Week 1 January 11-13, 2012
Opening day of session involves much pomp and circumstance coupled with historic traditions. The work of the day involves the election of presiding officers. These actions are all staged and predetermined by the Democratic Caucus. The first vote is for the Speaker Pro Tempore who then presides over the body until the election of the Speaker of the House is conducted. With this session, Michael Busch becomes the longest serving Speaker of the House in Maryland history.
All committee Chairmen are reappointed along with committee assignments formalized. No changes were seen this year over recent years. It is not unusual to have most of the congressional delegation present for the opening ceremony along with the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Comptroller. This year was no exception.
I found some of the comments made by the Governor and Speaker very interesting. Both mentioned how important it was to have the views “of the right and the left” expressed in the General Assembly and how we were made better by this diversity of thought and approach to government. On the heels of these fine sentiments came the Governor and Democrats Legislative Redistricting Map which seeks to destroy and eliminate many districts currently held by Republicans. They could not even get through the first stanza of “Kumbaya.’
Changes to the map are possible during the next 45 days but it seems more likely than not that many Republican lawmakers will have some decisions to make in the coming months. Del. Otto and I have seen our districts altered by well over half and now find ourselves together in a single member district. These are the actions of a ruling party that has little interest in hearing from those representing the values of the Eastern Shore.
A hearing was conducted to review the use of phone contracts and collect call charges made by inmates in the prisons and jails throughout the state. In order to provide the specialized phones and recording services, the state and local jurisdictions contract with various companies to furnish all of the equipment needed along with billing services. It is a lucrative business whereby the state collects a profit/commission of roughly 42%. The companies themselves have a profit margin of approximately 5%. In some jurisdictions the profit is used for providing inmate services while in others it is simply placed in their general operating budget.
An advocate for reducing the cost to the inmates of making these types of calls questioned what she referred to as the “kickbacks” being received by corrections officials for providing these services. That term was a misnomer as she was actually referring to the negotiated commissions received by the state. It was pointed out that Maryland is among the lowest in terms of cost to the inmates for local calls. In fact, only Alaska came in lower due to their local calls being free. It was good to see that Maryland State government was competitive in something with surrounding states, even if it is the cost of inmate phone calls.
Eastern Shore Delegation Meeting:
Secretary of Planning
We met with Secretary of Planning Richard Hall to discuss Plan Maryland. The plan provides for increased state oversight of local planning and zoning land use issues. It seems clear from the discussion that the state can and will use state money as the lever to gain active compliance from resistant local governments. The Secretary skated around a lot of the issues that were addressed to him, predominately because the plan is so broad based, no one has any real notion how the implementation will affect local governments and Maryland citizens. The delegation expressed consternation with the plan not coming through the General Assembly and being back doored by the governor. The Secretary offered that the plan was authorized in 1974 and simply had not been acted upon until now.
I was particularly concerned over the private property rights which will be jeopardized by such a broad, centralized plan. It is clear that the governor wishes to expand state control over an additional 300,000 acres of farmland in the next 20-years. I asked if the administration would support a bill I am working with that would require the state to compensate land owners when they create laws and regulations that prohibit that same land owner from being able to develop or utilize their property as they may desire. Secretary Hall said they would take a look at the bill but could not express any support.
There was much concern expressed about the future of poultry on the shore if Plan Maryland continues to move forward with the adoption of additional rules and regulations that only serve to restrict farming activities or make them cost prohibitive. I mentioned that this type of system where rules and regulations are imposed on business create a de facto moratorium on any growth or development of an industry.
It was quite clear that we are at polar ends of the specter with the O’Malley administration when it comes to Plan Maryland, but the concerns expressed were bi-partisan in nature. Maryland has operated for decades with a State Department of Planning that has worked to provide guidance to local government. This plan will turn that “guidance” into direct oversight. Yet another layer of government bureaucracy to overcome. We met with the governor as a delegation last year to express our concerns over his proposed septic bill (which went down to defeat). It seems the governor has decided that the General Assembly is not needed when it creates a stumbling block for his programs. It was suggested that we meet with the governor again, but the governor appears to have dug his heels in on Plan Maryland.