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November 16, 2006

Issues To Be Addressed - Now!

Tony Soltero

Now that the dust has settled on the elections and we're being treated to the usual spectacle of the mainstream media getting every narrative about them about as wrong as possible.

Memo to CNN: A gun and a flattop do not a conservative make. Please practice some actual journalism and take a hard look at the economic and civil-liberties stands of our new Democrat legislators before you spout off on their alleged "conservatism." Just two weeks ago you were saying these guys were all "liberals." And you wonder why your ratings keep spiraling down the tubes.

I think this is a good time to make some recommendations to our new Maryland governor, General Assembly, and Board of County Commissioners as to how to proceed. So here are five paths of action that would be extremely beneficial to the state and county:

1. Implement real voting reform. The Maryland General Election was surprisingly short on electronic glitches, quite unlike the primary. Most of the races were decisive enough that the question of voting-machine hanky-panky didn't find a reason to rear its ugly head.

That doesn't mean that the very real issues with these machines have gone away, any more than it means that a house built out of balsa wood isn't fragile just because no earthquake happened to hit it this year.

The fact that the election results were clear and undisputed now provides the General Assembly with a perfect opportunity to add a paper trail to these machines. The impetus to do so will not appear politically motivated by officeholders with a grudge. So it's time to do the right thing and remove all doubts about these machines.

Nobody has any reason to call anybody a sore loser for pursuing this - and the benefits are clean elections in the future. The voting machines are easy to use and remarkably efficient. The one thing we have to ensure is that they always record the vote the same way the voter cast it. And that requires a paper trail for confirmation.

2. Toughen campaign-finance laws. Our current campaign finance laws are toothless and feature more loopholes than Britney Spears' wedding vows. The penalties for violating these laws are mild and relatively inconsequential - just a fine and a couple of days of bad press. It's the kind of thing that can be easily factored in as a campaign expense.

Shenanigans need to be dealt with in the form of real penalties. If a candidate is busted breaking the law in any way, he needs to be kicked off the ballot and rendered permanently ineligible to run for office again in the state. If the lawbreaking is discovered after the candidate has assumed office, he should be immediately ejected from his position and a special election called.

Harsh? Absolutely! That's the idea. The purpose of violating campaign laws is to assume power through underhanded means - so any penalties for violating these laws need to hit at the essence of their ultimate goal. I can't think of a better deterrent against those who wish to cynically manipulate the democratic process.

3. Pursue real ethics reform. I'm tired of corruption scandals. Exit surveys nationwide showed that the "culture of corruption" resonated surprisingly strong among voters, right up there with Iraq as an issue that brought change-minded voters to the polls.

No doubt most legislators are decent people trying to do the right thing by their constituents; but the alarming frequency at which even good people fall into corruption traps suggests that there's something structurally wrong with the entire concept of lobbying.

So, maybe it's time to completely overhaul the relationship between lobbyists and legislators. If this means doubling or trebling the take-home pay of those who serve us in the General Assembly in order to minimize temptations, so be it. In the long run the taxpayers save much more money.

And legislators - at the state and national levels - need to understand one thing: It is becoming increasingly tougher to get away with corruption. Today there are citizen-bloggers who carefully scrutinize the actions of all of our lawmakers at a far greater level of detail than the traditional media (which was often in on the slow-dance) ever did.

Yes, it might be annoying, but clean legislators have nothing to worry about. Citizens want transparency in government, and they're paying attention more than ever. Let's give it to them.

4. Ditch "No Child Left Behind" Law for good. There were few Bush Administration initiatives as cynical as the wrongly titled No Child Left Behind Law. Underfunded from the get-go, its real purpose was not to strengthen public schools, but to weaken them and undermine confidence in them, so as to expand the market for vouchers and ultimately public financing of religious schools.

The program's standards virtually require teachers to abandon the development of creative and critical-thinking skills in their students, and instead teach to fulfill the requirements of a standardized test - a test designed to make a certain number of schools be designated as "failures."

Several states - notably Connecticut and Utah - have taken matters into their own hands and taken steps to opt out of the program. The program is sapping resources out of Maryland schools as well. It's time to get out from what is virtually an unfunded mandate and let Maryland set standards for its schools so that our students can be educated, not programmed.

5. Make a real effort to improve infrastructure. It wasn't all that long ago that a motorist crossing into Pennsylvania from Maryland could easily tell where the state line was - the road suddenly got rougher and bumpier.

Maryland has historically had some of the nation's best-kept roads. But as traffic loads have increased, maintenance has been lagging behind in recent years, and congestion is beginning to approach Los Angeles levels in some areas, particularly in suburban Washington.

We have a new Board of County Commissioners that has pledged to take growth slowly in Frederick County. The one new commissioner who isn't obviously a slow-growther, Charles Jenkins, has vowed to focus on the traffic problem. We have a real chance to get things done right at the county level. And at the state level, let's just say that the Intercounty Connector idea doesn't necessarily need to die with Bob Ehrlich's term of office. And stretching the Washington Metro up to Frederick might do wonders for opening up I-270 a bit.

These by no means should be the only priorities our new leaders should examine; and I'm sure others will have their own wish lists. But I'm willing to bet that if our new governments take the above initiatives, it shouldn't hurt them too badly in the court of public opinion.

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