I attended the Washington County Delegation Pre-legislation Forum hosted by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce (COC) this morning. I am sure that I was not the only one expecting it to be a rather dull Q&A session where the audience asks the questions and the delegation attempts to provide answers. Certainly, the Democratic-leaning COC expected to control their meeting. Instead, the meeting turned into what one man at my table laughingly called "a blood bath." It was nothing short of a skillful takeover, or maybe in football terms, an interception. I almost stood up and shouted!
First, this was the first time that "Hagerstown TEA Party" appeared on my name tag. It used to be fun being incognito as just Jane Doe citizen at these events, but I guess my cover is blown now, so I did fill in the Organization blank on the registration form this time. I have to give the person in charge of name tags props though for putting in parentheses "non partisan." It's usually assumed that us TEA Party people are just an arm of the Republican Party. I'm doing my best to dispel that myth. I have heard many Republicans and Conservatives say that they avoided the COC events because they are so partisan. On their website their vision statement says, "To be the preferred advocate and recognized voice of business in the greater Hagerstown-Washington County area." It is supposed to be unaffiliated with any party, but it is widely thought of as an arm of the local Democratic party. This could be a topic for another blog post.
Only Senator Shank, Senator Edwards, Delegate Serafini, and Delegate Myers attended. I didn't expect no-show Delegate Donoghue to attend, but I was disappointed that Delegates Parrott and Hough were not there. Turns out Delegate Hough was at the hospital being introduced to his new baby girl! With only four of the delegation in attendance, I wondered if there would be anything to blog about at all. It didn't take long to see that this was going to be more fun than I've had in a long time!
The delegation skillfully took charge of the meeting. The chairman of the Delegation, Andrew Serafini, spoke first. He introduced himself as a business man and "financial guy" and stated that the state, and really every level of government, is faced with a huge challenge in regards to budgets, debts, and deficits. His only hint of the direction that this meeting would take was to say,
"These forums are where we all need to have open discussions about our challenges. Here is where we may disagree on issues, but when we get to Annapolis we have to be coordinated and speak with one voice."Delegate Myers came to the podium next and things started to get interesting! He began with an acknowledgment that now that the election is over business people know what they can expect for the next four years. He stated that he expects Congressman Delaney to work with our delegation and to be seen in Western Maryland. He said there are big issues ahead, but locally he expects one will be the revitalization of Hagerstown and how a stadium may be part of that process. Then he made everyone sit up and listen when he said,
"We don't have the cooperation of the chamber. We are Republicans that represent a Conservative area of the state. All of us received over 70 percent of the vote in this area and we must represent those who elected us. We are here, so you need to work with us. We need a report from the COC on issues and we don't get one. The COC Chair should be present in Annapolis and is not. The COC lobbyists should be at our weekly meetings and are not. We need cooperation with this COC."I still didn't see the takeover coming. I expected that any minute the guy with the mic would be taking questions.
Senate Edwards spoke next. He's a likable, funny kind of guy that serves District 1, which only includes a small portion of Washington County. He travels a long way to participate in events in our county. He probably hasn't had to participate much in the political tug-of-war that goes on here, but he didn't go without admonishing the Chamber on one point. He said that he attended a three-hour public meeting last night in Allegheny County and that he has a good relationship with the Allegheny County and Garret County Chambers of Commerce. He suggested that this Chamber should work closer with those two bodies, since people often come from those counties to spend money here. He also asked those in attendance to "speak up" and let this Chamber know when it doesn't agree with the State Chamber of Commerce. He then named a few important issues that he sees as being important this year: the structural deficit, transportation funding and sharing the burden (gas tax, mass transit tax, or mileage tax), broadband coming to Western Maryland, slots, and the management of natural resources.
