Legislative Session Underway In Annapolis

BERLIN – The Maryland General Assembly convened this week for its 428th time with the representation for the local district considerably different than when the session closed last April.

Conspicuously absent this week in Annapolis was former Senator Lowell Stoltzfus, who represented District 38 for the better part of two decades. In his place is Senator James Mathias, the former delegate from the district who won the seat in a close race in November. On the House side, Delegate Norman Conway continues to represent District 38B as chairman of the all-important House Appropriations Committee.

Joining Conway on the House side this year is Delegate Mike McDermott, the Pocomoke mayor who emerged as one of two victors from a field of four contenders in November. McDermott said this week he officially resigned as mayor of Pocomoke at 11:59 a.m. on Wednesday and was sworn in as one of the newest members of the House about a minute later.

“We’ve hit the ground running,” he said on Wednesday. “I’ve been in and out of meetings all afternoon. It’s been a wonderful opportunity. Mostly what I do so far is just listen.”

Among the meetings McDermott attended on day one was a caucus on proposed redistricting. With the completion of the 2010 U.S. Census, population figures across the state changed significantly over the last decade and new district lines could be drawn as a result.

“One of the big issues we’re going to be taking a look at is redistricting,” he said. “It could be a huge issue for us. We’re going to wait and see the final numbers from the census, but it appears each district gained about 10,000 people.”

McDermott said district lines could be gerrymandered further if the Census figures dictate the need for change.

“If the growth is proportionate, then it might not make a difference,” he said. “It’s a pretty big deal from a political perspective. It could mean altering the boundary lines for the districts on the Lower Shore.”

Meanwhile, Mathias was being sworn in on the Senate side at roughly the same time. Although he is a newcomer on the Senate, Mathias has considerable experience in Annapolis, meaning his learning curve is slightly less pronounced than his freshman colleague in the House. For Mathias, a new assembly session in the Senate allows him to pick up where he left off somewhat.

“We’re already moving on some of our local legislation,” he said. “We’ve got the bill for slots in the service clubs ready to go and are confident this could be the year.”

Mathias said legislators face significant fiscal challenges again as they attempt to reconcile a projected $1.6 billion deficit. However, he vowed to continue to resist tax hikes to help increase state revenue.

“They’re already talking about an increase in the alcohol tax and the gasoline tax,” he said. “I have a very difficult time talking about any new tax increases.”

Something new on Mathias’ plate this session could be a bill seeking to dissolve the beleaguered Worcester County Liquor Control Board (LCB). As allegations of fiscal malfeasance began to emerge this summer, Mathias vowed to sponsor legislation to dissolve the state agency if a plan to replace the revenue it collected for the county and its municipalities emerged.

“I remain committed and dedicated to that,” he said. “I am not going to blink. Once the parties have identified a way to make up the revenue, I’m going to be ready to put a bill in. I’ve met with the stakeholders and they know the collaborative effort it’s going to take to get a bill passed.”

Mathias has been named to the Senate Finance Committee, which loosely parallels his former role with the House Economic Matters Committee with a few subtle differences. For example, the Senate Finance Committee presides over matters relating to public utilities. As such, Mathias will have a front row seat to the debate on developing offshore wind energy off the coast of Ocean City.

“The governor has an initiative on offshore wind and that’s going to be a significant issue during the session,” he said. “At some point, there will likely be a discussion about a utility easement coming across Ocean City or somewhere in Worcester County and I want to make sure our local officials have a seat at that table.”

Mathias said weighty fiscal issues relating to the ongoing recession and the growing state deficit will likely dominate the session, although there are significant societal issues also on the table.

Despite the bleak outlook, the new senator expressed confidence state lawmakers will be able to work through the issues.

“As tough as things are, as difficult as they remain, we are still making progress,” he said. “I’m proud of being part of that team. I’m here as a trustee for the people of our district and I’m grateful for that trust as I represent them going forward.”