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Western Maryland lawmakers run for the hills | COMMENTARY

With mountains, a lake and a river that feeds into it, Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland's Allegany County offers the gamut of outdoor activities made possible by millions of dollars in state aid from Maryland taxpayers. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun).
With mountains, a lake and a river that feeds into it, Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland's Allegany County offers the gamut of outdoor activities made possible by millions of dollars in state aid from Maryland taxpayers. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun). (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Two letters dispatched earlier this month by a handful of Republican lawmakers from Western Maryland advocating for Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties to secede to West Virginia are not intended to be taken seriously. How do we know this? Because the co-conspirators quickly confessed. There is “zero chance of success,” Del. Jason Buckel told The Sun. He subsequently wrote in a letter to his fellow delegates that they’d gone “too far, too fast” and had not followed a “prudent strategy.” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice fanned the flames by offering to hold a special session on the topic, but that seemed like more self-aggrandizing folderol. Fellow Republican Gov. Larry Hogan was clearly not as thrilled calling it all a “mistake” to “gain attention.” But what really revealed the secession movement as hooey is that all involved know it’s practically impossible. It’s not just West Virginia’s legislature that would have to authorize the move — the Maryland General Assembly and Congress would have to sign off as well. And did we mention local elected leaders (who were taken by surprise by the proposal) don’t seem interested in it either?

The temptation here is to point a finger at whatever the state-level equivalent of treason might be. But taking this cry for attention seriously, but not too seriously, is exactly what they want (the cruelest punishment for the instigators would be to let the counties go) to make the point that it’s “us against them” in Annapolis. Otherwise, their only proof of personal victimhood boils down to Maryland’s failure to go all-in on gun rights or permit unbridled exploitation of natural resources.

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No, what’s going on here is the classic setting of hair on fire. It is now eight months before the state primary election on June 28 (with early voting beginning June 16), and Western Maryland lawmakers are clearly worried their voters will eventually get around to asking: Why are our elected representatives in the General Assembly so ineffective? Portraying the rest of the state as domineering and unreasonable is the obvious place to hide. They’ll also have to hope those same voters forget about how one of their own, Allegany County’s Casper R. Taylor Jr., the former speaker of the House of Delegates, was once among the most powerful elected leaders in Maryland.

Huh, wasn’t Western Maryland badly outnumbered by the Baltimore-Washington area back in the Taylor days? Its political outlook more conservative? Yet there was Speaker Taylor shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to the region for everything from a resort at Rocky Gap State Park with Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course to the creation of Cumberland’s Canal Place in the 1990s. And he had a big voice in the General Assembly’s agenda, too. But he was also a pragmatist, a Democrat and not in the empty gesture business. Same with the late R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. who held the same speaker post before him despite coming from the Eastern Shore’s Kent County, Maryland’s least populous subdivision.

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The truth of the matter, then and now, is that if you want to be irrelevant, you pull stunts like this. If you want to get things done whether you come from a city, suburb or rural part of the state, you reach across the aisle, the mountains, the Chesapeake Bay or whatever and you build support for your ambitions, brick by brick, relationship by relationship, and you compromise where possible. This isn’t the first time rural lawmakers in the U.S. have floated secession to mask their ineffectiveness. In Oregon, five eastern counties voted last May (in a nonbinding manner, naturally) to join Idaho.

Still, the letters may yet stir some excitement among those who take great pride in their region of the state (and with such great natural wonders from South Mountain to the Youghiogheny River, one can hardly blame them). But they may want to take a closer look at West Virginia, their proposed new home. People living elsewhere in Maryland have been underwriting their western neighbors for years. In Fiscal 2019, for example, state aid to Allegany and Washington counties covered 46.7% and 41.7% of their respective county budgets while the statewide average was 26.8%, according to a Department of Legislative Services analysis. Will West Virginia taxpayers prove as generous? West Virginia has the second lowest household income in the U.S. at $46,711 with only Mississippi lower at $45,081, according to U.S. Census figures. Maryland at $84,805 is tops among states.

Western Maryland may not care about the Ravens, Orioles or even the Chesapeake Bay (as they are more of a Steelers, Pirates and Deep Creek Lake locale), but you can bet they’d miss those tax dollars.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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