Senator Shank officially took over the meeting and went full offense! First he commended the Chamber and other related groups for consulting economist Anirban Basu to address our "profound problems", calling him brilliant . Shank then referred to a chart that ranks states in regards to being business-friendly and pointed out that Maryland ranked significantly worse than our neighboring states and even worse when compared to Virginia. He stated that the numbers are disturbing, and that since we do border other states, many businesses have relocated to those states due to increased taxes and regulations. He said that the business climate here is just "wrong." Then he said to the Chamber,
"What are you going to do about these things? This delegation has been rated 100 percent as voting in favor of businesses. We are doing all that we can do. What are you going to do? You may say, "Shut up Shank, because if you say these things we won't get our share." I reject that and the COC should also! Work with us. The alternative is to give up, let businesses continue to leave, but keep our hand out to the state for handouts. We can't continue down that path. "Shank went on to say,
"We have great potential here. But I have to ask this COC, What is your mission? Your mission statement says advocacy. We need you to show up in Annapolis, write, and testify. I have begged you with little to no response regarding the proposed gas tax."He listed several bills that they fought for in support of business (too quickly for me to note). This was a Conservative blogger's dream! I was taking notes as fast as I could. He also stated that they were able to kill bad bills that would have been bad for business. He finished by saying,
"Can we continue without you? If advocacy is truly your mission, I hope that you have an aggressive strategy and that you will be an aggressive advocate. Together we can do this."I looked around the room and some were as elated as I was, but many were scowling. This was completely unexpected and well...wonderful! This is the kind of dialog that has to happen, in public, to get everyone off of the partisan treadmill and working together. Call them out! Are you with us or against us? The Frederick Chamber of Commerce supports their Delegation. They work together and work through disagreements to get things done. Why invite your elected officials to your forums for a charade if you are not going to work with them? By this time there was only time for two questions:
Question 1. Gay McGovern [name provided by someone at my table who was visibly in pain] made a statement before asking her question. I do not know if she is affiliated with the Chamber or a business owner. Her statement leads me to think that she is affiliated with the administration of the Chamber. She said,
"We have provided no report? I thought that we have. We thought that we were communicating. I don't know why our lobbyists are not attending your meetings."That seemed a very weak defense, but a defense none the less. Then her question,
There is money that should be coming to our county and it's going to go somewhere else. [He just said that he rejects that philosophy!] Do you have specific suggestions for improving communication?Answer 1. Shank: We used to receive FAXs from the COC and this helped us directly on bills and issues. We need a report from you on where you stand on issues. I have asked for this at every level from committees on up and behind closed doors. Maybe asking publicly will make a difference. Myers: In Frederick County the COC lobbyists attend the delegation meeting every week. We are going to get our fair share. I want to hear from you weekly. Step into our offices and say hello. Killing bills that will hurt businesses is important also.
Question 2. Mary [last name unknown] said that she had attended a meeting where she heard a disturbing comment and it was that Montgomery County is the economic driver of the state and as Montgomery County goes so goes the state. How do you counter that in Annapolis?
Answer 2. Edwards: They try to run the state. He said that he has been told in a committee that "you are getting enough" when asking for a $100,000 and then two seconds later Montgomery County asked for millions and got it without any discussion. They try to take over the Marcellus Shale issue as an environmental issue. He repeated his earlier recommendation:
"We have to be in close communication with Allegheny and Garret county governments, that is, respectful communication. We have gotten a fair amount. Please send testimonial to Annapolis, especially when you don't agree with the State Chamber of Commerce."
Delegate Serafini closed the meeting stating,
"I hope that this has been the start of a dialog."
Me too!!!! However, by the body language and small talk in the room, I have my doubts. I was surprised that Chamber president, Brien Poffenberger, remained silent. It appears he was still short on words for the Herald Mail interviewer. I wonder if this is going to be one of those situations for him where he thinks of things he should have said...long after it matters anymore, or if he is feverishly writing his defense of the Chamber and himself as president in an op-ed for the Herald Mail. One thing I do know, if he writes it, it will get published.