Monday, October 27, 2008

District 18 Town Hall Meeting, Part One

On a chilly Thursday night, the District 18 Delegation of Senator Rich Madaleno and Delegates Ana Sol Gutierrez, Jeff Waldstreicher and Al Carr converged on Holy Cross Hospital to field questions from 70 of their constituents. As your blogger lives just a couple blocks north of the meeting site and our civic association organized the meeting, I would be derelict in my duty to our readers if I did not cover the event. But this was no ordinary meeting. In answers that were at times brutally honest, the delegation made some news.

Charles Duffy, moderator of the meeting, is a genial enough fellow. But as the long-time host of Political Pulse, a resident of Chevy Chase and the moderator of the District 18 appointment forum last December, he has a knowledge of the district’s issues that is too deep for any politician to escape. Mr. Duffy relied on index cards submitted by the audience to determine most of his questions, but he occasionally subjected the legislators to merciless follow-ups. Luckily for them, all emerged with their seats intact.

As I describe the major questions asked by Mr. Duffy and the answers given by the delegation, bear in mind that I am the Treasurer of the District 18 slate campaign fund. If that causes me to be too lenient (or too critical) in my account of the meeting, I invite our many readers who attended to correct me in the comments section. Let’s start with the most contentious state issue in the current cycle.

What is your position on slots?
Delegates Waldstreicher and Carr are both opposed to slots. Waldstreicher described them as “a tax on the most vulnerable” and Carr said they would have a “corrupting impact” on state politics. Waldstreicher voted against the referendum and Carr was not in office during the special session.

Delegate Gutierrez also opposes slots and said, “There are better ways to grow the economy and to grow jobs.” She also stated that slots have “an incredibly negative impact on our society.” Despite her views, she voted in favor of the referendum. Describing intense lobbying by both Governor O’Malley and County Executive Leggett prior to the referendum vote, she admitted, “After all of the pressure, I caved.” Shaking her head, she told the crowd, “It was one of the hardest votes I ever cast. I am sorry I did cast that vote... I am working as hard as I can to get people to vote against the referendum.”

Senator Madaleno started by mentioning his votes against prior free-standing slots bills when he was in the House of Delegates. But he said the referendum was different because it was part of a “comprehensive plan to close the structural budget deficit… The only way we could cobble together enough votes to pass the entire package was to pass the referendum.” Madaleno voted for the referendum and said he continued to support it because of long-run budget problems. “It’s hard to imagine where we will go forward after 2011 without the slots revenues.”

Mr. Duffy questioned Waldstreicher about his comment in the Sentinel that “We should not be making a decision on the issue based on political agenda.” Waldstreicher clarified that the issue had “become a bit of a personality contest between the Governor and the Comptroller” and should be evaluated on its merits.

District 18 is, at the level of local Democratic Party activists, extremely hostile territory to slots. Some may not have been pleased with the answers given by Madaleno and Gutierrez. But they deserve credit for their honesty.

Would you favor additional progressivity in the income tax to finance education?
The delegation turned this question into a general discussion of budget options. Delegate Waldstreicher said he would consider higher taxes on alcohol to help deal with the upcoming billion-dollar-plus state deficit, which he estimated would bring in $25-40 million per year. He also favored combined reporting, which would prevent large companies from hiding their earnings from Maryland’s income tax in other states. Delegate Gutierrez suggested making the beneficiaries of dredging in Baltimore’s harbor pay fees for that service. Senator Madaleno noted that the vast majority of the state’s budget is spent on education and health care and is therefore very challenging to cut. He noted the hope of many in Annapolis that an Obama administration might increase state aid.

But in the eyes of your blogger, Delegate Carr stole this question by condemning tax cheating by employers who intentionally misclassify their workers as independent contractors, a practice that costs the state untold millions. We appreciate politicians who pick up good ideas and run with them.

In Part Two, we will explore the delegation’s opinions on the ICC, the Purple Line and their “greatest achievements” in Annapolis.