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Helping Rural Communities Thrive: A Plan to Support Western Maryland

Helping Rural Communities Thrive:
A Plan to Support Western Maryland

Ensuring that Western Maryland thrives will be a top priority of mine as Governor. For too long, Maryland’s political leadership has failed to adequately address the needs of rural communities – spending too much time in Annapolis and not enough time listening to residents of Frederick, Carroll, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties.

I’m running to change that.

Since entering the race six months ago, I have been in Western Maryland more than 30 times. We’ve visited every corner of the region—from Frederick and Emmitsburg to Hagerstown and Cumberland to Grantsville and Oakland—meeting often with local leaders to discuss a way forward for their communities. I’ve loved every meeting with students from Frostburg State and Hood, conservation leaders and progressive activists, business and agricultural leaders from the Chambers of Commerce in Garrett and Frederick, and local elected officials in each of the five counties. I have listened closely to your challenges with accessing healthcare services, having enough well-paying jobs within the region so kids don’t have to move elsewhere, attracting investment and retaining employers, and fully funding public schools.

This plan is my response to what I’ve heard. Here are my top seven priorities for Western Maryland:

  1. Improving Quality Rural Healthcare
  2. Fighting the Opioid Epidemic
  3. Expanding Educational Opportunities from Cradle to Career
  4. Supporting Maryland’s Agricultural Sector
  5. Creating Well-Paying Jobs in Western Maryland
  6. Conserving Maryland’s Treasured Landscapes
  7. Creating the Strongest Outdoor Economy on the East Coast

I’m running to produce tangible results for all Marylanders. We are all tired of politicians holding press conferences to announce policies, then failing to deliver results or improve lives. I’m committed to elevating underrepresented voices and ensuring that government works for everyone. I wouldn’t be a candidate today, if it wasn’t for the support of committed residents across Western Maryland.

As Governor, I want to unleash the limitless potential that I see across Western Maryland. It’s time to stand up and fight for a more prosperous and equitable future for residents of Cumberland, Frederick, Westminster, Hagerstown, Oakland, and all Western Maryland communities. Together, we can collaborate to chart a path towards prosperity for everyone in Western Maryland. I hope you’ll join me.

Sincerely,

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah

Improving Quality Rural Healthcare

Improving access, expanding coverage, and reducing costs

Nearly 1 in 10 Marylanders under 65 living in Frederick, Carroll, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties lacks health insurance. I believe healthcare is a human right, and I’m proposing the following solutions to improve healthcare options in Western Maryland:

  • Expand Medicare coverage to assisted-living facilities, community-based support initiatives, home-visiting programs, nutritional assistance efforts, and other evidence-backed programs​ that have demonstrated impacts on health and wellbeing in rural areas. Maryland’s Medicare waiver gives our state a unique degree of flexibility to address the medical needs of our rural residents. We need bold progressive leadership to take advantage of this flexibility and improve the delivery of care in Western Maryland.
  • Invest in community health workers, school-based health centers, mobile integrated health units, and other non-traditional providers​ to support and teach patients in medically underserved areas, which could reduce Medicare costs by more than 25%, freeing up additional funding to invest in healthcare mobility solutions like better transit and telemedicine.
  • Develop and implement a state-run public option​. A “public option” is a government-run insurance plan available over the Affordable Care Act exchanges that would compete against private insurers – driving down the overall cost of health insurance, particularly in areas with just one or two private insurance options like Western Maryland. This solution allows Maryland to achieve universal coverage and affordability goals without raising taxes or recklessly dismantling the current healthcare infrastructure.
  • Expand rural healthcare infrastructure​. 33% of rural Americans live in “health professional shortage areas,” and nearly 82% of rural counties are classified as “medically underserved areas.” To address this issue, Maryland must:
    • Develop reciprocity agreements with healthcare facilities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia, so residents can receive services from the closest facilities without out fear of being rejected by their health insurer.
    • Invest in rural public transportation, so patients can easily reach treatment facilities.
    • Offer tax incentives to healthcare professionals (including nurses) willing to work in underserved areas.
    • Re-invest in rural hospitals with savings generated from overdose prevention efforts.
    • Open additional rural clinics with fewer advanced capabilities, but offer expanded access to basic care, which can utilize telemedicine options for specialist services.
    • Invest in state-run, community-based care and home-visiting programs in rural areas using funds allocated to Maryland through the Affordable Care Act — in line with the original recommendations by the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services.
  • Ensure former miners receive adequate healthcare and disability support. There are just a few hundred coal miners left in Maryland, and the State must support the communities in Garrett and Allegany counties that were once economically dependent on the mines for work. I promise to replace any Trump administration rollbacks of safety measures to protect miners from accidents or exposure to the coal and silica dust that causes “black lung” disease, and provide state-sponsored disability benefits and retraining options. For the safety of hundreds of miners, we need to examine the existing protections in place, and I pledge to work with neighboring governors to ensure the mining industry carefully monitors the health of its employees.

