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Assembly session should be 'different'

January 06, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - With a $1.8 billion budget deficit looming and the first Republican governor in nearly four decades taking office, few people are willing to predict what the upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly will bring.

But there's one word that nearly everyone is using to describe the dynamics: interesting.

"It's going to be different in ways we have not yet imagined," said Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, R-Eastern Shore, incoming minority whip.

Money will be the biggest issue as state lawmakers wrestle to balance the budget.

When it comes to the budget, everything is potentially on the chopping block this year. County governments, including the Washington County Commissioners, are concerned about how the cuts could affect their budgets.

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Gov. Robert Ehrlich's transition team has been working on a proposed budget, but so far his staff has been tight-lipped about what it will contain. The Legislature will have the power to cut further.

Minority Leader Alfred R. Redmer Jr., who contends the previous administration often overlooked rural counties in the budget, said that will change.

"I think Bob Ehrlich will be a little more global in his perspective of the needs of Maryland," said Redmer, R-Baltimore.

Politically, Democrats and Republicans will have to work together or risk gridlock, many lawmakers said. Leaders of both parties say they hope to avoid problems.

"Everybody understands we're all in this together," said Del. John P. Donoghue, who will be chief deputy majority whip and the only Democrat in the Washington County Delegation. "People are relying on us. The campaigns are over, and it's time to get to work.

"I think it's going to be tough, but we'll get through it," Donoghue said.

In the past, Republicans played the role of the "loyal opposition" and criticized the Democrat-controlled legislature from the outside, Schisler said. But with a Republican in the governor's mansion, the Democrats will have to learn to share the power, he said.

In a tough budget year, Washington County is seeking the state's commitment to extend Hagerstown Regional Airport's runway and widen Interstate 81.

Local officials will also be asked to preserve a state subsidy for air service from Cumberland and Hagerstown to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Hagerstown Regional Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said the service may end this summer unless the service gets the final $750,000 of a $5 million grant over three years.

Washington County nonprofit groups who did not receive grants last year also will be looking for money through the state's bond bill program.

Organizations such as the Washington County Chapter of the American Red Cross and Girls Inc. need the money to finish building projects.

"Everything is going to be tied to the money," said Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Local lawmakers met with 17 community groups last month and nearly all of them begged not to be cut, he said.

In addition to dealing with the budget, local lawmakers will have to decide on their legislative package.

The Washington County Commissioners may request some type of tax or fee increase to help them better manage growth. Options include a transfer tax on the sale of property, an excise tax on building or an impact fee on new development.

The commissioners need legislative authority before they can enact those types of taxes or fees.

Last session, the delegation rejected the idea of a 1 percent transfer tax.

  • Local lawmakers also may pursue state legislation to:

  • Resolve an ongoing dispute between Hagerstown and Washington County government over the city's annexation policy.

  • More closely regulate massage parlors to prevent them from being used as fronts for prostitution rings.

  • Require the Washington County Health System Board of Directors to include a Hagerstown government representative.

  • Toughen the penalties on people who violate the county's animal control laws.
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