Lowered expectations and shredded paper
It ends in a shower of confetti. The 2011 Maryland General Assembly came to a close last Monday, the gavel drop at midnight concluding 90 days of debate and posturing.
Legislators, totaling 188, have cleaned out the files, turned out the lights and returned to their districts. They leave behind any issue not voted out favorably by both chambers of our bi-cameral legislature.
Unlike the hopeful emotions of opening day, legislators end the session licking their wounds and struggling to understand why many great ideas are left behind, piled high in the hundreds of recycling bins throughout the State House complex.
Democrats in Maryland hold all of the handles of power in this process. With an overwhelming majority in the House of Delegates and state Senate, it's hard to imagine how any issue of importance to the state Democratic Party wouldn't be a slam dunk.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, the nominal leader of his party, had what would be generously described as a lackluster session. Several of his signature initiatives failed to pass, even in the most favorable political environment of any state for a liberal governor.
Even with those failures, the O'Malley Administration heads into the sophomore year of his second term with momentum.
He lost a statewide ban on septic systems because his people forgot an important factor in dealing with a legislative body. Legislators, even those who share the governor's political affiliation, typically won't vote against the interests of their home districts just because the governor asks them to.
Governor O'Malley tried to make the case that the best way to save the Chesapeake Bay was to require all future development in Maryland to be handled by public sewer systems. Three immediate problems pop up:
1.) Most of the undeveloped lands in Maryland are located in rural communities that don't have public sewerage facilities. Large swathes of land in those rural areas are currently in agricultural use, and are owned by farm families. Requiring advanced infrastructure like wastewater plants dramatically increases the cost of development, a premise that is already difficult due to the economy. Instead of ensuring development of rural lands on public facilities, the proposal would simply have ended any chance of growth for these areas.
2.) No matter what the Maryland legislature does to reduce nutrient pollution in the Bay, unless neighboring states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware mimic those same restrictions, we will never solve the problem. Nutrients pour unabated into the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River on a daily basis.
3.) The logic of arguing to save the Bay through public wastewater treatment seems almost insane. Guess where most of the nutrient pollution that is choking off aquatic life is coming from? If you said public sewer plants, you nailed it! Under former GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich, the legislature passed a bill to charge an additional fee on water bills for anyone connected to a public sewer system. This fee, referred to as the flush tax, was intended to raise enough money to pay to upgrade public sewer systems to remove these nutrients. It hasn't worked, mostly because the cost to modify the plants far exceeds the flush fees generated by users.
The bill was amended through the legislative process to become a study over the summer. One of two things will happen. Stakeholders will find a better way to solve the problem, or special interests sympathetic to the governor will work to justify the policy shift and bring it back next year.
The governor also lost his signature wind energy initiative to a summer study. Legislators got antsy about the cost recovery mechanism, which means they read the bill and realized that current electric rate-payers were going to be subsidizing a huge set aside for companies that can pilot large-scale wind power projects. Governor O'Malley's former chief of staff, Michael Enright, just happens to be the CEO of one such company. Hmmmm.
Throwing a serious analysis of the results of Session 2011 to the wind (no subsidy required), here's a less serious assessment of the "achievements" of our General Assembly:
· Negro Mountain is still just that, and John Hanson will continue to stand in Congress's Statuary Hall. A move to rename the Allegany County mountain to something more politically correct and to trade Mr. Hanson's statue for Harriett Tubman may have played well with race-baiters, but didn't sway the legislature.
· Casa De Maryland Executive Director Gustavo Torres wins the “Understatement of the Year” award with the following: "We made history tonight. This shows that Maryland is a pro-immigrant state." Ya think? Señor Torres was celebrating the bill to grant in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants. Not only are we a pro-immigrant state, we're now officially a pro-lawbreaker and illegal invader state. I can almost hear "Maryland, My Maryland" being played by a mariachi band.
· Rocky Gap, that sleepy little taxpayer-backed hotel/golf course near Cumberland that loses millions each year, may be a step closer to having slot machines. That'll be sweet: hike the mountain trail, play a round of 18 holes on the Jack Nicklaus-designed course, get a spa treatment, then lose your shirt to a one-armed bandit. NICE!
· Last year, the General Assembly outlawed sending text messages while driving. This year, they made reading those messages while driving illegal. Not to worry, talking on your cell remains a secondary offense. Just tell the cop that pulls you over you were getting ready to take a call. It'll save you a few bucks and points.
· And my personal favorite – the alcohol tax increase. In one the most stunning bait-and-switches in history (lotto for education was better), the General Assembly voted to increase the alcohol tax by 50%. For several years, legislators have been pushing for a liquor tax increase to fund mental health and developmental disability programs. Advocates for these programs brought people with disabilities, from the profound to the less severe, to Annapolis to make a personal plea for this money. It must have worked, since the leaders were able to muscle enough votes to provide a substantial amount of money; in fact, a historic amount, to help these vulnerable people live a better life. But wait, out of the $85-$90 million projected to be raised by this tax increase, only $15 million is going to the developmentally disabled. What happened to all the money? Somewhere between the parade of wheelchairs and tear-inducing genuine pleas for long overdue help, the bulk of the funding was promised to Democratic legislators representing Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County as a school funding grant. To add insult to injury, all of western Maryland, including Frederick County, will split $750,000, while Baltimore alone gets $9 million of this money. Anyone involved in this sanctioned fraud should hang their heads in shame.
Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities with the following: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." In the case of the Maryland General Assembly, lowered expectations suggest the latter.