We must make these immediate improvements to the coverage, quality, and cost of Maryland’s healthcare for all its residents – regardless of their income or zip code.

Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

In 2017, nearly 2,000 Marylanders died from opioid overdoses—three times the number that died in 2012. 2018 is not starting any better. Western Maryland has borne the brunt of this crisis, and it’s time for the State to act—not with task forces, but with action and resources. In Allegany County alone, there are 127 opioid prescriptions for every 100 residents, double the national rate. Many of these drugs, particularly those laced with fentanyl and carfentanil, can be more than 50 times more addictive than heroin. I have had friends become victims of opioid overdoses, and I have met hundreds of Marylanders who can cite a friend or relative who has been affected by this issue. Addiction tears at the fabric of our communities. The victims don’t live on the fringes of society; they are our sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, parents, neighbors, and friends.

I’m proposing a three-pronged strategy to fight the opioid epidemic:

  1. Expanding treatment access ​means ensuring every town and municipality—no matter how small—has temporary addiction treatment clinics run by the State of Maryland, and that we start treating the opioid epidemic as the symptom of a public health crisis driven by the disease of addition. To best serve the Maryland communities hit hardest by the opioid crisis, my administration will:
    • Ensure every Marylander has 24/7 access to addiction treatment options, including on-demand services and long-term care. In rural areas, this means investing in mobile treatment options, like vans, that can dispense important medications such as buprenorphine to improve treatment access in rural areas struggling with adequate access to public transit. I want to help get medication into the communities that need it most as quickly and efficiently as possible.
    • Integrate the Maryland Department of Health with other state-run services to coordinate “whole-person” care for those struggling with any kind of addiction. Healthcare is significantly impacted by environment – non-medical factors account for 60-80% of a person’s health outcomes. Realigning our state agencies’ data, eligibility, and approaches to service could both expand access and significantly reduce the cost of this and future interventions to taxpayers.
    • Expanding LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program),​ which pushes drug offenders into treatment programs rather than jails, from Baltimore City to the entire state, particularly in Western Maryland.
    • Support legislation like the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act​, which diverted Marylanders from prison to treatment services and reinvested the savings generated by this initiative back into in fighting the opioid crisis.
  2. Take immediate lifesaving action​ by expanding access to naloxone, the overdose reversal agent, to every home in Western Maryland, and expanding the Overdose Survivor’s Outreach Program to every hospital facility in the 5 counties of Western Maryland. Everyone should be able to access this lifesaving drug, and everyone struggling with the disease of addiction who walks through the doors of a hospital should receive specialized attention from navigators who can help them access treatment options – rather than return to their community.
  3. Long-term prevention strategies​ must address what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton describe as “deaths of despair.” Deaths from drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol remain highest in rural communities and amongst people without a college degree. To attack this fundamental inequity, we need to make education and economic opportunity available from cradle to career – restoring both access and dignity to work, and investing in our state’s educational infrastructure.

