Letter from Western Maryland reps to West Virginia lawmakers sparks political border banter

by Kate Shunney

In the narrowest part of Maryland, the political differences between one state and another have to be navigated on a daily basis. Laws, services and resources vary widely among Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. State lines dictate tax bills, school districts, highway maintenance, gun laws, election dates, hunting seasons, business rules and dozens of other aspects of life.

Comparing what’s good on one side of a state line to what’s tough on the other is a common thread of conversation when there’s only the Potomac River dividing the two here.

Republican legislators representing three Western Maryland counties stirred that conversation to a higher level two weeks ago when they wrote a letter to their colleagues in West Virginia to gauge the possibility of Garrett and Allegany counties shifting their political identity into West Virginia.

An October 14 letter to the Speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates and the President of the West Virginia State Senate was very direct.

“We, the undersigned state representatives for Garrett and Allegany Counties in the State of Maryland, request that you consider adding us as constituent counties to the State of West Virginia,” the letter stated. “We believe this arrangement may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies. Please advise on next steps.”

The letter was signed by Maryland State Senator George Edwards (R-Garrett), District 1B Delegate Jason Buckel (R-Allegany), District 1-A Delegate Wendell Beitzel (R-Garrett) and District 1C Delegate Mike McKay (R-Allegany).

Western Maryland’s legislative districts.

While the letter didn’t specifically ask for Washington County to be included in the discussion, McKay and Edwards both represent this county as well.

West Virginia State Senate President Craig Blair (R-Berkeley) was reportedly receptive to the idea, noting that the counties of Western Maryland are more politically and culturally aligned with their rural West Virginia neighbors than to lawmakers in Annapolis or business centers around Washington, D.C. or Baltimore.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said in his regular press briefings that the state would welcome the counties into the Mountain State.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan dismissed the idea as a political show to get attention for the Western Maryland region and its representatives.

State Senator George Edwards won’t be seeking re-election in 2022, and Delegate McKay is one of several candidates in the ring for the Republican primary in that race.

Western Maryland lawmakers regularly complain that the interests and needs of their rural, agricultural, politically conservative constituents are ignored by Maryland’s progressive General Assembly, and by state programs that focus money, roads and business support in the more urban parts of Maryland.

One path to explore the question would be to make the issue a non-binding referendum that’s presented to voters at the next election.

In the week since the letter came to light, Delegate Buckel has reportedly backed away from the request to change states, saying he wouldn’t put any real effort into seeing that idea through.

Gov. Justice, however, has said he would be prepared to draft a resolution putting the idea formally before a future special session of the West Virginia Legislature.

“West Virginia would welcome with open arms,” he said.