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tim rowland 12/31/00

December 29, 2000

Delegation should stop ducking and start legislating



Sloppy lawmaking usually creates more problems than the legislation itself was intended to solve, and that's turning out to be the case with last year's local hotel/motel tax hike.

The driving force behind the hotel/motel tax increase was the proposed new baseball stadium for the Class A Hagerstown Suns. The delegation Republicans, who fear accountability like a coiled snake, have performed a lot of revisionist history, saying they only wanted to generate money for some nebulous tourism use or find a way to force commissioners to pay off sewer indebtedness sooner.

But let's be clear. No stadium, no legislation. Period.

Now, if accountability is one jaw of the vise, the other lawmakers fear is the tag of ineffectiveness or inaction - especially if it is affixed by the Washington County business community, which is already disdainful of the delegation's potency.

So on one hand, supporting the stadium might cost them votes from tax hawks, while on the other, failure to support the stadium would have cost them even more prestige among community leaders.

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Instead of taking a stand one way or the other, the delegation tried to pander to both groups and now it has a disaster on its hands - as evidenced this month when Washington County Administrator Rod Shoop proposed to use the erstwhile stadium/tourism money to widen alleys around the new district courthouse.

There were two intelligent courses of action open to the delegation last winter. 1. Vote against the stadium and do nothing. 2. Vote for the stadium and raise the hotel/motel tax, dedicating the revenue specifically toward stadium construction.

Instead, local lawmakers came up with easily the most unwieldy piece of legislation of the decade, which managed to overreach and underreach at the same time, accomplishing nothing truly positive and creating all sorts of unintended consequences.

Technically, I suppose, you could make the case that Shoop is correct that alley-widening fits the tourism mold. It vaguely works toward the goal of beautifying downtown and the $10 million visual and performing arts project that could seriously benefit downtown.

But Del. Chris Shank was quick to criticize Shoop's plan, saying that it hardly fits the tourism-enhancing plan he had in mind when he helped draw up the bill.

Shank is right. However it might have been a good idea to think of this when writing such baggy legislation.

Now, assuming it will not simply ignore the problem, the delegation is left with two choices in the upcoming session. First, it could repeal the room-tax hike. Or it could specifically designate how the revenue raised by the room tax is to be spent, be it a stadium, the visual and performing arts center or the proposed Civil War museum.

If the delegation can't bring itself to say why, and for what, the tax was raised, perhaps repealing it is the best option.

The more courageous thing to do - which is pretty much a guarantee that this delegation will not do it - would be to mandate this money be set aside for stadium construction. If the stadium is not built, the money would be returned to the hotel owners.

Should delegation members want precedent, they need look no further than George W. Bush, who believed it was in the taxpayers' interest to build him the Ballpark at Arlington for the Texas Rangers. (Of course he did fire Bobby Valentine and traded Sammy Sosa, so maybe that's a bad example).

It bears repeating that without the prospect of a stadium, this tax bill never would have passed. Sentiment over construction of a stadium in this community is split. The delegation wanted to find a way to get the credit for funding the stadium on one hand, while ducking the blame for funding the stadium on the other. Instead, the whole thing has blown up in the delegation's face.

At some point, taking a stand, even if it's controversial, wins you more respect than doubletalk and fence-sitting. I'm guessing that even stadium opponents would have more respect for Del. John Donoghue for taking a pro-stadium stand and sticking to it than for Shank, who is trying to have it both ways.

We elect people to be leaders. It's time for the delegation to lead, already.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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