There is no shortage of receptions, events and fundraisers to go to while in Ocean City for the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference. The only limitations are imagination, time and cash.
Gov. Wes Moore (D) got a taste of that in this, his first summer conference as governor.
Moore made a stop at Ropewalk Tavern on Thursday evening for an event hosted by state Sen. J.B Jennings (R-Harford).
“I was honored to have the governor at my bipartisan event,” said Jennings.
The tavern is owned by Marc McFaul, an ardent supporter of Republican candidates including Dan Cox, Moore’s 2022 general election opponent, and former President Trump.
Last year, then-Gov. Larry Hogan (R) skipped Jennings’ event after McFaul told a member of Hogan’s security detail that he was not welcome in the venue. The comment was played off as “a joke” but Hogan’s team took it seriously.
There were no such comments made about Moore, said Jennings, who added that he let McFaul know in advance of Moore’s plan to attend.
“This was about putting politics aside and being friends and talking to each other,” Jennings said of his event.
Later, Moore attended his own fundraiser Thursday night at the 45th Street Taphouse.
The event, which was closed to reporters, featured 19 supporters who paid $2,500 each to be listed as sponsors — the top tier of ticket prices. Another 13 were listed as “hosts” at the $1,000 level.
Moore is expected to rake in nearly $150,000 from the 90-minute event.
The show must go on
A fundraiser for Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore) on Wednesday evening was missing one very important person: the delegate herself.
Sample-Hughes, who finds herself on the outs with House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), did not attract any current lawmakers to her event.
The fundraiser in Ocean City was seen by some as a potential barometer of whether Sample-Hughes would challenge Jones’ intention to nominate Del. Dana L. Stein (D-Baltimore County) to be speaker pro tem — the position Sample-Hughes currently holds — when the legislature reconvenes in January.
But attendance at the event raised questions.
Roughly 45 people were present Wednesday; tickets ranged from $100 to $1,000.
And the delegate herself was missing.
An aide to the delegate blamed her absence on an illness but declined to provide details.
Sample-Hughes has been second in command since Jones was elected House speaker in 2019.
In May, a disagreement between the two led Jones, the first Black woman to lead either chamber of the Maryland General Assembly, to announce that she would replace her lieutenant with Stein, a white man. Sample-Hughes is the only Democrat and the only Black lawmaker to represent a district on the Eastern Shore.
Darryl Barnes, a former Prince George’s County delegate who attended the fundraiser at Cooper’s Landing, downplayed the turnout and Sample-Hughes’ absence.
“I would not read that this is a slight to her or disrespectful of her,” said Barnes. “I just think that we’re all spread out at this time.”
Barnes, the longest serving chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, resigned his seat in the House this spring to become a partner at Evans, Barnes & Associates. The firm includes power lobbyist Gerry Evans and his daughter Hayley Evans.
Barnes was listed as a sponsor — a $1,000 donation — of Sample-Hughes’ event.
The former lawmaker said he believes Sample-Hughes will not be hobbled by her issues with Jones.
“I think Sheree’s in a good place,” said Barnes. “I think she is loved by her community. I think she’s loved by her colleagues. I think she’s comfortable with what she’s doing. At the end of the day, it’s my hope and desire that they work things out.”
Gas tax effort stalls
Governor Moore’s desire to end automatic increases to the state’s motor fuel tax may be running out of gas before the 2024 legislative session.
In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters in Ocean City on Thursday, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) appeared to foreclose on the possibility of ending the increases imposed in a 2013 law.
In July, the state’s gas tax rate rose to 47 cents per gallon, an increase of more than 10% over the previous rate. Over the last two years, the tax has increased by 30% due to inflation and surging fuel prices.
In 2013, the General Assembly passed legislation that increased the gas tax for the first time in two decades. The law also imposed an automatic annual increase tied to the rate of inflation, capped at 8%.
The money is a portion of what is earmarked for transportation projects in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.
Surging gas prices and inflation approaching 40-year peaks drove increases in the last two years.
Moore, in June, said “the current system that we have in place is not sustainable, and it’s harming too many working-class families and that we cannot have a Transportation Trust Fund that is going to exclusively be funded on tax increases and fees that have a disproportionate impact on working class families. It’s not fair.”
He said the legislature “has to take the lead” in the coming session to make changes that would make the tax less burdensome.
But the fund, even with the sharp gas tax increases, is not keeping pace with the costs of keeping existing transportation projects in a state of good repair.
The Transportation Trust Fund is already overburdened. Legislative budget analysts, in a recent report, note a 10-year shortfall of nearly $4 billion in the fund.
These estimates don’t consider other proposed projects such as the Red Line in Baltimore.
Lawmakers and the state Department of Transportation are looking to the 31-member Maryland Commission on Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs to make recommendations on how to better fund transportation projects and to improve the method for prioritizing projects around the state.
“I think what we know is that we don’t have anywhere near the sufficient resources to fund the projects that are highly desired today,” Ferguson told reporters. “To reduce revenues would not only eliminate the possibility of those projects but would eliminate the possibility of existing projects that are in the queue right now. And so, I think if we want to be realistic about investing in our economy and investing in infrastructure, we have to put our money towards those projects. And I think the inflation factor to the gas tax is related to the cost of construction to the costs of doing business to build infrastructure in the state.”
Long-term deal with Orioles first, then we can talk
The Senate president on Thursday also expressed optimism for a long-term deal between the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Baltimore Orioles.
