Beltway bullies, salt in your soup and cedar chests

April 09, 1997

It's been 14 years since the death of state Sen. Ed Thomas, a Republican who represented Frederick and Washingtton counties. This week after the Maryland General Assembly adjourned I thought about him, in part because he coined the term "Beltway bullies."

In a 1976 speech to the Washington County chapter of the League of Women Voters, Thomas railed against the "Bully Beltway counties," who, he said, "flex their muscle and dominate the legislature."

Not much has changed in the 21 years since then. In the 1996 session, for example, state pension officials, fearing an exodus of governments from the plan, used a series of stealthy maneuvers to create a $9 million liability for Hagerstown where none had existed before. This year, after their mischief was discovered, state officials made noises about chopping $5 million off that bill.


But the final relief bill provided only $2.5 million, which Mayor Steve Sager says leaves the city with a manageable debt of some $7 million. But the mayor doesn't have much choice, since even if the city sets up a cheaper plan, by law the city can't force workers to join it.

Other problems: A simple amendment to the Washington County gaming law was bottled up because Prince Georges County officials feared someone would try to piggyback an extension of its soon-to-end charitable casino gambling onto the bill. A bill to assist the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie was almost derailed by Sens. William Amoss and Barbara Hoffman, who serve on the senate's Budget and Taxation Committee with Washington County's Don Munson.

It's probably nothing personal, but the metro counties' lack of respect for rural delegations is a problem. As we all learned on the playground, if you just hand over your lunch money when the bully says "Give it here," you're likely to go hungry every day. The local delegation must either resign itself to being on an involuntary diet, or finally find a way to fight back against the "Beltway bullies."

Even if you don't have one, you know someone who does: An interfering relative who has his or her nose in your business - and usually not in a helpful way. They love to second-guess your decisions, talking about what you should have done, or actually trying to re-do it, as in adding extra salt to the soup you've left simmering on the stove.

Playing the role of the Washington County Commissioners' interfering relative this year was the Washington County delegation. The delegation, which previously obligated the commissioners (and the county taxpayers) to pay for a new Fairplay fire hall and prevented them from reducing the amount of the county's charitable contributions, this year took action to reverse the commissioners' decision to decertify the roads department's union.

The delegation's decision was the right one, but it's part of a disturbing pattern. The delegation involves itself when the political benefits of doing so are certain, but not on other, more difficult issues. For instance, there's been no sustained attempt that I'm aware of (and elected officials usually aren't secretive about the good things they do) by the delegation to help deal with the county's massive water and sewer debt.

Knowing the delegation's past history, what the commissioners should have done was to ask state lawmakers' help in breaking the impasse with the roads union. Being the pro-union people that they've shown themselves to be, our state lawmakers certainly wouldn't have objected to rolling up their sleeves for such a good cause.

Since 1929, the Lane Company, which bills itself as the world's largest manufacturer of cedar chests, has given small replicas of its full-size chests to graduating high school seniors. In recent years,the program has been tied in with "Commencement Commitment," a program run by Students Against Drunk Driving.

Using a coupon distributed in schools, students sign a pledge not to drink and drive, or accept a ride from anyone who has been drinking, during the graduation season.

That signed coupon is then turned in at the local Lane dealer, in this case Dentler Brothers Furniture on Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown near Mack Trucks. There's no pressure to purchase anything else, and the Lane Company says it expects to give away 250,000 of the tabletop chests this year.

The first edition of Herald-Mail's Youth Letter Forum appeared this past Monday, featuring some thoughtful letters from kids all over the area. Thanks to all the teachers and parents who encouraged these young people to write.

Bob Maginnis is the editorial editor of the Herald-Mail newspapers.

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