Do you support the findings of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education? Are you committed to funding associated reforms, and if so, how?
West: I am very impressed with the Kirwan Commission’s preliminary report. The Commission did a first class job, and it sets forth an ambitious agenda in order to move Maryland from just “average” compared to other states to the “head of the class”. I support many of the 59 recommendations of the Commission, particularly those dealing with college and career readiness pathways and governance and accountability. I have some concerns with the Commission’s focus on a much expanded statewide educational program for three and four year olds. I am not aware of a significant body of research establishing that school for three and four year olds adds measurably to the ultimate academic performance of students, and I fear that such a statewide program would be hugely expensive. For example, with many of our existing elementary schools full to capacity, a statewide system of pre-K schools would necessitate acquiring land and constructing buildings at the neighborhood level and recruiting and training a massive cadre of teachers inasmuch as effective pre-K education requires a very low teacher-pupil ratio. The Kirwan Commission is currently working on cost estimates and potential ways of funding its recommendations. The preliminary report of the Commission suggests a ten-year phase-in, given the obvious fact that the program will be very expensive. I am committed to the goals set out in the Commission’s Report, but we need to be realistic about the timing of dramatically greater spending on our educational system.
Is Maryland’s transportation spending appropriately balanced between roads and transit? Does the state have the resources to meet its transportation needs? With the cancellation of the Red Line and the advent of BaltimoreLink, is the Baltimore region adequately served by transit?
West: Under Governor Hogan, our transportation spending has become much more balanced. We are committed to constructing the purple line in the D. C. suburbs and to investing $167 million per year on the D. C. Metro. For Baltimore City, the Hogan Administration has redrawn ancient bus routings dating from the years just after World War II and has upgraded the rolling stock for the new Baltimore Link system. For Baltimore County, there is a newly announced commitment to add an extra lane to both the inner loop and the outer loop of the Baltimore Beltway. There is never enough money to pay for everything we want, and that is certainly true in the transportation sphere. Necessarily, we have to prioritize projects. I have three goals for the next four years: (1) Complete the extra lanes on the Beltway; (2) Secure funding to implement a Towson Circulator bus that will transport people between Towson University and Goucher College, stopping in between at key central Towson locations; and (3) Enhance the reach of the new Baltimore Link bus system to service communities within the Baltimore metropolitan area that are currently not adequately served. If the State can provide $167 million each year to the D. C. Metro to facilitate transportation in that part of the State, it should be able to expand the Baltimore Link system so that mass transit is more accessible to the residents of greater Baltimore.
Do you support the legalization of recreational marijuana?
West: Not at this time. I support our new system of medical marijuana and have spent a lot of time during the past four years trying to iron out all sorts of glitches with that system. I also voted in favor of eliminating incarceration as a penalty for those found guilty of possessing small quantities of marijuana. That said, I am not in favor of total legalization, at least at this time. There are some pretty scary statistics coming out of Colorado, which legalized marijuana several years ago, showing that the percentage of drivers in fatal car accidents testing positive for marijuana has increased dramatically. There is currently no way to test a driver for being under the influence of marijuana during the course of a brief roadside stop. No breathalyzer test, for example. If a patrolman suspects a driver of being under the influence of marijuana, the only option currently is to obtain a warrant to detain the driver, to take the driver to a location where medical personnel can draw blood from the driver’s arm, which can then be analyzed. This lengthy and highly intrusive process involving courts and medical staff is simply not workable. Beyond this highway safety concern, I believe the medical literature is clear that a certain percentage of people under the age of 25 develop permanent mental impairment due to smoking marijuana. It doesn’t adversely affect everyone, but it can do nasty things to brains that are still in the process of developing.
At a time when the federal government’s commitment to Chesapeake Bay restoration is questionable, what new steps should Maryland take to protect this resource?
West: The single most effective thing that the State of Maryland could do to protect the Bay would be to require Exelon to dredge the pool behind the Conowingo Dam to a depth that would ensure that the polluted sediment behind the Dam would not be picked up during a high water event and transported over the Dam and into the Bay. The dredging would not need to take the pool down to the original bottom of the Susquehanna River, only to the depth that in a period of flooding would result in flowing water at that depth to be moving so slowly that it would not be capable of picking up and moving the sediment. I am very proud that my rating from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters is 86%. This reflects the fact that over the course of the past four years, I have voted in favor of environmental bills most of the time. My votes reflect that I support restoring the oyster bars, support preventing nitrogen runoff into the Bay, support cleaning up the Bay’s tributary creeks and streams and support banning chemicals that could adversely impact the Bay. If I am elected, I expect to continue to support measures to save the Bay.