Expanding Educational Opportunities from Cradle to Career

I’ve visited schools across Western Maryland over the last year, including a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak at the graduation exercises for Hood College last May. Each time I step into a school or onto a campus, I’m reminded of how education is the foundation of a prosperous community. Maryland’s public schools unlocked a world of opportunity for my family and me. My absolute top priority as Governor remains fully funding our state’s education system and implementing the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations in Western Maryland’s schools. I’m the only candidate who is a product of Maryland public schools from K-12. I’m also the daughter of two public school teachers, and my running mate, Sharon Blake, was a lifelong public school teacher and former Baltimore Teachers Union President.

I personally lived through many of the problems still facing the education system in Maryland today, such as trying to learn in crumbling buildings without heating and cooling, or watching my parents struggle on their teachers’ salaries, while still managing to pay for classroom supplies and food for their students that the school couldn’t afford.

Here are my top priorities:

  • Fully Fund Public Schools.​ As Governor, I will fully fund all Maryland public schools and enact the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations. I will build the recommended additional state-share of $1.9 billion into my first budget. I also strongly support the Commission’s recommendations of raising educator pay, elevating the status of the teaching profession, and accelerating school construction improvements. This is ultimately about closing the opportunity gap and ensuring every child in every county across the state has the opportunity to realize their full potential.
  • No More Hungry Kids.​ About 1 in 12 children in Western Maryland are not getting enough to eat. That’s thousands of kids who cannot give their teachers their full attention on an empty stomach. Maryland already has nationally acclaimed school lunch and breakfast programs, but we need to make sure that it is reaching all kids who need it most. We must guarantee a school day that includes hot, healthy breakfast and lunch, every single day for every child. This investment will cost less than $5 million dollars statewide and make a world of difference.
  • Invest in 21​ st​ Century STEAM Education. ​I will invest in the STEAM education curricula of every primary and secondary school in Western Maryland to ensure our kids, and our teachers, have the resources they need to excel in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. Computer literacy, math, and science now rival basic competencies, like reading comprehension and writing, as the key indicators of a student’s college and career readiness. I want to replicate amazing STEAM programs, like the engineering and robotics programs in Garrett County, across the entire state. By focusing on STEAM education, we can ensure that all students have the skills they need to succeed, and eliminate the gender and racial disparities in these disciplines.
  • Free Community College and Retraining Programs. ​I have pledged to make attending community college tuition-free in Maryland. We will expand the successful scholarship programs, modeled after the College Promise Program, in Garrett and Washington counties to all counties statewide. This ensures everyone can afford degree-granting, continuing education, and retraining or workforce development programs at each of the five community colleges that currently serve Western Maryland residents.In addition, I will work to develop and retain talent in Western Maryland by:
    • Providing transportation grants for community college students. Getting to school affordably can be a major challenge for students. And community college students with jobs must be able to continue their studies without breaking the bank or sacrificing their current employment. To give Western Maryland’s students a hand, I will establish a state micro-grant program to support all community college and continuing education student’s transportation expenses in Western Maryland. A little extra support to help fund travel between home, work, and school—all in time to help with dinner or spend time family—will make a challenging schedule just a little bit easier. This small transportation stipend would match any pre-existing federal work-study funds that students currently receive, making a quality higher education affordable for all Marylanders.
    • Providing additional county scholarship funds for students who commit to living and working in their home counties after graduation. My administration will provide matching scholarships to students from Western Maryland, who agree to remain in their county of residence for up to three years after graduation.
  • Guarantee Affordable 4-Year College. ​The average Maryland college graduate leaves campus with nearly $30,000 in debt. We will make college more affordable for all with 1% state-provided student loans, because no student’s income should deny them the opportunity to attend college and companies should not profit off students working to further their education.

