A Snow Job in Annapolis

Commentary by Ron Miller

Commentary by Ron MillerThe snow may have shut down the General Assembly for a day, but that wasn't long enough to prevent them from getting into mischief. The recent actions of two committee chairpersons and one senate President demonstrated that when it comes to stopping things in their tracks, a record-setting blizzard has nothing on an elected official determined not to let the will of the people usurp his or her personal interests.

Southern Maryland wine lovers may know that our state is one of only 13 that don't permit the purchase of wine by direct mail. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that laws in New York and Michigan banning out-of-state wine shipments were unconstitutional. Massachusetts replaced their ban with restrictive legislation that violated the spirit if not the letter of the Supreme Court ruling, and a federal appeals court called them on it last month. The trend is clearly toward expanding consumer options and adhering to the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

This General Assembly session introduced a bill last week to repeal Maryland's 25-year ban on direct wine shipments, and 106 of the 188 legislators signed up. Sounds like a slam dunk, right?

Not if the chairperson of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore. Although six of the nine members of her committee are co-sponsors of the repeal bill, she says she has too many concerns to let the bill be considered for a vote. Her concerns include the possibility of underage drinkers ordering wine over the Internet, and the difficulty of collecting taxes from out-of-state entities. She believes Maryland's intricate web of liquor-regulating agencies, part of a system that's been in place since 1933, has been effective and direct mail shipments of wine to consumers' homes "violates the integrity of it."

Could another unstated reason for her opposition be that her husband has been a liquor inspector since 1995, a job in which he made $67,000 last year? She cites that the Senate leadership also opposes repealing the ban, but the conflict of interest there is no less apparent - the family of Senate president Thomas V. "Mike" Miller has owned a liquor store in Clinton since 1913.

I haven't studied all the pros and cons of this bill, but when 56 percent of the General Assembly and a clear majority of the responsible committee support it, it's bothersome to me that two people, with obvious personal financial interests in the status quo, can essentially drive the bill into a snow bank and leave it stuck there until session's end.

Conway's stated concerns could be addressed during the floor debate on the bill - one frustrated legislator fumed, "It's working in other states. It can work here, too." Her personal interests, however, could be the elephant in the room that keeps a floor debate from ever happening. Her motives may be pure as the driven snow, but an experienced legislator such as she has to know how bad her conflict of interest looks to anyone watching this process, and wondering why a bill with such wide support is going nowhere.

Then again, she may not care how it appears, and she may have learned a disdain for conflicts of interest from her fellow legislator, long-time Calvert County and Prince George's County delegate Joseph Vallario. He has a history of blocking legislation from his perch on the House Judiciary Committee that would hurt his potential clients in his role as a defense attorney.

Just this week, the Washington Post cited him as "a consistent foot-dragger on laws getting tough with drunk drivers." He was the main opponent of the Maryland version of Jessica's Law, a bill that cracks down on convicted child sex offenders, and caved in only after he became a household name on The O'Reilly Factor. He then had the nerve to get his name attached to the bill at the last moment and take credit on the House floor for its passage!

Incidentally, there is a major loophole in the law which permits convicted child sex offenders to receive good-behavior credits that can substantially reduce their time behind bars. With 11-year old Sarah Foxwell's murder last December at the hands of a child sex offender with multiple convictions but only a year in jail, the pressure is on to close this loophole. We'll be watching Mr. Vallario closely to see how he responds.

I know that committee assignments are rewards for loyalty, longevity or party fidelity, but the conflicts of interest in each of these cases is so obvious that these appointments should never have been considered.

Instead, we have a person, whose family financial well-being is dependent on the current liquor regulatory regime, positioned to block liquor-related laws, and a career defense attorney, whose allegiance is with prospective clients, heading the committee responsible for regulating government's core function of law and order. We're being snowed by our elected officials yet again and, unlike all the snow we'll be tackling in the days ahead, we won't be able to dig ourselves out of this blizzard of questionable ethics from Annapolis until November.

Ron Miller, of Huntingtown, is a military veteran, conservative writer and activist, former and current candidate for the District 27 Maryland Senate seat, communications director for the Calvert County Republican Party, and executive director of Regular Folks United, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.  Ron is a regular contributor to RegularFolksUnited.com, American Thinker, and RedCounty.com. You can also follow Ron on his website TeamRonMiller.com, as well as Twitter and Facebook.

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