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A wrong, but good, reason to vote for charter home rule

October 14, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Whiling away the hours musing over Washington County's dalliance with Charter Home Rule is a bit like contemplating the thought that cats will one day rule the world - amusing, but ultimately pointless.

To say that home-rule promoters have an uphill fight on their hands as they gear up for the February vote is a serious understatement.

Accurate or not, the voting public equates home rule with higher taxes. End of story. Any benefits home rule might provide don't even have a chance to get a toe in the door.

Commissioners didn't exactly help the home rule cause earlier in the term when they dragged their feet in offsetting the winds of property reappraisal, which blew in a greatly accelerated tax rate.

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Local state lawmakers stepped in to strong-arm some token relief out of the county, but the lasting impression was - left to its own devices - the county would have gladly accepted any new tax money that was there for the taking.

Forget for the moment that this really wasn't any of the local lawmakers' business. Were the shoe on the other foot and the County Commissioners demanded that the state reduce its taxes, what would have been the reaction in Annapolis?

In fact, this ostensible argument against home rule is actually an argument in favor of it.

State lawmakers are elected to deal with state issues, County Commissioners are elected to deal with local issues. It's easy and a political plum to tell another government to cut its revenues or meddle with a building tax when you are not responsible for providing that government's constituents with services.

But that tax rebate, or excise tax reduction, may mean that your road doesn't get repaved, or that your kids will have to make do with portable classrooms.

Local governments know what is needed locally and have a better idea of the costs. And if local elected leaders - enabled by home rule - get too greedy, there is a simple remedy: Vote them out of office.

Strictly speaking, and against conventional thought, a vote for home rule is a vote for less government. In many situations, home rule eliminates a layer of government. As it stands, the public must go through county government and then state government for satisfaction.

And it is all too easy for the state lawmakers to do what's best for them politically, without giving thought to the real problems that may be facing the local government. It may be politically popular, for example, for state lawmakers to demand that the county build a new firehouse - but it then falls to the county to pay for the firehouse.

Further, local laws that are obviously needed frequently become bogged down in the state legislative process - simply for the reason that they are trivial and unimportant to the rest of the state. And really, why in the world should we have to go to Annapolis to authorize someone to make appointments to the Washington County Fire Police?

Of course, savvy opponents of home rule will argue, and not without merit, that an additional layer of government is not necessarily a bad thing. You've no-doubt heard about something called checks and balances.

America's government was set up by the Founders to make legislation difficult, not the other way around.

And although one columnist recently criticized the state delegation for its "strong-arm" response to reappraisals, that response was arguably the sensible thing to do.

Bottom line, home rule is a hard issue to vote on because it depends on the quality of county elected officials versus the quality of state elected officials. And those qualities can change from election to election.

If we have a strong delegation and a weak county, you don't want home rule; if the strengths are reversed, you do.

I'll likely end up in the minority favoring home rule, and my reason is a poor one. It's this: Home rule will put more pressure on our state lawmakers to deliver the goods.

Now, lawmakers are entirely too wrapped up in county-government triviality. A good state lawmaker would want to be ridded of this burden in order to concentrate on the big picture, which is what state lawmakers are supposed to do.

It is telling that local business interests pointedly do not invite local lawmakers when they meet with state power brokers. It is telling when local governments must spend tax money on a variety of lobbyists to fight on their behalf.

What it tells is that when important decisions are to be made and crucial problems need to be solved, local lawmakers are not the first ones to get the call. That shouldn't be.

So I am voting for home rule to do local lawmakers a favor. Once the mundane but necessary chore of shepherding through all this boilerplate county legislation is lifted, I am sure they will be able to produce the schools, highways and utilities that this county so desperately needs.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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