The two entities remain engaged in lease negotiations to keep the team at Camden Yards, which is in Ferguson’s district.
John Angelos, team chairman and CEO, had promised an announcement about a new deal by Major League Baseball’s all-star break. Those talks appear to have stalled as Angelos seeks development of a year-round entertainment complex outside Camden Yards similar to The Battery in Atlanta.
Ferguson, however, said it’s “premature” to talk about more state money for improvements around the stadium before a long-term lease is signed.
In 2022, the legislature approved $1.2 billion — about $600 million each for the Ravens and Orioles — for improvements to the teams’ respective stadiums.
“We’ve already passed legislation that laid out funding for the existing state assets,” Ferguson said. “You know, Ravens Stadium, the deal was signed, we have a long term partner. Camden Yards, the same deal terms are in place. We hope to have a long term partner. We believe we will, but it’s time to get a deal done.”
Ferguson said he is not opposed to improvements around the stadium if it benefits the wider community. But talk about additional state involvement should follow a long-term lease agreement.
“I think it’s premature to talk about investments around a facility when we don’t have a partner that is committing to be there for the next 20 to 30 years,” Ferguson said. “We can have the conversations around what happens outside once we know that there are long term partners.”
At your service
State and local elected officials stopped by Ocean City’s On the Bay Seafood restaurant on Thursday and worked for an hour as servers to promote policy and legislation that would increase the minimum wage for service workers to match the statewide minimum wage.
“It was a great experience and it was fun, but it’s also hard work. I think this demonstrates why we need to do it,” said Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando (D), who is currently running for U.S. Senate. He was one of the elected officials who took orders and served food to the customers, many of whom were fellow MACo attendees.
Also seen waiting tables: Del. Ken Kerr (D-Frederick), Del. Chao Wu (D-Howard), Baltimore City Councilmember Mark Conway (D), Prince George’s County Board of Education Chair Judy Mickens-Murray, and Prince George’s school board member Jocelyn Route.
The event was hosted by One Fair Wage, which advocates for service workers to have the same minimum wage as other workers and keep their tips on top of the higher minimum wage. On the Bay Seafood, where the event took place, already pays its servers the $13.25 minimum wage.
According to the Maryland Department of Labor, the state’s minimum hourly salary for non-tipped workers is currently between $12.80 to $13.25, depending on the number of employees. But not for servers, waiters or bartenders who partially rely on tips for their income. Right now, tipped employees have a minimum wage of $3.63, and they rely on tips for additional income.
As of Jan. 1, 2024, a $15-an-hour minimum wage for non-tipped workers across the state will go into effect. Montgomery and Howard counties have already implemented some wage increases that require larger employers to pay at least $15 an hour.
During the event, Jawando announced that he will be putting forward a bill next month that would raise the server minimum wage in Montgomery County. Councilmember Kristin Mink (D) is a co-sponsor.
“Might have to charge another dollar for the hamburger. Or add a service charge,” he said. “I’ll tell you what: I’m willing to pay it… ‘cause I want my neighbors to be able to have a good life with their families to succeed.”
There are also discussions about reintroducing a statewide bill to incorporate service workers into the $15 state minimum wage in the upcoming session, he said, after an initial attempt last year was unsuccessful.
The fine line between official and political
One of the hot tickets for MACo attendees on Thursday evening was a reception at the popular Spain Wine Bar sponsored by Prince George’s County. But with County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) a leading candidate for U.S. Senate, some politicking was inevitable.
Alsobrooks and her top lieutenants were careful to keep the focus on Prince George’s — particularly the role of Employ Prince George’s Inc., a quasi-government nonprofit that serves as the principal workforce development entity for the county government.
“We are delivering big for Prince George’s County and we are doing it as a team,” Alsobrooks said, moments after Walter Simmons, the president and CEO of Employ Prince George’s, recognized all the elected officials in attendance.
Standing under a gazebo on the restaurant’s roof deck overlooking the bay, Alsobrooks was joined by Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller (D) and state Comptroller Brooke Lierman (D). Lierman, who benefited from a well-timed endorsement from Alsobrooks last year and returned the favor recently, couldn’t resist a political plug.
Lierman referred to Alsobrooks as “our next U.S. senator,” and later said, “We need her in that body representing us.”
The crowd cheered lustily, clearly agreeing and not recognizing the faux pas that had just occurred at what was supposed to be a nonpolitical event. But at least a few Alsobrooks lieutenants may have cringed a little.
Bowling, because everything else was taken
Conference attendees looking for something a little different than the bar and fundraiser scene tried their hand at 10-pin bowling on Thursday night.
John Pica, a former legislator turned lobbyist, has hosted the event at Ocean Lanes for the last three years. Before that, Pica threw late night events at area watering holes and breakfast gatherings.
“I did bowling because everything else was taken,” said Pica with a chuckle.
The event that includes a heaping helping of Royal Farms chicken attracts the experienced bowler — such as House Environment and Transportation Vice Chair Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City), who has her own equipment — and novices.
For Erica Puentes, policy analyst with the immigrants’ rights group CASA, it was the first time she had picked up a bowling ball. She was a quick study.
After getting a few quick tips from Pica and Boyce, Puentes rolled a gutter ball on her first try. Undaunted, she threw her second ball, picking up a 10-pin spare.
Puentes said she was surprised because she doesn’t consider herself to have any athletic ability.
In the next frame, Puentes picked up nine pins.
Some days it is better to be lucky than gifted.