Tamela Baker: Fasten your seat belts for a bumpy General Assembly session

January 11, 2012|By TAMELA BAKER

The Maryland General Assembly opens today, unleashing the three-month adrenaline rush that engulfs Annapolis every winter. I confess I’m a little nostalgic for the fanfare and intrigues, and since this is an election year in which several state lawmakers have set their eyes on bigger and better things, it promises to be an especially provocative season.

The provocation, however, began in last year’s session. Controversial bills — one that passed (immigrant tuition) and one that didn’t (same-sex marriage) — helped set the stage for potential divisions, conflicts and retributions in this year’s session. Since then, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s policies on “smart growth” and the — well, let’s call it what it is — bizarre new Western Maryland congressional map have stoked, as if it needed stoking, anti-O’Malley sentiment across Western Maryland, and in Southern Maryland, too.

Add the tension of party positioning for the upcoming election and we have all the right conditions for a perfect storm over the Severn.

All very riveting, to be sure. But the biggest danger is that in all the fuss, your best interests will be overlooked. Again.

It goes without saying, or at least it should, that our biggest need is jobs. Washington County still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Recent numbers haven’t been quite as bad as the roughly 10 percent average we’ve maintained for the past three years, but anyone familiar with those statistics knows they don’t tell the whole story. While they might indicate unemployment is leveling off, they don’t account for people whose benefits have expired but are still out of work, or those who’ve just given up.

Then there’s the stunning revelation that nearly half — HALF! — of our public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Some have suggested these families are playing the system, but given our unemployment situation, that number really isn’t off base.

One might be forgiven for expecting all this to attract O’Malley’s attention — after all, his staff seems to be planning his next trade mission before he gets off the plane from the last. But while logic screams that such economic development quests should focus on the parts of the state that need jobs most, we’re hard-pressed to find Western Maryland representatives among the entourage. The emphasis is usually on Montgomery, Prince George’s and other urban counties.

Granted, there are a lot more votes down there. But he’s governor of Western Maryland, too — and if there had been a little more visible effort to deal with the economic morass out here, he might legitimately have won a few more political friends and wouldn’t have had to resort to blatant gerrymandering to better the Democrats’ chances of winning our congressional seat.

But the response from rural, mostly Republican, legislators isn’t any more promising.

Some of them — including a few of our own — have been trying to get mileage out of declaring O’Malley is engaging in a “war on rural Maryland.” It’s easy to see where that comes from; it’s not so easy to see where it’s going.

A lot of us are asking what the governor’s done for us lately. But what every voter in this county should also be asking is, what’s the plan? What is our delegation’s strategy for actually getting policies out of this General Assembly that give us some real relief?

When I criticize the delegation, it’s not because most of them are conservative and Republican. It’s because of the painful lack of results they have produced. Talk is cheap, and most of us don’t need to be told what we already believe. All the rhetoric in the world isn’t going to save you a penny on your taxes or bring more jobs to Washington County. What we need is real, tangible results.

Yes, our lawmakers are outnumbered. But that would be true even if they were all Democrats. While there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans in the Legislature, it’s a myth that all those Democrats are on the same page. There are real fault lines between Democratic factions, and while there are no guarantees in politics, if Republicans spent less time ranting and more time positioning themselves to be the swing vote on contentious issues, they might get more accomplished.

That, of course, requires a lawmaker to be a statesman rather than a politician. But really, isn’t that what they’re supposed to be in the first place? And when you’re so badly outnumbered, diplomacy is the only viable card you can play.

Fortunately, we have a few in our delegation — notably George Edwards and Andrew Serafini — who fit that role nicely. They maintain principles most local voters identify with, but they’re reasonable men. And we need reasonable leadership, particularly in the debate over proposed transportation taxes and fees — proposals that without question would unfairly penalize regions without the kinds of mass transportation available closer to the cities.

It will be tragic, indeed, if they are overshadowed by other members of their own party — from all parts of the state — who stubbornly persist in the kind of sound bite-friendly, self-serving and futile sniping that has failed us for more than a dozen years.

Tamela Baker is a former Herald-Mail reporter and editor.

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