Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mike Miller (and Kumar Barve) Meet the Bloggers: Part Three

In Part Two, I recounted the Senate President’s remarks to our rag-tag band of bloggers. In this part, let’s find out what the number two leader in the House had to say.

Kumar Barve, the House Majority Leader from District 17 (Rockville), is a fluid and intelligent speaker. His low-key style reflects the cool, technocratic politics still practiced in some parts of Montgomery County. While he is not as flamboyant a character as the belly-laughing, fist-pounding Miller, he has a tack-sharp mind, a dry wit and ample patience for blogger grillings.

Here’s what Delegate Barve had to say, as best as my scrawling hand could record:

On Governor O’Malley
“Martin O’Malley is a gambler. He likes to take calculated risks. He sealed 188 people in a pressure cooker and said, ‘Take as long as you want in there!’ And the special session produced a very good product.”

On Taxes and Spending
Barve described the last couple decades of state fiscal management as a “roller coaster,” noting that the state had swung between tax hikes and tax cuts. “I wish we could find a level of taxation we’re comfortable with and stick with that, but that would probably violate human behavior!” As Barve correctly observes, it’s too tempting to dispense tax cuts in good times, making tax hikes in bad times more necessary.

On Embattled State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick
“The Governor and the leaders want her to go. I assume that’s going to happen.”

On the Computer Services Tax
“The House got rid of the computer sales tax but it came back. It’s bad public policy. It’s unwise to tax businesses that are mobile,” Barve stated. “But unless we’re willing to find $200 million in extra revenues, it will be very difficult to get rid of.” And why was the computer industry vulnerable? “In politics, when something unpleasant has to be done, it’s usually done to whoever squirms around the least!” Barve noted that Senator Rob Garagiola (D-15, MoCo) had a proposal to replace it with a gas tax, “but that is a non-starter.” Added to Mike Miller’s comments, Barve’s opinion indicates that the computer tax is not going anywhere because there is no other way to raise the money.

On Marriage Equality
“I personally don’t think marriage equality is going to happen in the way we’ve sponsored the bill. But domestic partnerships will pass.” Senator Madaleno, the prime backer of marriage equality in his chamber, chimed in, “You start with what you want, and you fight for what you can get.”

On Filling Legislative Vacancies
I asked the House Majority Leader whether he would favor a bill allowing special elections to fill vacancies in MoCo and forbidding the practice of Central Committee members appointing themselves to state legislative office. The latter point actually made him laugh. “My goodness, if you took that away from them, no one would serve on the Central Committee!” Barve snickered. “We’d have to pay them to serve!” Barve indicated that he would vote for special elections on a statewide basis, but not for MoCo alone. He favors having every county use the same system for filling vacancies.

The Majority Leader’s sardonic suggestion that Central Committee members have to be paid to abstain from appointing themselves may be cynical, but it also may be true. The fact that the highest-ranking state legislator in MoCo holds this opinion of MCDCC should make them think long and hard about how they conduct their vacancy selections.

On the Democrats’ Relationship with Latinos
“I don’t think the Democratic Party is in danger of losing the Latino community. One of the problems from a strategic perspective is that many of the groups we support have the lowest turnout rate. But things are changing. People of color are noticing how bad things are under Republican rule.”

On Whether the Delegation is Bringing the Bacon Back to MoCo
I asked Barve this question: “The Gazette recently reported that of every dollar paid by MoCo residents to the state, only 15 cents came back to the county. The state average is 30 cents. When county officials and residents accuse the delegation of not bringing the bacon back to MoCo, how do you respond?”

Barve answered by pointing out the geographic income disparities of the state. “We generate an enormous amount of income. Eighty-five percent of the richest people in the state live in Montgomery County. And if you earn $200,000, no matter where you live, you are going to be taxed. A lot of social programs go to where poor people are living, like in Baltimore City. And it’s the job of government to help people who desperately need the help, wherever they live.”

I understand this argument but only up to a point. MoCo may be wealthier than the state average, but it is not universally wealthy. There are pockets of poverty even here. There are lots of needs for school aid, school construction and transportation. Our state transportation priorities list is full of projects that have sat in limbo for many, many years. The BRAC projects alone will likely demand hundreds of millions of dollars to be effectively implemented. I for one would like to see my MoCo state legislators throw their weight around a bit more than they currently are.

And now we get to David Lublin’s Big Question, which was asked of both Senate President Miller and House Majority Leader Barve. Correct me if I’m wrong, David, but the Big Question went something like this:

“In 2006, the Democrats had as good a year as it gets. George Bush was President. We were fighting an unpopular war in Iraq. The Republicans had hopelessly mismanaged the response to Hurricane Katrina. So the Democrats won a lot of extra seats. In 2010, those things will not repeat themselves. Bush will be gone and the Democrats will be held responsible for whatever is going on. You are more likely to lose seats than gain them. So how can you motivate Maryland’s progressive voters for the next election?”

Uncharacteristically, Mike Miller dodged this one. He flatly disagreed that the party would lose any seats and contended that Governor O’Malley’s progressive record would serve the Democrats well. Kumar Barve also refused to concede that the party would lose any seats. He responded, “In Maryland, we have modest taxation and very low poverty. Maybe we should point out how bad things are in other states that are run by the Republicans.”

Is this really a winning message for 2010? We may have raised your taxes, but the other guys are worse? Is that going to motivate liberals to turn out to save Democratic seats in purple districts? I hope we’ll have a better message than that, but I guess we’ll see.

Until then, let’s credit Senate President Mike Miller and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve for willingly sitting in the Bloggers’ Hot Seat. They were good sports and did their best to deal with an unlikely gathering unseen since the Mos Eisley Cantina. Let’s see if any more politicians have the mettle to do the same.

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