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Alex Mooney: Strong views, flawed tactics

July 28, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

When I told state Sen. Alex Mooney it seemed as if he'd made more of an effort this session to get along with his colleagues in the Maryland General Assembly, he seemed surprised that anybody would believe he's abandoning the hard-charging style that's marked his first term in the Maryland Senate.

He's always been willing to work with Democrats, he said, but not if it meant sacrificing his conservative principles. In an interview this week, Mooney talked about what he hoped to accomplish next term, and his race against Del. Sue Hecht.

Hecht and Mooney, primarily Frederick-based legislators, represented small slices of Washington County during the last four years, a term during which even Mooney would have to admit he mightily irritated the Democrats by battling the leadership over rules, the state budget and mounting a major - but unsuccessful - effort to defeat a homosexual rights bill pushed by Gov. Parris Glendening, whose late brother was gay.

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The ranks of the offended include Hecht, who told me she was determined to be rid of Mooney one way or another, either by winning his Senate seat or being defeated by him.

But if Mooney fears her, it didn't show during an interview this week. He pledged to continue to fight any attempt to raise taxes, including a plan to raise money for education by legalizing slot machines at the state's horse tracks.

"My view on gambling is that it's equivalent of a tax on poorer people. It's not something I'm opposed to on moral grounds because I'm a Catholic and we have bingo. But I just think it takes people who are struggling and offers them something they can't get" because the odds favor the operators, Mooney said.

He noted that in Altantic City and other cities with legalized gambling, there've been increases in crime and prostitution. Asked if such things had happened in Delaware and West Virginia, where slots had been legalized at the horse tracks, Mooney said he hadn't seen the studies on that.

If you reject gambling and increased taxes to fill what has been estimated to be a $1 billion hole in the next state budget, what would you cut?

"There's a lot of things we can cut. Since Glendening was elected, we added 8,000 new state employees," Mooney said.

Mooney said he would also reduce the cost of government by reducing the state's costs for health care, which he said has now been expanded to the point where a family of four earning up to $50,000 can get state coverage.

Health-care for the working poor could be expanded, Mooney said, if the state would reduce some of the 52 mandates he said it places on private insurers, including treatment for hair loss and in vitro fertilization.

Other spending Mooney said he's tried to eliminate include vice chancellor positions at the University of Maryland, extending the prevailing wage law to school construction and the office of "Smart Growth" even though he feels development is "out of control" in Frederick County.

"I voted against Smart Growth because I believe that growth decisions should be made by local government," he said.

What about the room-tax increase proposed by local people in Frederick County, including the Chamber of Commerce, to fund tourism promotion and economic development?

Mooney said that while his "tax-and-spend liberal" opponent Hecht supported the measure, no private citizens came to him backing the tax, which he said would hurt local folks whose relatives stay in motels when they come to visit.

If citizens supported it in a referendum, would you back it?

"I hadn't thought of that before, so I don't know," he said.

If you could accomplish one thing in your next term, what would it be?

"I'd like to see the highways in Western Maryland expanded. The roads are in deep need of expansion," Mooney said.

He also said he'd like to hold the line on taxes and if there's a surplus, return it to the taxpayers. The state also needs to look for more efficiencies in the mass transit system, including more parking at Metro stops to encourage more people to ride.

Why would it be a bad thing if Sue Hecht is elected?

"There's already enough tax-and-spend liberals down there. We don't need another one," Mooney said.

To Hecht's charge that if Mooney's view on the budget had prevailed, voters wouldn't have received the last 2 percent of as state income tax cut, Mooney said he could use the same tactic.

There were parochial-school textbook subsidies in budgets Hecht has voted for, but that doesn't mean she supports them, Mooney said. His votes against the budget were an attempt to defeat them so the legislature could come back with better versions.

Mooney is an intelligent man whose positions on the issues are firm, but until this year, when he voted for the budget to support the University System of Maryland's downtown Hagerstown campus, he seemed to believe that the General Assembly was some sort of debating society, where ideas were considered strictly on their merit.

That's a nice ideal, but in truth the legislature is a network of personal relationships, in which how lawmakers do business is as important as the substance of their bills.

During the gay rights bill fight, Mooney made the tactical error of targeting undecided lawmakers by hiring a public-relations firm to put op-eds in their hometown newspapers.

As state Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George's, told him afterward, if you've got a concern, don't do that. Talk to me instead. Green, by the way, got his amendments to limit the gay rights bill passed by working with the governor.

Voters who believe Mooney takes the right positions need to ask themselves whether he can also become a more effective lawmaker or if he'll remain as he is now, a loud voice on the margins of the legislature.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers. He may be reached at bobm@herald-mail.com.

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