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Mathias Reflects On First Full Session In Annapolis
OCEAN CITY - Fresh off his first full session as a member of the Maryland General Assembly, freshman Delegate James Mathias was in a decidedly reflective mood this week as he fondly recalled some of the triumphs and shortcomings of the session and looked ahead to what will likely be a tumultuous sophomore year.
Mathias was appointed last June to fill the District 38B seat vacated by the untimely death of the late Delegate Bennett Bozman and won a resounding victory in the General Election in November. The long-time Ocean City mayor admittedly entered his first full session in the General Assembly in January a little wide-eyed and awestruck by the history of the elected body and the responsibility that comes with the job, but he quickly got up to speed on the issues and forged relationships he says will serve him well representing the district.
With a new administration in Annapolis, led by Gov. Martin O'Malley, and a big turnover in the elected body following a purge of sorts in the November elections, there were a lot of new faces filling the seats in the General Assembly this year and repairing the damages left by four years of partisan bickering was paramount for the success of the session this year. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the 2007 session in general, the groundwork was laid for a productive four years, according to Mathias.
'Some of the greatest accomplishments of the session were the new relationships that were forged,' he said. 'We came in with a new administration and a bunch of new senators and delegates and it was important to establish early good working relationships.'
The session officially ended with Sine Die at midnight on Monday and most Senators and Delegates had already cleared out of Annapolis by Tuesday. Mathias said packing up and heading home was bittersweet and compared leaving the friendships he had made over the last 90 days to another fondly remembered time in his life.
'I packed up my car on Friday and got about 80 percent of my stuff out the office,' he said. 'It felt very much like the first summer I worked in Ocean City and packed up to go back to college. I felt a lot of the same emotions. The relationships we made we'll keep for a lifetime. It was like nobody wanted to go.'
Mathias jumped right in and got involved in the session from the beginning, sponsoring a handful of bills by himself and putting his name on 71 pieces of legislation, 45 of which were passed and enrolled. Some failed to make it out of committee or died in front of the full House or Senate, while others were folded into similar bills.
Mathias fondly recalled some of the battles that were waged as the session wore on, particularly during the final weeks when the bills were flying and the debates grew tense.
'We spent 90 days in the trenches and the last 10 days or so under siege in the trench,' he said.
Some early impressions of the session are that not much was accomplished, but Mathias dispels that notion. He said this week much was accomplished and that he was most impressed with the diligence with which his colleagues addressed the issues before them.
'There was not a single one that showed up and just started hitting yea or nay buttons,' he said. 'Every single one did a lot of soul searching to arrive at their decisions.'
The freshman delegate claimed some victories during the session and took a few lumps along the way. Perhaps his signature piece of legislation was the bill prohibiting hydraulic dredging in the coastal bays, which passed last week after a whirlwind couple of days when its fate changed almost constantly.
'The hydraulic dredging bill was very important,' he said. 'It will live long beyond my time and improve that estuary for generations to come.'
Mathias voted for the Clean Air Act of 2007, which will ban smoking in public places such as restaurants and bars starting next year. He said he received over 1,000 calls or emails about the bill from citizens in his district and only about one out of every 100 was against it. Mathias said he knew the potential repercussions for some businesses effected by the smoking ban, but followed his heart and the will of his constituents when it came time to vote on it.
'Both versions left somebody behind,' he said. 'There's always the possibility of hurting somebody in business, but this was a societal decision that had to be made. In the end, it was in the best interest of public health.'
On issues such as the smoking ban and hydraulic dredging ban, Mathias said he considered the impact on future generations and often consulted with his teen-age son to gage their importance.
'For me, it often came down to thinking about that next generation,' he said. 'Trevor Mathias was a great barometer for me. We talked about the dredging bill and we talked about the smoking ban. When he green-lighted things, I knew it was important.'
Another bill of local importance that failed to pass was the so-called Green Fund bill, which would have applied onerous fees on new construction projects with the revenue dedicated to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. The bill was altered and amended several times along the way to make it more equitable for local jurisdictions, but it died before a vote by the full Senate.
'I was not in favor of that bill in the beginning, but it changed as it went through caucus and the changes made it more palatable for our district,' he said. 'I voted for it in the end, but it failed in the Senate.'
Mathias was not shy about his opposition to several pieces of legislation, some of which passed, while others failed. For example, he was strongly opposed to the 'living wage' bill that will increase wages for workers on big government contract jobs but does little for workers across Maryland in private enterprise.
'I didn't know how I could come back here and look you all in the eye and tell you I voted for our labor force to earn three dollars less per hour,' he said.
Mathias said he was constantly aware of trying to vote in his district's best interest, but also realized early on that he would not be able to please everybody with his decisions.
'I know I didn't vote the way they wanted me to on every issue, but I know they know I gave it 100 percent and didn't cast any vote without carefully deliberating and weighing all the issues,' he said.
With his first session behind him, Mathias said he is already preparing for the year ahead. Just because the 2007 session has ended does not mean state lawmakers are on summer vacation, he said.
'I think of it as the first leg of a journey,' he said. 'We still have a long way to go and we're going to come upon some difficult challenges.'
Chief among the challenges facing state lawmakers is how to resolve the projected $1.5 billion structural deficit next year. Hints have already been made about special sessions in the coming months to deal with the deficit in advance of next year's Assembly session.
Mathias said he will call on his constituents to lead him through that process.
'We need to have some fiscal summits in the interim,' he said. 'We need to look at where we are, where we're going and how do we get there and I encourage the citizenry to be involved. I want to have town meetings, community meetings to discuss the issues. Give us a map to follow.'
State lawmakers will have to find a balance between spending and revenue and slots will likely be part of the equation next year, according to Mathias.'We're probably going to talk about slots,' he said. 'I'm encouraging the Chamber, the EDC, the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association and everybody involved to get together and come up with what our position should be. We're not going to get out of there next year without addressing that issue.'