Supporting Maryland’s Agricultural Sector

The agriculture industry employs approximately 350,000 Marylanders each year – making it the state’s biggest commercial sector. The State must do more to support this vital component of the economy in Western Maryland. Agricultural production should always be (1) profitable for farmers, (2) ecologically sound for the environment, and (3) enhance local communities. But in light of increasing global competition and technological changes to production processes, farmers are finding it harder and harder to make a decent living. I am proposing the following measures to support the agriculture industry in Western Maryland:

  • Protect an additional 300,000 acres of farmland across Western Maryland in my first term using easements, ​by redoubling funding for the Maryland Rural Legacy Program ​and allowing certified counties that currently participate in the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation Program to keep 100% of the Agricultural Transfer Tax revenue to purchase additional easements. Uncertified counties currently retain just 33% of this revenue. The State should encourage other counties to emulate the aggressive 100,000 acre target set by Carroll County, which has already preserved over 70,000 acres since the program’s inception.
  • Explore additional methods to preserve agricultural land​ like incentives, abatements, and other creative easements. According to studies conducted by the University of Delaware and the University of Maryland, farmland preservation stimulates local and regional economic activity — and farmers use their savings to reduce personal debt, develop savings plans, and reinvest in their operations.
  • Leverage public-private partnerships to update the agricultural infrastructure in Western Maryland ​by improving roads in rural areas, fixing all 70 of our state’s bridges categorized as “structurally deficient,” removing or repairing the 81 “high hazard” dams across the state, and providing counties with flexible funding to invest in critical agriculture infrastructure that matches their local needs – such as abattoirs, processing facilities, or local food hubs.
  • Provide individual farmers micro-grants​ to ease the cost of testing and implementing sustainable production models​ through the University of Maryland Extension within the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. Maryland should be treating its farmers like entrepreneurs and promoting bottom-up innovation to improve the sustainability, quantity, and quality of Maryland grown agricultural products. The federal government has propped up conventional farming though significant subsidies for decades—making it all but financially irresponsible for many farms to transition to more sustainable systems. My administration will even the playing field and help give farmers more control over their businesses.
  • Create an Agriculture Accelerator in Western Maryland​ run in partnership with the private sector, the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, and representatives from each of the 5 counties in Western Maryland. The accelerator would support both agricultural entrepreneurs developing new regionally specific farming techniques and technology-driven solutions for the industry.
  • Expand the number of brick and mortar co-ops and introduce digital farmers markets to every county in Maryland​. The opportunity to sell at a farmers market is often a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it connects farmers to their communities, their supporters, and each other. On the other hand, it limits valuable time on the farm. The State can help formalize this sector and increase market demand for Maryland-grown goods by raising the number of farming co-operatives and digital farmers markets.
  • Invest in a smarter, data-driven extension services system​ for Western Maryland that leverages Maryland’s existing IT and analytics expertise to better encourage innovation within the industry.

Creating Well-Paying Jobs in Western Maryland

It has been more than 50 years since the Maryland agreed to support the Appalachian Regional Development Act’s goal to increase job opportunities and per capita income in Western Maryland on par with the nation. Today, unemployment across the region continues to lag the rest of the state. We must do more to (1) attract businesses, (2) retain talent, (3) and develop Western Maryland’s infrastructure. Frederick, Carroll, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties should be engines of economic growth in this state; they just need support from their elected officials to help usher in a new era of prosperity.

My administration will lend a hand by:

  • Matching dollar for dollar funding from the federally-funded Appalachian Training Investment Program for businesses with fewer than 500 employees. This program administered by the Appalachian Regional Commission defrays the costs associated with employee training and will help attract and retain businesses for the region.
  • Actively recruit federal facilities to Western Maryland to build on the footprint of existing facilities like Fort Detrick.
  • Double the per-apprentice income tax credit for manufacturers across Western Maryland ​that employee eligible apprentices.
  • Open a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Western Maryland ​to improve access to capital markets, so local residents can more readily own a home, provide for their families, or start a business. CDFI’s are specialized community-based financial institutions funded by the federal government to provide financial products and services to areas underserved by traditional financial institutions. While Maryland currently boasts 15 of these organizations, none exist in Western Maryland. Western Maryland needs the financial infrastructure to encourage entrepreneurship to thrive, and my administration will match the first $5 million of federal investment that flows through a CDFI into Western Maryland.
  • Support the growth of “rural sourcing” ​where firms shift back office administrative, IT, and data processing from a nearby city to a nearby rural area. Western Maryland’s low cost of land, highly educated workforce, and proximity to the Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. markets make it an ideal location to attract various forms of remote work. We’re already seeing companies invest in the Hub City of Hagerstown and—with better investments in broadband capabilities, temporary tax incentives, and improved educational opportunities for the local workforce—the State could help attract these remote-driven industries to spur economic growth in Western Maryland.
  • Improve Maryland’s Tele-health services. ​The health care and related service industries in Western Maryland remain one of the region’s largest employers. I would direct the Maryland Department of Health to coordinate with the existing network of county hospitals and care centers to expand telemedicine options. Maryland is poised to become a leader in this field, and with additional state support, Western Maryland could become a national leader in the field.
  • Investing in infrastructure to protect logistics jobs. ​My administration will build strong public-private partnership agreements with employers like CSX Transportation to ensure the State makes the long overdue public infrastructure investments needed to keep railyards open and commerce flowing through Western Maryland.

