Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, throughout his tenure has spoken of “One Maryland,” in which lawmakers and residents work across party and jurisdictional lines to accomplish common goals.
Yet the concept is proving easier said than done, as rural legislators frequently accuse the governor and legislators from larger districts of imposing their will on the entire state.
The state’s rural-urban divide was on display many times throughout this year’s 90-day legislative session, but was especially evident in the session’s final days as the House debated a proposed increase in the state’s alcohol sales tax.
Many rural Republicans saw the bill as a two-pronged assault on their districts: It would hurt businesses that have long relied on customers from bordering states such as Delaware and West Virginia, while returning most of the generated revenue to larger, more urban districts, including the city of Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Maryland’s six largest jurisdictions — Baltimore city and Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Howard counties — stood to receive $64 million of the tax’s first-year revenue for schools and school construction, while the remaining 18 counties — in more rural, conservative regions such as the Eastern Shore and Western and Southern Maryland — would split about $6.1 million, even though they make up 30 percent of the state’s population.
“It is a tyranny of the majority. They have the votes, and they couldn’t care less,” said Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., who, along with Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a fellow Cecil Republican, runs the blog War on Rural Maryland.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, defended the distribution by saying larger counties had a greater need and that rural counties, particularly on the Eastern Shore, in recent years have received more school funding per legislative district than their larger counterparts.
While many small-county legislators have argued that they don’t get a fair share of funding, they have also accused big-county legislators of meddling in small-county affairs.
Mr. O’Malley, who was elected to his second term last year, was criticized this session for supporting a bill to ban septic systems from most new housing developments to reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
The proposal was relegated to a study after heavy bipartisan skepticism, led by rural legislators who argued that it would cripple development in their districts, where many areas have limited access to public sewer systems.
Small-county legislators have long bristled at efforts by urban colleagues to impose environmental reforms on rural areas, said Sen. George C. Edwards, a Garrett Republican and state legislator since 1983.
He said this was the “worst year” he could remember in terms of metropolitan legislators pursuing restrictions on rural issues, such as farming, logging and natural-gas drilling.
“They want to show they’ve got the clout, and they’re going to run the state,” Mr. Edwards said. “In most cases, they have no idea what these issues are about.”
He joins Mr. Smigiel and others in saying that such decisions show a lack of awareness or sensitivity toward the needs or priorities of rural Marylanders.
“They couldn’t care less what our history is, what our culture is and how we wish to live our lifestyles,” Mr. Smigiel said.
While some have characterized such conflicts as rural versus urban, others see it more as a Democrat versus Republican issue, exacerbated by an influx of new members, including six additional Republicans this year in the 141-member House.
Delegate Norman H. Conway, a Wicomico Democrat who has held office since 1987, said many new delegates were eager to make an immediate impact without forging relationships with legislators from other counties.
“As the new members have the opportunity to become more focused and more involved … I think we’ll move back again and work hard for a ‘One Maryland’ concept,” he said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, has downplayed a perceived rural-urban divide, saying many such proposals — including the governor’s septic bill and a bill to place a two-year moratorium on drilling the Marcellus Shale natural-gas reserve in Western Maryland — failed this year because some moderate Democrats in the Assembly stand up for rural areas.
“Just because the governor doesn’t understand certain areas’ needs doesn’t mean the body is going to rush forward with his legislation,” said Mr. Miller, who also represents part of largely rural Calvert County.
“How much fairer can you be?” he said.