Calvert County Commissioner Steve Weems (r) , outgoing Tri-County Council chairman, introduces Comptroller Peter Franchot

Annapolis, MD — The room was filled with an aura of excitement. GOP Gov. Larry Hogan had just been inaugurated and had just released his first sign of reining in the state’s budget. When the members of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland gathered Thursday, Jan. 22 for their annual Annapolis meeting they were decidedly Republican for the first time and decidedly upbeat.

Voting members of the council include the region’s legislators and county commissioners, one representative from the towns and three-at-large members. Of the elected officials (the town council races are non-partisan) Republicans now outnumber Democrats 15 to 12 on the council.

So the largest applause of the evening came when Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot called for a four-year moratorium on new taxes, fees and regulations. And the biggest chuckle of the evening came when new Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Van Mitchell quipped it was good to see that Franchot had become a conservative. Franchot was known as one of the most liberal legislators when he was a delegate from Montgomery County.

Franchot added to his comments on the moratorium that he wasn’t implying that tax cuts weren’t necessary as well.

Franchot, the evening’s guest speaker, was critical of the just concluded eight-year O’Malley Administration and the administration of Republican Robert Ehrlich that preceded O’Malley. “They didn’t take a particularly professional approach on how we spent taxpayers’ dollars,” Maryland’s chief tax collector said. He said politics often played a role in decision-making.

Franchot said Maryland hasn’t shared in the country’s economic recovery and the state netted zero percent growth last year, which turned into a negative when inflation was considered. He said small businesses have been particularly hurt by the anemic economy. Franchot said he travels around the state a lot and he has seen that “Maryland’s main streets are struggling.”

The comptroller said he believes Gov. Hogan will take a “moderate, centrist, Maryland approach” to governing. During the reception that preceded the meeting, the talk was about Hogan’s announcement of a two-percent cut in state agencies for the remainder of the fiscal year. He was due to release his FY ’16 budget on Friday.

Franchot said that Maryland’s businesses have been challenged by the uncertainty of what is coming out of Annapolis, with taxes and regulations changing from year to year.

And Franchot also called on state government to be more customer service friendly, noting that every taxpayer is a customer.

Mitchell, a former three-term Charles County delegate, expressed excitement at his new position on the Hogan cabinet. Regarding the two-percent reduction, he said he had never handled a $10 billion budget before so he would be okay with $9.7 billion. “We will find a way to make it work,” he said.

The newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) Mike Gill also spoke. The council, which receives funding from federal, state and local sources, comes under DBED in the state budget. Hill said he hoped to get down to Southern Maryland soon.

Gill’s department will be on the firing line as the new administration works to right the economy. Gill said he didn’t care anything about what has gone on previously. “It’s all about now and going forward and what we can do differently,” he said.

Gill observed, “Maryland’s story hasn’t changed. We just haven’t done a good job of telling it.”

Of his new boss, Gill called Hogan “normal and likeable. He gets it.”

Agreeing with Franchot, Gill said, “Somewhere along the line we have forgotten who the customer is.” As to the success in the future, he looked out into the audience and said, “Success will be because of you, and you, and you, and you.”

Council leadership, which rotates among the three counties yearly, passed at the meeting from Calvert County Commissioner Steve Weems to Todd Morgan of St. Mary’s. The two exchanged tokens of appreciation.

Also honored at the meeting were two former council members who did not seek re-election — Calvert Commissioner Susan Shaw and St. Mary’s Delegate John Wood. Shaw said she would especially miss her involvement with the Southern Maryland veterans’ community through her membership on the council’s Veteran’s Advisory Board. Wood noted that his career was marked with constituent service.

Franchot also presented a proclamation marking the council’s 50th anniversary to Weems, Morgan and Executive Director John Hartline.

Contact Dick Myers at news@thebaynet.com