring the state on its “PlanMaryland” tour, with Salisbury the first stop Thursday. Think of it as their excuse to promote so-called “smart growth;” one of the goals is to, “do a better job of steering development toward areas that already have roads, schools and other public infrastructure.” Sure, that sounds admirable but we know that the real goal eventually is to drive all of us into European-style housing where we’re all crammed together. Never mind the Eastern Shore is nothing like downtown Baltimore (aside from the crime rate in Salisbury.)

They’ve played this game before around here, and generally it’s an excuse for environmentalist wackos to get together and commiserate with a group from the state who’s firmly in their pocket. But we can stand up to them and tell the state in no uncertain terms that they need to adopt more business-friendly policies all around.

Sounds like a job for the local AFP activists – I have other plans so I can’t make this event – thus I put out the bat-signal and encourage right-thinking individuals to attend.