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Home rule has both pluses and minuses

June 23, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

When the 6th Congressional District was redrawn prior to last fall’s election, the grand design (which it accomplished) was to put another Maryland Democrat in the House of Representatives.

But an unintended (and unlamented, from a Democratic perspective) side effect was that it slammed the door in the face of any Western Maryland conservative with ideas of obtaining higher office.

State senator, a position that is relatively poorly paid and lacking in statewide prestige, is now as high as a local, conservative political climber can go.

The state as a whole has swung so far to the left that the idea of a conservative governor or attorney general or comptroller is a nonstarter, especially for a rural candidate. The U.S. Senate is locked down by Democrats and now it appears that our House seat will be in the hands of John Delaney for as long as he wants it.

All this might go a long way toward explaining Washington County’s newfound interest in home rule, especially among Republicans.

Del. LeRoy Myers hosted a meeting this week to measure interest in home rule, and even state Sen. Chris Shank — whose downward thumb helped doom the measure in 2008 — says he’s now open to it.

Home rule has this going for it from a political standpoint: It potentially employs an elected county executive, which is a relatively exclusive statewide position. Executives are influential in the General Assembly and often are called to testify in Annapolis. And the pay would probably be double or even triple that of a state lawmaker. All in all, that’s not a bad place to park yourself for a few years if you’re a conservative waiting and hoping for a change in statewide political winds.

Aside from that, home rule in and of itself is a relatively good idea. But like any other form of government, the quality of it depends on the quality of the council in charge.

Home rule is sold on the idea that it allows decisions to be made closer to home. What’s not stated is that those decisions are usually legislative chloroform, tedious minutiae such as: Who gets to hook the sewer pipe to your home, plumbers or utility companies?

Myers is absolutely correct, though, in that this handful of county housekeeping bills the local lawmakers must worry with each session subtracts from more important work.

Opponents to home rule argue that it eliminates a government “check and balance,” meaning that there’s no General Assembly to make sure the locals aren’t doing something totally nuts.

This is true, but only in a theoretical sense. State lawmakers generally don’t bother themselves with interfering in local affairs, and will only block a local bill if it would somehow cause trouble in some other part of the state (The crafty former state Sen. Walter Baker used to sell weighty pieces of controversial legislation by saying “this is just a li’l ole Cecil County bill.”)

So it will be interesting to see whether a measure that was swamped by a 2-1 margin in Washington County five years ago has a chance today simply because it is being backed by a new set of supporters.

Shank, for his part, says he was never opposed to home rule as a concept. This would come as news to those who promoted home rule last time around, who accused Shank and his “scare tactics” as being central in the initiative’s defeat. At the time, Shank solicited an opinion from the state attorney general’s office affirming that the new charter government would have special taxing-district powers — unsaid was that the County Commissioners already have this same power.

No matter, Shank now says that his gripe was simply that the charter of 2008 was “poorly written.”

It also retained an appointed county administrator instead of an elected county executive, not that you would want to read too much into that.

Poorly written or not, home rule does have this check and balance that is not available to us when we must take all of our problems to the state: If we believe the council is taking too many liberties with the charter, we can very simply vote them out of office.

That’s a pretty good incentive to keep council members in line.

Still, a fair bet is that a charter supported by county conservatives will (aside from offering a full employment program for county Republicans) be a fairly restrictive document that allows for little creativity in terms of, say, revenue or development.

Which is fine if that’s the way they want to do it. Except that home rule that doesn’t give local leaders the authority to do anything defeats the purpose of home rule.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.



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