Donald Fry: Talking past each other in Annapolis

By Donald C. Fry

The dramatically contrasting philosophies in Annapolis regarding addressing the state’s transportation funding crisis and other issues were on full display Jan. 23 at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s 2012 General Assembly Legislative Forum in Baltimore.

The compelling disagreement between the leaders of the Democratic majority and Republican minority on a broad array of important fiscal and policy issues facing the state reminds us all of how stiflingly contentious and intransigent it has become in the State House these days.

On issues relating directly to having a competitive business environment, there is precious little agreement on anything, but lawmakers have plenty to say about everything – some of it not entirely factual, some of it just simply ambiguous – as they basically talk past each other.

For example, they even argue over the state’s No. 1 ranking in education, something for which lawmakers in both parties have voted to increase spending by billions over the last decade. Majority party leaders point to that funding commitment as largely responsible for a continuing No. 1 national ranking for Maryland’s public schools.

Minority leaders, however, argue our state’s No. 1 ranking is tainted by comparatively lower achievement in the state’s urban school districts and by the large percentage of Maryland high school graduates who need remedial English or math when they get to college. These may be arguable, but the legislator who told the GBC audience that Maryland high schools only graduate 50 percent of students was dead wrong. State data show a graduation rate of 87 percent in 2011.

On state spending, majority party leaders told GBC members the state is reducing operating spending, contending that hundreds of millions of dollars have been “cut” from state budgets over the last several years and that this year’s general fund budget, submitted by Governor O’Malley, is less than the one he proposed last year.

Minority leaders said the budget is increasing, not decreasing. The governor’s budget summary, which shows a 1.9 percent increase in the general fund budget he submitted, appears to substantiate the minority lawmakers’ assertion on this one.

On energy, the administration is aggressively pushing for development of offshore wind power as a core strategy to lowering long-term energy costs. Opponents label the idea a boondoggle that will only increase energy costs, not lower them.

I could go on, but the most virulent crossfire this year breaks out over the issue of increasing funding for transportation infrastructure. Virtually everyone agrees on the basic facts:

  • Maryland has a multi-billion backlog of unfunded-but-needed transportation projects
  • Revenue to Maryland’s transportation fund has severely stagnated, primarily because its largest source of revenue – the gas tax – has not been increased in 20 years, a period of time during which 37 other states have found a way to increase their gas tax.

Almost everyone in Annapolis agrees something must be done about transportation infrastructure sometime.

Most legislative leaders say the time is now, a position that a very large contingent of business advocates agree with. Leading lawmakers say they are poised to support measures, including a potential gas tax increase, to generate between $500 million and $800 million in new revenue to the transportation fund and more than 30,000 new jobs in construction and related industries. All are awaiting a proposal from the governor.

Minority opponents virulently oppose the notion of a gas tax increase and virtually any other measures to increase transportation funding. Among other things, they tell audiences that all of the increased funding will go to transit projects in the Baltimore and D.C. regions, implying none of it will go to rural road projects and that transit projects are not deserving of state funding or serve a legitimate purpose for a segment of our state’s citizens.

This harkens back to 25-year-old rural-versus-urban battles in Annapolis.

In the middle of all of this, a top legislative leader in Annapolis tells the media that a transportation funding measure is not likely to pass this year, even before a specific funding proposal has been made.

Meanwhile, on the topic of “raiding” the transportation fund for other uses, General Assembly leaders say all raided funds have been repaid over the years. Minority lawmakers say not so. One says that transportation funding should not be increased because he doesn’t trust his fellow lawmakers not to raid the fund even if they pass a law to prohibit it.

These are just examples of what passes for public dialogue among lawmakers so far in 2012. There are many others. The best we can hope for is that our elected leaders can find a way to talk to each other, not around each other, between now and April 9 when the session ends.

View GBC’s YouTube channel in the coming days for segments of the legislator’s remarks at the 2012 Legislative Forum.

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