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Allocation of $1 billion leading issue as 2000 Maryland General Assembly opens Wednesday

January 08, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

See also: Stadium proposal up for consideration again

The 2000 session of the Maryland General Assembly will largely revolve around money, specifically, what to do with a state surplus of nearly $1 billion.

While local lawmakers say they would like to return some of the money to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts, they also want to bring back the bucks for major building and transportation projects.

"I think it's an important session that the county get its fair share of the dollars that are out there," said Washington County Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee.

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Later this month, Gov. Parris Glendening will propose a spending plan. The legislature can cut the budget, but not add to it.

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, said the legislature should treat the surplus like an end-of-year bonus and spend it on one-time costs.

The Washington County Delegation will continue to lobby for funding the proposed University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center.

Glendening has promised to put money in the budget for the campus at the Baldwin House in downtown Hagerstown.

Glendening might also increase the amount of money available through the state's bond bill program, where the state borrows money on behalf of nonprofits.

Washington County community groups have asked the delegation for more than $2 million in state grants this year. Under the state's bond bill program, where the state borrows money on behalf of nonprofits, the county typically gets about $500,000.

The surplus might free up more money for bond bills, lawmakers said.

"These are one-time type costs, but they certainly do a lot of good in the communities and the counties," McKee said.

The delegation will prioritize the local grant requests from organizations as varied the YMCA, Citizens for a Clear Spring Library and the Humane Society.

Lawmakers will also continue to search for grants to help the county climb out of its $52.3 million water and sewer debt. Previous efforts have failed.

In addition to spending money, some local lawmakers will be looking for ways to return money to the taxpayers in the form of tax cuts.

"I'd like to see a large portion of the surplus go back to the people," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Shank and the delegation's other Republicans would like to see accelerated cuts in the state income tax. In 1997, the legislature passed a phased-in 10 percent tax cut scheduled to take full effect in 2002.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, who introduced a bill last year to reduce the inheritance tax, hopes this year the tax will be eliminated altogether. Glendening has shown some signs of support.

"It's a terrible tax. You pay taxes on everything in life. You shouldn't have to pay taxes when you die," said Munson, R-Washington.

Another major issue the legislature will tackle this year is transportation funding.

Despite the large budget surplus, the fund that pays for highway and mass transportation projects is expected to run out of money in a few years. Glendening has ruled out an increase in the gasoline tax.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany/Garrett, has proposed using a small portion of the state's sales tax to pay for mass transit, leaving enough money in the fund for needed highway projects.

Rural lawmakers have long felt it is unfair that the gas tax pays for both highway and mass transit.

Whatever happens this year is bound to affect Washington County's push for the widening of 13 miles of Interstate 81, estimated to cost $10 million.

Other than a proposal for funding a $12 million to $15 million Hagerstown Roundhouse and Sports complex, the delegation isn't planning to tackle any controversial pieces of legislation this year, said McKee, R-Washington.

The County Commissioners have asked for legislation to increase the salaries of Election Board members and stagger the terms of the Gaming Commission members.

Early in the session, the delegation will meet and decide whether to pursue those and a number of other requests, he said.

For example, a correctional officer has requested legislation to protect state employees from threats of violence. Similar legislation died last year in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The delegation must also decide whether to refile a bill for tougher nuisance laws in Washington County.

The bill, prompted by a Hagerstown house that smelled so bad it upset neighbors, was killed last year by the House Environmental Matters Committee.

The legislature will also consider these issues of local importance:

* The findings of a task force to create the first state battlefield park at South Mountain. As early as next week, the task force is expected to give a blueprint for creating the park.

* Glendening's proposed "smart gun" legislation that would require guns sold in the state to be equipped with devices that allow them to be fired only by authorized users.

* The implementation of farm runoff regulations. Shank said he will be closely watching the issue and may introduce legislation to help farmers.

* Health care issues. The legislature may consider collective bargaining rights for doctors and relief for the high cost of prescription drugs, said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, who chairs a House subcommittee on health care.

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