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Washington County delegation has plenty on its plate

January 11, 2012

Gov. Martin O’Malley has promised an ambitious agenda this legislative session, but in a part of the state where ambitious agendas are not necessarily heralded as good things, our local lawmakers will face a delicate balancing act.

Lawmakers must protect our local interests, but do so in a way that does not get the door slammed in their faces when they ask for state help with projects of local importance.

The most obvious of these highwire acts will be the proposed gasoline tax, penciled in for a 5-cent increase over the next three years. Obviously, this will hit rural drivers — many of whom rely on large, four-wheel-drive vehicles — harder than motorists who live within a few miles of jobs and services.

But waging an anti-gas-tax crusade will, in all likelihood, shut off the spigot of highway dollars into Washington County. We might wish that politics did not operate this way, but it is a fact. Hanging in the balance is the quality of our existing roads and a crucial bridge project that would span Antietam Creek, relieving traffic congestion in and around Hagerstown Community College and Meritus Medical Center.

An increased gas tax is not something we support, but it appears inevitable.

In that case and if, and only if, we are guaranteed a reasonable cut of the revenue the gas tax raises for the bridge project and to maintain existing highways, we would urge our lawmakers to consider doing the deal.

Local lawmakers also will be called on to protect rural interests when it comes to the state PlanMaryland program. While we applaud the goals of PlanMaryland (a cleaner environment, organized growth, consolidated utilities), we question how well its authors understand rural life.

Expensive septic systems, longer drives to shopping and other services all make it more difficult for people of limited means to enjoy a rural lifestyle. We believe that country living should be made easy, not hard. And while we understand that much of PlanMaryland is a done deal, we trust our local lawmakers will, at the least, bring our concerns before those who write the regulations; sometimes, it does seem as if they’re out to get us, but at other times, perhaps they simply don’t understand our situation.

On the local front, lawmakers have correctly promised action on gaming-fund accountability. Currently, an ample chunk of locally raised gaming money goes to the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, after which it is out of taxpayers’ control to how the money is used. We need better control of these funds, not only to make sure the majority of money gets to fire and rescue companies, but also to protect the association itself from any misunderstandings. Without transparency, there will always be doubt. And if there is doubt, it becomes more likely that the state will step in and confiscate our local gaming money and spend it elsewhere. Our lawmakers cannot allow that to happen.

Another local issue that might rear its head, as it does every so often, is funding for meaningful improvements to Municipal Stadium, home to the Hagerstown Suns. There is no proposal presently before the delegation, but we would urge lawmakers to at least keep an open mind should one arise. We would also note that Maryland has a state stadium authority that has lavished dollars across the state, with one notable exception. Our lawmakers should ask why, and when we can expect this oversight to be addressed.

Finally, with all of the high-profile issues at stake this session, we would gently ask that our lawmakers refrain from engaging in pitched battles that they can’t win. For it is these crusades that have made it so difficult for Washington County to secure its fair share of state funding. It’s important to remember that this does not represent money saved, but merely money that is spent in other parts of the state instead of here. Our lawmakers can voice their concerns and vote their consciences on issues such as gay marriage without poking sticks in the eyes of the majority, an action that will guarantee retaliation.

This will not be an easy session for our delegation. It is likely to be replete with difficult decisions and difficult votes that might boil down to choosing the lesser of two evils, or temporarily shelving political expediency. Strong leaders have the ability to negotiate troublesome waters, and we wish our delegation well in that regard this session.

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