Laslo Boyd: Is Help Coming From Annapolis?

By Laslo Boyd

This past General Assembly session was by almost any measure a monumental one. Maryland underscored its standing as one of the most progressive states in the nation by passing a strong gun regulation law, abolishing the death penalty, and deciding to stop kicking the can down the road on transportation infrastructure funding. Following the previous year’s enactment of Marriage Equality and the Dream Act, there’s no doubt that you’re not in Kansas.

While the state’s economy is still caught in the tangle of a slow national recovery, bold actions by the Governor and legislative leadership seem to have resolved the structural budget deficit that plagued Maryland for more than a decade. The fruits of those earlier efforts were seen in a relatively easy budget year for the Governor and General Assembly this time around.

We won’t see another session like this one for quite a while. Certainly not next year when everyone’s focus will be on the 2014 election and a June primary that will seem like it came out of nowhere on the heels of Sine Die. Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley is publicly contemplating a run for president in 2016—if it were a Broadway play, the title would be “Waiting for Hillary”—and large numbers of the legislature are either running for higher office or for the hills.

There are enough storylines in the races for statewide office to keep observers and columnists fully occupied between now and next year’s primary. Before that takes over all conversation, however, it’s worth going back to look at a development in this year’s session that received far less attention than the headline items.

House Speaker Mike Busch, whose tenure as that body’s presiding officer surely ranks among the most significant ever, created the “Baltimore Revitalization Work Group” at the beginning of 2013. It’s not a standing legislative committee. It has the rather open-ended charge to look into how the state can help the Baltimore region. The Speaker has not given the Work Group any deadlines or timetables.

Thus far, it’s held a series of briefings rather than hearings. The Governor’s supplemental budget included $3.5 million to support the Task Force’s objective of stimulating revitalization projects. This coming summer, the members of the Work Group will be meeting with local officials and others in the Baltimore region to collect ideas and examine ways in which the State might be more supportive or regional revitalization.

At one level, it’s hard to know what to make of this initiative. For years, there have been discussions in Maryland as well as other parts of the country about how to bring about greater regional collaboration between center cities and their suburbs. The Greater Baltimore Committee, which defines its own role in regional economic development terms, engaged in a formal effort in the late 1990s that failed to get much support from elected officials in the area.

Mayors and county executives are willing to work together when the outcome seems like a win-win with no political downsides, but those kinds of initiatives are few and far between. Much more often, they compete for scarce resources, focus on challenges within their own jurisdictions, and know that their political lives are dependent on keeping voters in their city or county happy.

That one of the three most powerful individuals in Maryland has decided to lend his support to Baltimore area revitalization can’t be brushed aside as having no significance. Busch is the rather unusual presiding officer who is deeply interested in policy issues rather than in just keeping peace in his legislative body.

He knows that the Baltimore area is steadily losing influence in the General Assembly, that the next governor will not be from this region—unless Dutch Ruppersberger surprises everyone—and that Baltimore’s problems impact the entire state.

One very interesting decision that Busch has already made was to appoint Keiffer Mitchell as the chair of the Work Group. Mitchell is clearly a rising star in the House of Delegates but whether he is there after 2014 is an open question. There’s lots of speculation that he may end up as the Lt. Governor candidate on Doug Gansler’s ticket or that he may run for the State Senate. Given the history of that first office, he might well have a more important role to play on Mike Busch’s Work Group, but he’ll have to sort that out.

In essence, the Speaker has signaled that he is concerned about the future of the Baltimore region. Whether he is also making implicit observations about the current leadership that he sees can only be a matter of speculation. Nevertheless, his interest in this topic has the potential to provoke a serious policy discussion about how to move the Baltimore region forward. That’s a discussion worth having.

Laslo Boyd writes and consults about public policy, government, and politics. He begins today as a regulator contributor to Center Maryland. His email is lvboyd@gmail.com.