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September 17, 2007

A Political Manifesto, Part II

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week's column ended talking about compromises to improve access to healthcare. Any real solution costs money, big money.

So, to the anger of many fiscal conservatives, I supported an increase in the tobacco tax as a way to provide health insurance to several hundred thousand Maryland residents, mostly children who were not eligible for the state Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Again, due to this deviation from typical conservative values, I'm certain I lost supporters. Not to mention the smokers who would have resented the increase in the cost of a pack of smokes!

Another example is the question of same-sex marriage. Traditional conservatives oppose any effort to grant rights to gay couples, especially if those rights invade the realm of the marriage contract.

Gay couples argue two different perspectives. One argument suggests that gays should not be denied the "right" to marry, that anything less than a government-sponsored requirement that churches grant this practice amounts to a subjugation of their rights. Another perspective is that there are legal rights being denied by a legislative prohibition against same-sex relationships, setting aside the government/religious debate as too difficult and too contentious.

I accept the idea that if two men or two women believe they should be together, the government shouldn't deny them access to legal rights (property ownership, health insurance, medical decision-making, and financial services) availed to a man and woman in a monogamous union.

I also don't think the government should tell religious groups that they have to acknowledge those same relationships, especially if the church teaches that those relationships are antithetical to the faith through doctrine.

So, a civil union seems to be the best solution. That way the government can grant access to legal rights without dictating that churches have to incorporate wedding ceremonies that conflict with their beliefs.

Again, a very different set of political beliefs that place me squarely at odds with most of the elected officials in the Party of Lincoln.

Finally, the issue of the state budget deficit looms over Annapolis. Gov. Martin O'Malley will soon roll out his deficit reduction plan, and the Republican leadership in the House of Delegates wanted to establish their policy credibility by issuing their plan first.

The Republican Plan calls for a combination of cuts in programs coupled with slot machines at up to five locations. This plan eliminates the $1.5 billion structural deficit within two years without any tax increases.

The Governor's plan, although still an official secret, has been the subject of much speculation and a little strategic leaking. Mr. O'Malley will propose a combination of cuts (very small), slots (less than the GOP plan), and tax increases. His choices for taxes seem to focus on the sales tax (going from 5% up to 6%), an income tax increase on wealthy Maryland residents (by increasing the rate on the higher brackets), and forcing corporations who do business in Maryland to pay Maryland state corporate taxes (most don't now).

The GOP plan contains elements that were introduced last session as a preemptive strike against this year's budget. An amendment was introduced last year to dramatically cut spending, including a provision to "pause" the public education increase known as the Thornton Initiative.

The practical effect of this pause would be that teachers, reading specialists, and special education assistants that were hired in 2004 and 2005 would not have been paid, unless county governments picked up the slack.

It seemed disingenuous to me to have the state make a multi-year promise to local government to significantly expand public education funding, only to turn around and renege on that later.

Further, the counties would have had to increase local taxes to avoid layoffs in these critical positions. How can state officials claim a savings in the state budget when residents are forced to pay higher county taxes to cover these essential services? It just didn't seem fair or reasonable to me, so I voted against the amendment.

Now I'll be facing the same dilemma again this year, as the circumstances will repeat in a similar fashion.

The Democratic leadership solution is also flawed. They are advocating a sales tax increase, arguing that we're "behind" Virginia with their 6% tax. The sales tax is fairly regressive, since the wealthy won't care about adding 1% to the cost of goods and services, but that single Mom working two jobs definitely will!

The budget answer lies where else but in the center. We need to reduce spending by about $600-$700 million. We need to increase the tax rate on the higher income brackets, and we need to stop the bleeding by bringing slot machines to horse tracks in Maryland.

So I enter my 49th year and my 6th year of legislative service at a crossroads. As a registered Republican, there is an expectation of maintaining a voting record and party policy loyalty. I have failed, on a number of occasions, to honor that expectation.

On the other hand, I completely and totally disagree with the Democratic Party leadership on many policy priorities. They have consistently sacrificed the interests of many in Maryland to the policy priorities of organized labor, environmental activists, and progressive and anti-business policy groups.

Liberals want to take away to right to keep and bear arms. They often believe that an animal species should have more rights than the property owner on which the animal decides to land or crawl. They welcome and embrace undocumented and illegal residents, recognizing that those people, once settled, will become predictable Democratic Party voters and workers.

They try to stop progress using old and previously dismissed arguments, the Inter-County Connector being the latest, greatest example.

Unfortunately, those same liberal and progressive thinkers dominate the Maryland General Assembly, as Prince Georges County, Baltimore City/County, and Montgomery County have more legislators (and more leadership positions) than the rest of us combined.

So, I prepare for the upcoming General Assembly (and a possible Special Session on the budget) with a sense of anticipation and anxiety. I feel a little like the loner inmate in the prison yard, looking across the concrete expanse at the two gangs. Membership in one feels comfortable, partly due to my history. Unfortunately, I can't completely adhere to their membership code. I wouldn't be a good soldier.

The other gang requires an oath I could never take, one that suggests that my folks back home (read District 3-B voters) are not important, and places their interests secondary to the interests of unions, tree-huggers, and gun-grabbers.

As is often the case in a legislative environment, the moderates become an endangered species. There are very few moderate Republicans in the Maryland General Assembly. During the last term, Jean Cryor held the position as the most moderate GOP member.

John Leopold, now the County Executive in Anne Arundel County, was a runner-up in the moderate race. Bob McKee (R., Washington County) and I brought up the rear for the Republicans.

There remains a solid group of moderate Democrats. The most moderate (bordering on conservative) Democrats are John Wood (D., Mechanicsville) and Kevin Kelly (D., Alleghany). Former members like Bennett Bozman (D., Berlin) and Tony Fulton (D., Baltimore) lost health battles while still fighting for traditional moderate principles.

One interesting observation about these Democrat moderates is that they have all been removed from or relieved of their leadership responsibilities under the rule of Speaker Mike Busch. The most obvious example is Delegate Wood, the former chairman of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee. His fall from power was a stunning rebuke of moderation, but he remains one of the most respected members in the General Assembly.

The biggest question facing a moderate is the dilemma of re-election. By taking a more centrist policy approach, have I alienated the core Republican voter? Will a more traditional conservative contemplate a primary challenge? If successful in the primary, will traditional conservative voters abandon me in the General Election, facilitating the election of a Democrat challenger?

Or will voters respect a thoughtful, honest approach to legislating that more accurately reflects the way we deal with issues in our own lives? Few of us are total ideologues in our family and personal lives, our politics usually run more towards the center than to the left or right.

I prepare for the possible Special Session and regular General Assembly Session with these and many other questions hanging unanswered in the air. Time will reveal the answers, and the fate of political moderation.

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