What steps should Maryland take to ensure the broadest possible access to affordable health care?
West: During the 2017 Session of the General Assembly, I worked hard to create a commission to make sure that the Affordable Care Act in Maryland would not collapse and leave over 150,000 Maryland citizens without health insurance. In light of my efforts, the Speaker of the House appointed me as the lone Republican legislator on the Maryland Health Insurance Protection Commission. We worked all summer and fall last year and then worked even more intensively this winter in order to produce the Protect Maryland Health Care Act of 2018. Even though I was one of only three Republican Delegates to support the final bill, the effort to develop this essential legislation was a bi-partisan effort, and Governor Hogan is prepared to sign the enrolled bill. My principal contribution to the enacted bill was to make sure that it does not include a financial penalty for a family that does not choose to enroll in one of the offered health plans. I ascertained that for such a penalty to succeed in inducing families to enroll, the penalty would have to be between $9,000 and $12,000 per year for a family of four. A penalty in this amount would be unthinkable, so I successfully got the penalty provision eliminated from consideration.
What role should the state play in helping Baltimore address violent crime?
West: During this session, we are set to consider a very significant crime bill authored by Senator Bobby Zirkin. It contains quite a few provisions urged by Governor Hogan but includes other provisions designed to give state prosecutors a greater ability to put violent offenders behind bars for longer periods. Most importantly, the bill greatly increases penalties for second time violent offenders. The point is both to deter lawless conduct that destroys communities and to lock up repeat violent offenders so they can no longer menace the people in their neighborhoods because they will be behind bars for many more years than at present. I expect to vote in favor of this bill. Two years ago, I was instrumental in drafting, vetting and enacting the Justice Reinvestment Act. The Speaker appointed me to the Justice Reinvestment task force that worked long hours throughout the 2016 Session developing the bill, and then I served on the Conference Committee that worked late into the night just before “Sine Die” to compromise differences between the House bill and the Senate bill. In fact, I was the one who proposed the final compromise of the most intractable differences between the two bills. This legislation, which again had the full support of the Governor, effectuated dramatic and far-reaching reforms of Maryland’s criminal justice system, particularly as it deals with non-violent (mostly drug-related) offenses.
How would you characterize Maryland’s business climate? What can the state do to foster the creation of more family-supporting jobs?
West: Over the course of the past four years, I have done everything I could to foster an improved business climate in Maryland. Indeed, my cumulative four year pro-business rating is 93%. Unfortunately, despite my efforts, most of the bills affecting business that have been passed by the General Assembly have hurt Maryland businesses. On the other hand, Governor Hogan has run a very pro-business Administration which has helped Maryland businesses at least as much as the General Assembly has hurt them. I introduced a bill to gradually reduce Maryland’s high corporate income tax rate by 0.25% per year for the next nine years, so that at the end of this period, our 8.25% tax rate will be reduced to 6%, the same rate as in the adjoining State of Virginia. If anyone wonders why virtually all of the national companies looking to establish operational facilities in the greater D. C. area choose Virginia instead of Maryland, a comparison between Maryland’s 8.25% tax rate with Virginia’s 6% tax rate would be a good place to start. Of course, my bill was given short shrift by the General Assembly. As a result, Maryland has no choice but to offer Amazon a massive bribe to induce the company to locate its satellite facility in Maryland.
Do you support the creation of a non-partisan, independent body to draw legislative and congressional district maps after each census?
West: Absolutely. Each year, Governor Hogan has proposed taking Maryland’s redistricting process out of politics and consigning it to a non-partisan group with the direction that the group draw logical district lines which observe natural boundaries and county lines whenever possible. The Governor’s proposal has been voted down by solid, partisan Democratic majorities. I have supported the Governor’s proposal each time it has come up for a vote. Former Governor Martin O’Malley has admitted that the lines that he drew after the 2010 census were partisan and designed to create more Democrat seats. As a consequence, Maryland has been held up to national ridicule as the poster child for irresponsible partisan behavior. This is not the sort of reputation that serves Maryland well. If I should be elected to the State Senate this year, I will do everything that I can to enact legislation that will take the redistricting decision out of partisan politics. Quite simply, this is the right thing to do, and it is what our constituents want.
