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June 13, 2005

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The House of Delegates’ Democratic Caucus has decided to form a Democratic Business Caucus. Speaker of the House Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) and Delegate Galen Clagett (D., Frederick) are leading the effort to set up this new group.

Delegate Clagett is quoted in The Frederick News Post saying that the Democrats in the House need to counter the claims of Gov. Bob Ehrlich and House Republicans that Democrats are not business friendly.

The language of the story would suggest that this is a preemptive movement, designed to get out in front of a coming GOP onslaught against Democrats whose voting record suggests a less than welcoming attitude towards business in Maryland.

Unfortunately, the analogy of closing the barn door after all the flies have flown in comes to mind. My guess is the flies were attracted to the same steaming pile that necessitated the creation of the Democratic Business Caucus!

The article in question makes frequent reference to the Wal-Mart bill. Remember, the Wal-Mart bill was the piece of legislation designed to force one employer in Maryland (the only one with 10,000 employees) to either pay 8% of their total payroll in employee health benefits or contribute that same amount to the Maryland uninsured fund.

This bill is historic in that it is the first time a state legislature has decided to intervene so directly in the employee/employer benefits administration relationship. One principal reason that non-partisan business advocacy groups (the state Chamber of Commerce, Maryland Business for Responsive Government, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses) hate this bill is the high likelihood that the Maryland legislature will revisit this legislation and lower the threshold.

It’s pretty easy to pick on Wal-Mart: big company, high profile, easy target. Some legislators allege that Wal-Mart handed out forms for part time employees to use to sign up for the Maryland Children’s Insurance Plan (MCHIP), but the delegates who made that claim to me could not produce any actual evidence (which store, what employee, etc.).

So, Speaker Busch and his leadership team see an immediate need to define themselves as the “true” business advocates. They’ll argue that groups like those I mentioned above no longer represent the real interests of Maryland business owners.

One very respected business advocate, Robert O. C. Worcester (known as Rocky), the president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, suggests this new group is being created not to preempt future attempts at categorization, but to alter the historical record for past votes.

In reflecting on writing this column, I realize that I have to be the one who writes this. Most members of the Frederick legislative delegation have perfect (or near perfect) voting record as evaluated by MBRG.

They could easily be dismissed as “hacks” for MBRG, so concerned about their score that they’ll argue to protect their rating.

Not so yours truly. My voting record reflects my firm belief that I am in the legislature to decide matters of policy based on the same factors I campaigned on. I told people when I ran that I would strongly support the interests of municipalities, having served as Brunswick’s City Administrator and Frederick’s Chief Operations Officer.

As hard to believe as this might be, sometimes the interests of the business community conflict with the needs of local government. In just about every one of those cases, the vote I cast reflects my support of local government.

This was most true in 2003, when MBRG chose to oppose several priority bills of the Maryland Municipal League (MML), the advocacy group that supports our cities and towns across Maryland.

I was very active in MML for many years, and fully support their mission. These were tough votes for me, but my knowledge of the issues affecting local government demanded I act according to my conscience.

Some of those same votes were chosen by MBRG as votes to evaluate legislator’s commitment to the business community. Unfortunately, that means I score lower than many of my colleagues who cast their vote against the interests of local government, but for Maryland business interests: not right or wrong, just a different approach!

These scorecards come out yearly and have a single year and cumulative evaluation. The delegates who have served multiple terms have their past scores also reflected in their cumulative average. Mr. Worcester suggests that Speaker Busch and Delegate Clagett are as concerned about past votes as they are future votes.

A snapshot of where the Frederick County delegates are is listed below:

MBRG Roll Call
Joe Bartlett75%93%90%
Galen Clagett14%29%24%
Don Elliott75%87%85%
Patrick Hogan63%88%79%
Paul Stull60%93%85%
Rick Weldon25%87%65%

Earlier this year, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce announced the intention to use the MBRG scoring methodology to decide which General Assembly candidates to support in 2006. A cumulative score of 60% or less would result in a lack of support from the business community.

So, when a Democrat delegate suggests that he and the Speaker are forming a new Business Caucus, that Maryland voters need to hear from a new group about the best interests of the business community, I suggest that discerning voters already have independent, non-partisan measures to use to draw their own conclusions.

The bigger issue here is that some people would rather define themselves than be defined, especially when the definition casts them as anti-business, pro-tax, and out of touch with the people who create jobs, pay taxes, and build the economic engine that drives the State of Maryland.

The fact that you own and operate a business cannot be an excuse for casting votes as a legislator that the larger community of business owners has determined to be against their best interests.

It brings to mind another analogy: the guy standing in a crowd, screaming that everyone else is crazy, and he’s the only sane person around.

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