A decade ago the home-rule movement was at a peak in Maryland. One county after another opted to disengage itself from the power of the state by adopting a home-rule charter, which entitled it to pass its own laws.
Today that movement appears to have slowed. To many people, the benefits of some home rule appear over-rated, the costs under-rated.
That feeling was demonstrated in two Maryland counties Tuesday as both Charles and Washington County voters turned down proposals for home-rule government. Their votes, say some, were votes against government bureaucracy, high taxes and "citifying" changes in their generally rural character.
Ballot questions in the two counties would have changed their government from a county-commissioner form, where the county has to go to the Maryland General Assembly to get local laws passed to the county-county form, where the power to make local laws reverts to the county.
"I think many people felt they were'nt completely happy with what we do have but were reluctant to change," said Therese Breza, president of the Washington County League of Women Voters, which has been promoting home-rule for several years. "They were just reluctant to change generally."
State Sen. James Simpson, a home-rule opponent who represents Charles and St. Mary's counties, believed the proposal was defeated in Charles County "primarily because the people are tired of more and more government. The majority of voters felt that by going to charter government, by increasing the number of members sitting on the council, by giving them local legislative authority, they would have increased the cost of government in Charles County. People looked at Prince George's County, at the increasing cost of government there, and got scared of it."
"To many people the charter was like someone with a $10,000 income living in $200,000 house," said Jim Dent, a Charles County commissioner who opposed the measure. "We're a small county in terms of population, and most people feel the current form of government is adequate to meet their needs."
The single-issue special election failed to attract many voters. In Charles County, to the south of Prince George's only 27 per cent of the registered voters turned out to vote on the proposal which lost by more than 3 to 1 margin, with 4,679 against, 1,434 for. In Washington County, the turnout was only 20 per cent, with 5,540 voting against home rule, and 3,672 for.
The two votes bring to five the number of home-rule characters turned down by Maryland voters in the past five years. Only eight of Maryland's 23 counties now govern themselves (but this is still enough to make Maryland the number two state in the union, exceeded only by Hawaii, for the percentage of its counties that have home rule).
M. Henry Eppes, director of the Maryland Technical Advisory Service, a state-funded service that helps counties draw up home-rule charters, said there are a variety of reasons people turn down home-rule proposals. "People don't understand it, they're used to the old system, there's the normal resistance to change. In every election I can recall - including (this week's), those opposing the charter, for one reason or another, come out with all sorts of scare-type headliners about how the charter is going to raise taxes do people out of jobs, that sort of thing. So they play on the emotions rather than the common sense of people."
"You'd think people would want their laws passed closer to home. I don't understad it," he said. Eppes added that there is a growing feeling that "if the counties don't voluntarily accept home rule, within a few years the General Assembly will force it on them. It's tired of passsing all the local laws and thinks the counties ought to take care of themselves."
Most of the counties that do not yet have home rule, Eppes said, are rural. More than 80 per cent of the state's population lies in the eight counties now under home rule. That leaves 15 counties with less than 20 per cent of the population.
But the very fact that they are generally rural areas may account for their growing disenchantment with home rule.
Dan Kennedy, editor of the Times-Crescent, a Charles County newspaper, observed that the people who were most opposed to home rule in this week's election were the long-time residents of the area.
"In suburban districts, the vote was much closer than in the rural areas." he said. "The people in the rural districts are not too wild about all the changes that have come over the county in recent years. It's become more suburban, they have more zoning and sewer legislation than they were used to in years past.
"All those things in the eyes of rural people are chages for the worse. They see a new form of government as one more change in a long list of changes they're not particularly wild about. This time they had a chance to vote against a change, and so they did.