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Government & Politics

Wild and Wonderful West…ern Maryland?

A view of the C&O Canal, as it runs through Washington County. Lawmakers from Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties said Thursday they want to consider breaking away from Maryland to join West Virginia. Photo by Bennett Leckrone.

Lawmakers from Maryland’s westernmost legislative district have written the West Virginia Legislature seeking to join that body.

In letters sent earlier this month to West Virginia Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw (R) and Senate President Craig Blair (R) and released publicly on Thursday, the lawmakers said they want Maryland’s panhandle counties — Garrett, Allegany and Washington — to become a part of the Mountain State.

“This arrangement may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies,” the lawmakers wrote.

A two-paragraph letter sent Oct. 14 is signed by the entire delegation from District 1, a heavily Republican district that stretches from Garrett County to the western reaches of Washington County: Sen. George C. Edwards (R), who announced earlier this year that he won’t seek reelection, House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R), and Dels. Wendell Beitzel (R) and Mike McKay (R).

A substantively identical letter dated Oct. 5 is signed by Washington County Delegation Chair Del. William Wivell (R) and McKay, the vice chair.

In a news release, the lawmakers said the letters were generated “as a result of various constituent requests over the years.”

Reached by phone on Thursday, Buckel distanced himself from the correspondence. He said he “frankly didn’t have much to do with this” and only saw the letter after it had been sent. The decision to publicly release the letters came as he was busy with a federal bankruptcy court hearing in a complex commercial corporate case and cleaning up from a burst pipe in the basement of his home.

Other signers of the letter, Wivell, McKay and Beitzel, held meetings earlier this year with their counterparts in West Virginia, Buckel said, but he didn’t attend.

Buckel said he had agreed verbally to sign on to the narrower concept of supporting a nonbinding referendum of voters on the issue. As a practical matter, Buckel added, “there’s not much of a chance” that Western Maryland will ever break away from the rest of the state.

The Republican-dominated West Virginia Legislature, however, has researched the issue, though a similar effort supported by some in Virginia gained little traction last year. Earlier this year, a majority of voters in five eastern Oregon counties voted in favor of an unlikely effort to break away to Idaho. The last time parts of a state successfully broke away was in 1863 – when West Virginia was formed from counties that seceded Virginia.

Nevertheless, Buckel said he hoped the letter would be eye-opening for his colleagues in the legislature, who don’t understand the effect of legislation on western parts of the state, which lost population over the last decade. It’s cheaper, for instance, to build a house in West Virginia – no requirement for residential sprinklers — and to maintain it – lower electric bills — so it’s hard to attract new residents, Buckel said.

“It’s a drastic measure to say ‘Look, some of our people might want to think about leaving,” Buckel said. “And some of our people do.”

Other signers of the letter were not able to be reached immediately on Thursday.

Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), who is not included as a signatory to the letter, posted a Facebook video on Thursday supporting the notion and explaining the proposal to constituents. He said the decision for Wivell and McKay to sign the letter was unanimous among Washington County’s all-Republican delegation.

“The Maryland legislature is not being friendly or fair, I believe, to Western Maryland. They’re not paying attention to us,” Parrott said.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has supported Western Maryland, Parrott said, but he’s term-limited and constrained by the Democratically controlled legislature.

Parrott mentioned gun rights, taxes, the cost of electricity and COVID-related business closures as areas of disagreement between the states.

“We would have more freedom if we joined West Virginia,” said Parrott, who noted that he didn’t approach the conversation lightly and listed his deep family ties to Maryland.

He also said that “elitist” lawmakers from the urban and suburban parts of the state foreclosed the possibility of fracking for natural gas in the western counties — though Hogan eventually supported a bipartisan fracking ban.

Parrott went on to describe the process for leaving a state and joining a new one, which is set forth in Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution:

“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

Parrott said the process would include votes from the West Virginia Legislature to invite the new counties, then a vote from the Maryland General Assembly, a ballot measure for county residents, and then a vote by Congress.

“Hopefully I would be in Congress to help make that decision,” said Parrott, who is running to represent Maryland’s 6th District in the U.S. House.

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Wild and Wonderful West…ern Maryland?