Does the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights adequately balance protections for police and the public? Should it be changed, and if so, how?
West: In my experience, the Baltimore County Police Department is held in the highest regard by the residents of Baltimore County. State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger works very effectively with the Police Department to identify any issues of police misconduct and has pioneered the use of body cameras to record encounters with members of the public. If a member of the Police Department has transgressed, it is Scott’s policy to discuss the incident with the officer, not with a view towards discipline, but with a goal of educating the officer so the problem does not recur. I attend innumerable neighborhood and community meetings annually. It is not unusual for such meetings to start with a presentation by a representative of the Baltimore County Police Department about recent crimes in the affected neighborhood. The presentation is followed by an interactive question and answer period. Not once in four years have I felt that, upon the conclusion of the presentation, there is a feeling of resentment or antagonism against the officer. In short, based upon my experience, the Maryland Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights as well as other laws whose purpose is to restrain unacceptable practices by those who holds public safety jobs are on target and effective.
What strategy would you adopt to address the opioid addiction and overdose crisis?
West: As a member of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, the opioid issue has been the primary focus of my attention throughout my four year term. Led by my committee and consistently supported by Governor Hogan, the General Assembly has passed quite a few bills to deal with all aspects of this problem. We have required all of our public schools, from elementary years to high school years, to provide robust education about the dangers of drugs in general and opioids in particular. We have made the overdose antidote, Naloxone, freely available and required widespread training in how to use it. We have instituted a statewide prescription drug monitoring system that will track every single prescription for opioids and enable the State to shut down the “pill mills”. We have set up a statewide crisis hotline and have started to set up crisis treatment centers to deal with overdoses. We have expanded drug courts. One piece of legislation that I was instrumental in passing, the Justice Reinvestment Act, establishes a policy of breaking drug offenders of their habit, providing them mental health counseling as needed and then getting them out of prison into paying jobs in order to try to reintroduce them to society as productive citizens.
What if anything should the state do to address income inequality?
West: Maryland is doing a great deal to address income inequality. Baltimore City and some of the remote rural counties have the greatest level of income inequality in the State. Baltimore City receives from the State. $1.02 for every $1.00 in taxes that its taxpayers send to the State. By contrast, Baltimore County only receives from the State only $.28 for every $1.00 in taxes that its taxpayers send to the State. Montgomery County receives back even less than Baltimore County. Income inequality is addressed in so many other ways as well. The school funding formulas are skewed in favor of less wealthy jurisdictions, and the Kirwan Commission is recommending an adjustment to the current formulas in order to provide even greater advantages to the City. The Baltimore Link mass transit system is generally routed so as to serve Baltimore City residents rather than residents in the surrounding counties. Income inequality between Baltimore City and Baltimore County are in part attributable to the fact that businesses have either left the City or are not locating there in the first place due to the City’s high crime rate and its anti-business policies. The best way for the City to reduce income inequality would be for the City to seriously work at attracting to the City the sort of businesses that would offer City residents good career opportunities. Trying to attract Amazon to Port Covington was a good, if unsuccessful, start, but the City needs to be aggressively pursuing much smaller companies.
Do the state’s Public Information Act and open meetings laws adequately ensure Marylanders’ ability to exercise oversight of the government?
West: I am not aware that there are problems with the State’s Public Information Act and open meetings laws, but let me speak about the way Annapolis is run. My committee (the House Health and Government Operations Committee) is quite open and transparent. All of our bill hearings are announced in advance and easily available to the public on the General Assembly website. Further, our hearing are all captured on tape and can be viewed at any time, again through the General Assembly’s website. By contrast the sessions of the House of Delegates are not taped so they can be viewed. There is audio tape of our floor sessions, but unless a constituent is familiar with the individual voices of the Delegates, he would be hard pressed to figure out who is talking. Until this point, the meetings of the Board of Public Works at which school construction issues are addressed and decisions about the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of State money are made have been taped and thus are available for public viewing. From this point on, however, thanks to legislation passed over the Governor’s veto by partisan Democratic majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, these critical decisions will be made from now on by nine unknown people who are not answerable to the voters. This ill-considered legislation will make Maryland’s government more distant and more opaque.