WV Governor Jim Justice asks off-camera crew how to pronounce Garrett county, a part of Maryland he is eager to add to his state.
Garrett, Allegany, and Washington County representatives submitted letters requesting the counties they represent secede from Maryland and join the state of West Virginia. With no evidence whatsoever, the request states the action would be beneficial to both states.
In a public address on October 22, 2021, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice welcomed the idea and boasted how much his state could offer to the over 250,000 citizens who would be included in the land acquisition.
Delegate Wendel Beitzel serves Garrett and part of Allegany County in the Maryland House. Senior Senator George Edwards, represents Garrett, Allegany, and Washington County's, his state's (for now) three westernmost counties. The Western Maryland Delegation combined their interests with other representatives from the three counties in the letters to the West Virginia Senate speaker Speaker Robert Hanshaw and President Craig Blair dated October 2021.
West Virginia Delegate Gary Howell noted that talks had already begun before the news went public. Led by Beitzel, delegates from Maryland requested to visit Charleston to meet with President Blair, Speaker Hanshaw, and Howell.
“We gave him a presentation and they took it back home and they said, ‘You know, we think this is what’s good for our people back home," said Howell. "We want to become part of West Virginia. We see the goodness that’s going on in West Virginia and we want to be part of it."
Maryland is listed as the 15th wealthiest state in the Union based on the 2021 nominal Gross Domestic Product, (GDP) rankings. West Virginia ranks well below at 47 with 16 percent of the population living in poverty. According to newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia lost a higher percentage of its residents than any other state in the nation. From 2010 to 2020, the population dropped 3.2 percent, or about 59,000 people. Reasons for leaving included lack of employment opportunities, nothing to do, and poor broadband connectivity. Because of the population decline, West Virginia was one of seven states to lose a congressional seat following the 2020 census.
Education can be a principal factor when choosing residency. Rankings place Maryland schools at 14 in the nation and West Virginia schools at 45. Anyone seeking entry level employment opportunities may also find The Old Line State more appealing. Marylander legislators recently raised the state minimum wage to $11.75 compared to West Virginia's current rate of $8.75.
Beitzel, a mineral rights owner, was a proponent to allow fracking in Maryland which is permitted in West Virginia. His support for the controversial drilling technique raised public outrage within the district he represents sparking protests and seven hours of citizen testimony in Annapolis opposing the bill. The Maryland General Assembly with support from Republican Governor Hogan approved a ban to prohibit horizontal drilling in the state. Beitzel recalled the ban in an interview with the New York Times as one reason to secede to West Virginia.
This left-field request would require a Herculean lift by lawmakers in the Maryland General Assembly. Boundary changes between states require the approval of each state's legislature and the approval of Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court settles boundary disputes between states. It is unknown if Maryland legislators would willingly relinquish its rural assets they have invested in heavily. These include acres of farmland, natural resources, state parks, and recreation destinations. Maryland is often called America In Minature due to the diverse landscape from the shores of the Atlantic to the Appalachian Mountains.
Following fiery backlash over the announcement, Minority Leader Delegate Jason Buckel of Allegany County and Senator George Edwards posted a statement on Facebook withdrawing their support of the letter they signed.
"I believe that our intentions have been misconstrued and that in fact, the entire effort may be foolhardy," Buckel said. "I frankly was not in a position to give this initiative my full attention over the last week and believe that I did not have the opportunity to truly analyze the various documents or their import."
Buckel went on to deny attending any meetings or engaging in conversation with representatives of West Virginia. However, he does support a non-binding referendum for voters about whether to join the state of West Virginia.
Neither Edwards nor Beitzel is seeking reelection after their current terms expire. If their request is taken seriously before leaving office, it could sabotage state relations for their successors. If the action is nothing more than political grandstanding, elected officials may be driving a wider political wedge between their jurisdictions and state agencies upon which they heavily rely. By thumbing their noses at their home state, any ungrateful counties with a palm up could end up at the end of a very long line. Both Beitzel and Edwards have served several terms and managed to be effortlessly reelected. No public input for support or opposition regarding the border change was requested by Beitzel or Edwards ahead of the public announcement. The decision seems to have been made unilaterally.
Garrett County relies heavily on state and federal funding for everything from infrastructure projects to helping small nonprofits. Money flows in on a regular basis to keep the county afloat and functioning. The state props up less fortunate counties by way of more prosperous jurisdictions. These inequities provide states the ability to retain undeveloped spaces, parks, agricultural lands, and poorer remote communities positioned outside more wealthy metro areas.
In fact, Maryland gives Garrett County $1.18 for every dollar paid in taxes. Allegany County receives a whopping $1.83 per dollar, and Washington County $1.41. The new Hagerstown Multi-Use Sports and Event Facility will be receiving a $56.7 million tax exemption over a 30 year period. West Virginia's budget would likely not be able to support the most basic needs of these three counties, let alone an extravagant sports center.
Since Maryland is slender and sprawling, most residents live close to a neighboring state. Living in Maryland, barring inherited properties, is often a choice based on priorities or convenience. Well-maintained roads, access to broadband, a strengthened power grid, employment opportunities, quality primary and secondary education, and a robust economy even through the lock-downs of 2020 are all valid reasons to choose a Maryland mailing address.
Many residents of Garrett County have close ties to West Virginia through family, shopping, sports, or recreation. The two counties share a workforce and amenities yet they are two distinct and separate states. How each state is managed is different and the revenue available to each state's residents is governed by state law. Choosing residency or investing in a state can be based on any number of issues but established state borders aren't perceived as temporary or tenuous.
Garrett County ranks 22 poorest out of 24 counties in Maryland. Drawing new state lines that reassigns Garrett County from one of the richest states to one of the poorest states in the nation is illogical, or worse yet, spiteful. It would appear an easier and more direct solution would be for Maryland legislators eager to become a representative of West Virginia to relinquish their Maryland pensions, pack their bags, and file their candidacy next door.