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Some state lawmakers might make great county commissioners

April 06, 2008

One wonders, why did our local state lawmakers not attach a provision to a bill that would require a study of communication towers in South County?

That's a politically charged issue. A lot of votes are there for the pandering.

It would probably be a popular move for state lawmakers, who always seem to see votes in their eyes whenever a hot-button issue raises its head in county affairs.

This week, some in the delegation backed an amendment that would delay closure and repair of an historic Funkstown bridge until an "economic assessment" is performed, whatever that means. Isn't it obvious that closing the bridge would make it more difficult to get to businesses on the other side? Do we need another taxpayer funded study to tell us what we already know?

There are other solutions, such as tax credits for the affected businesses.

Plenty of people are rightfully upset about the bridge's temporary closure and plenty of people will applaud the delegates for taking their side and plenty of votes may be won over this additional layer of bureaucracy.

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If the lawmakers who back this amendment are lucky, it probably won't even occur to voters that if state lawmakers had been doing their job, a much-needed Funkstown bypass would have been built many moons ago and today this bridge closure would not be an issue.

Yet here again, we have state lawmakers behaving as if they would be better suited to be County Commissioners. They're on top of county property taxes, county building fees and county bridges. But when it comes to doing the job they were elected to do, they come up small.

It's almost a playground mentality: If someone beats you up and takes your lunch money at the state level, you look around for smaller kids at the county level to repay the favor. And if you are failing at your own job, point the spotlight on someone who is failing worse.

If voters could pass amendments, a good one would be this: Our local lawmakers would be allowed to boss around County Commissioners only after they have completed their own jobs - in this case, nailing down full funding for the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown campus.

While Del. John Donoghue and Sen. Don Munson are scrapping as best they can over the educational and economic future of Washington County, the balance of the resident lawmakers are tilting gallantly at a one-lane stone bridge.

Home rule? Any rule that would bring some semblance of order to our governance would be welcome at the moment.

The county, unfortunately, appears to be all too willing to leave the door open to state interference with questionable decision-making and execution. Repairs to the Funkstown bridge are scheduled to take five months, but some of those for whom this would be an inconvenience are bound to remember the county's celebrated Broadfording Bridge fiasco, where months of repairs turned into years.

And when the county showed no inclination toward turning down a financial windfall from rising property tax assessments, it was certainly a fat pitch that state lawmakers were all too happy to hit out of the park.

As a matter of fact, it might almost be tempting to accept the state lawmakers as surrogate commissioners if they were on hand to solve county crises that really needed to be solved. But years of local-government stalemates over a new Washington County Hospital went by with nary a whisper of direction from state leaders. And the same can be said of city-county sewer impasses. At the time, lawmakers said it wasn't their job to interfere in local issues.

Translation: It's not their job to interfere in local issues when votes are not at stake.

No one cares about sewer lines. And taking one side or another in the hospital fisticuffs risked alienating a substantial number of voters on the opposing side. But where a clear-cut majority can be found on a local issue, lawmakers have clearly demonstrated that there is no bridge too far.

It can be argued with reason that when commissioners appear tone-deaf to a groundswell of public opinion, lawmakers have a right to step in as a check and balance. But that liberty should be predicated on two things.

One, it should be consistent. State lawmakers should be willing to help with all local problems, not just the ones that promise baskets of easy votes.

And second, the lawmakers' own house should be in order before tackling additional chores. All the time and energy that is spent during the legislative session on matters of county interest subtract from time and energy that should be focused on the job they have been elected to do.

In Maryland, a rural, minority delegation must fire on all cylinders - you can't depend on just two to do all the heavy lifting. As the days of this particular session wind down, every ounce of effort ought to be focused on our downtown university campus, not horning in on county matters.

Let's trust the commissioners to do the right thing, and if they don't, we can easily vote in new commissioners. Unfortunately, if history is a guide, the same cannot be said about state lawmakers, where years of futility has become its own reward.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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