Investing in transportation infrastructure

The lack of available public transit remains one of the greatest threats to the continued economic growth of Western Maryland. Our state’s crumbling infrastructure disadvantages Maryland’s most vulnerable communities and cripples our economy. My administration will work to use Cumberland, Hagerstown, and Frederick as hubs to better connect the region with the rest of the state and rural residents with regional job centers, community colleges, and workforce development opportunities. We must make the following investments:

  • Make strategic repairs and investments to our transportation infrastructure by building reversible lanes on commuter roads like 270, introducing more efficient exchanges, and improving bus rapid-transit, particularly between Western Maryland’s three largest cities, Cumberland, Hagerstown, and Frederick. Further, we will finally secure the funding necessary to make long overdue improvements to Hagertown’s I-81 interchange.
  • Extend the MARC Brunswick Line further into Frederick and Washington counties​ to better connect Western Maryland Residents to Washington D.C. and central Maryland. The majority of Western Maryland commuters rely on cars to travel to D.C. each day. Investing in mass transit to connect population centers like Frederick, Hagerstown, and potentially Cumberland offers a 21st century solution to Maryland’s traffic problem and connectivity issues.

Guaranteeing universal broadband access

1 in 12 Maryland residents do not have access to high-speed Internet. The State must start treating the Internet like a utility, because you can’t run your business or get a good education without access to online resources. When speaking with community leaders around the state, and particularly in Western Maryland, I’ve heard too many stories of kids sitting outside libraries until late at night to use the Wi-Fi, or businesses who cannot expand or recruit talent due to a lack of last-mile connectivity. The Internet is a part of modern life, and the State should guarantee affordable access for all Maryland residents.

To achieve this goal the State of Maryland must:

  • Provide 1:1 match funding from the State to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) willing to expand their last-mile coverage offerings to underserved areas​. This public-private partnership builds on existing infrastructure and offers an immediate step towards achieving universal coverage. Maryland is currently the 8th most connected state in the U.S. We need to leverage this existing infrastructure to grow the state’s economy and create 21st century jobs beyond the D.C.-Baltimore corridor.
  • Lend state support to broadband cooperatives​, where networks of small business owners, educational institutions and communities band together to collectively bargain with service providers. I will not allow providers to lobby the legislature to prevent cooperatives from bargaining for cheaper Internet.
  • Support “public internet” in extremely underserved areas​, which is essentially publicly-run high-speed broadband that operates similar to a state-run public healthcare option in the marketplace. This follows the model successfully outlined by cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Even outside of underserved areas, most Marylanders only have 1 or 2 options for Internet service; This imbalance gives companies like Comcast de-facto monopoly power over huge numbers of consumers. We must regulate ISPs the way we treat utility providers like water and electricity, so working families can plan their budgets around consistent rates.

Conserving Western Maryland’s Treasured Landscapes

Maryland’s natural beauty and ecological integrity are threatened by scattershot housing, commercial, and energy development that crisscrosses our state. In parts of Western Maryland, for example, I’ve heard from farmers, residents, and conservation groups, who have expressed significant concern over some of the scattershot residential development. My administration will reinvest in partnerships between state and local government to protect our rural areas and strengthen the role of the Maryland Department of Planning. In Western Maryland, despite the fracking ban, fears of fracked-gas pipeline infrastructure decimating natural resources communities rightfully persist, as the State refuses to exercise any oversight of energy projects. And suburban areas continue to lose ecologically significant forests as development encroaches further and further out.

As Governor, I will lead an effort to work with local governments to prioritize the conservation of our treasured landscapes through smart growth policies that accelerate economic growth without destroying the character of a region. My administration will focus on:

  • Investing in Historic Downtowns and Supporting Infill Redevelopment.​ The State should replicate Delaware’s Downtown Development program, targeting historic communities like Frederick, Hagerstown, Cumberland, and Oakland. By encouraging the redevelopment and infilling development within historic cities with existing infrastructure, we can reduce the pressures on suburban sprawl and the deforestation and wetland loss that has characterized the past half century.
  • Reforesting Maryland.​ ​We continue to lose forest density in Western Maryland. My administration will strengthen the Forest Conservation Act to protect ecologically significant forests, require the planting of native trees in greater numbers than the trees removed, work with developers to minimize impacts through better site design, and facilitate partnerships with nonprofits to accelerate native tree reforestation efforts.
  • Elevating Local Voices in Consideration of Energy Projects.​ ​As the fight over the Potomac Pipeline in Washington County has demonstrated, we are repeatedly seeing local voices silenced in the decision-making process for projects that would fundamentally alter local communities. I will make sure that the State evaluates the cumulative impacts of energy and industrial projects, and ensure that local communities have full input into projects.
  • Conserving the Rural Land-base in Western Maryland.​ My administration will fully fund the work of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation; promote conservation easements to keep working lands working; and work with local governments to ensure strong agricultural zoning in line with the recommendations of leading nonprofits, including the local land conservancies.
  • Reclaiming Abandoned Mines. ​The restoration of Little Laurel Run shows what’s possible when local, state, regional, and federal agencies partner together to reclaim areas once polluted by mining. We must reduce toxic drainage, restore areas to encourage new tourism, and support passage of the federal RECLAIM act.

Creating the Strongest Outdoor Economy on the East Coast

Tourism is the second largest sector of Maryland’s economy. From the Appalachian Mountains and inland waterways to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast, we have natural assets that are the envy of other states. We need to continue growing our outdoor economy by making Maryland the best place to go hiking, camping, paddling, biking, birding, fishing, and hunting anywhere east of the Mississippi. More than half of all Marylanders participate in the outdoor economy every year, which sustains more than 100,000 jobs around the state and generates $14 billion in annual economic benefits.

To grow the outdoor economy, my administration will prioritize:

  • Investing in Recreational Access and Conservation. ​We must increase funding for amenities like hiking and biking trails, fishing piers, boat launches, observation blinds, campgrounds, and interpretive signage. We must also align the priorities of our habitat restoration, corridor connectivity, and land preservation strategies programs with our outdoor economy strategy.
  • Marketing our Natural Resources and Heritage​. ​There is a reason why Americans mostly think of West Virginia and Colorado when they’re considering outdoor travel destinations. We must integrate these marketing efforts with efforts to promote heritage tourism, which, when combined, offer diverse opportunities that are attractive for longer visits. We simply must stop selling ourselves short and market our assets to drive visits.
  • Increasing Wildlife Populations.​ ​Part of growing our outdoor economy also means saving our state’s wildlife. As Governor, I will lead a statewide initiative to recover the full diversity of Maryland’s fish and wildlife resources by restoring important habitat across Maryland and updating our laws to encourage more collaborative and proactive conservation measures. Right now, more than 600 wildlife species are on our state’s list of “species of greatest conservation need,” as outlined in our State Wildlife Action Plan. I am committed to funding implementation of the State Wildlife Action Plan to ensure that wildlife becomes more common, at-risk species are conserved, and no species become endangered on my watch.

“I am running for Governor because I am worried my daughter and all children in Maryland will not have the same opportunities my parents gave me when they brought our family here when I was a baby girl. The deficit in leadership from our current Governor could not come at a worse time.”