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Annapolis notes

Excise tax legislation went down to the wire

Excise tax legislation went down to the wire

April 18, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - In theory, it seemed simple enough.

Overwhelming growth was swamping Washington County's schools and roads, so the Washington County Commissioners sought enabling legislation to raise the county's excise tax so the county could try to keep up with needed road and school construction.

But four months later, the Washington County Growth Management Act of 2005 had been changed several times, sparked a few disagreements between the County Commissioners and local legislators, and apparently upset at least one local developer.

Even so, the bill easily won approval in the House.

But in the final days of the legislative session, it was delayed in the Senate to the point where it started to flatline.

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First, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee tacked on some technical amendments, which meant that once the full Senate approved the bill, it had to go back to the House for final approval of the amendments.

Bills must go through three readings by the full Senate for a final vote, and the bill was scheduled for the second of those April 9.

When it wasn't heard then, it was rescheduled for April 11, the last day of the General Assembly. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller skipped over it, putting Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, into a panic that the bill wouldn't be approved by the midnight deadline.

Munson and other local legislators suspected that Annapolis lobbyist Gerard Evans, employed by Zenith Construction Co. of Hagerstown, was responsible for the delay.

Zenith Construction is owned by Hagerstown developer David Shaool.

Evans earlier sought to amend the bill to exempt any development that received preliminary approval by Jan. 5, 2005, from the revised excise tax. After failing to find a sponsor for an amendment, he tried to kill the bill by getting it delayed.

"Our opposition continued until the last minute," Evans confirmed Friday. "We were working with anybody who would listen" on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

After inquiries from several Washington County lawmakers, the bill finally came up during the Senate's afternoon floor session - after Miller told The Herald-Mail that if the bill was on his desk, "we'll get to it."

At that point, Evans said, "we just let it go."

It got final Senate approval later in the session and was sent back to the House.

Then the real fun began.

As the minutes ticked closer to midnight, Washington County delegates registered alarm when the bill didn't come up - and as several delegates from other jurisdictions engaged in lengthy debates on other topics, further delaying the excise tax bill.

In what Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank called a "bipartisan effort," he, Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, and Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, launched an all-out assault to get the bill before the full House before the stroke of midnight.

At one point, Shank started going through folders on House Speaker Michael E. Busch's desk to make sure the local bill was there, and he was on his way to beg one Republican colleague to end her debate on another issue when she mercifully sat down. Meanwhile, Busch pulled the plug on Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, who had begun a tirade accusing House members of shutting down debate.

The bill and its amendments finally cleared the House with just minutes to spare.

But the saga might not be over.

Once the county formally changes its excise tax ordinance, Evans said his client is considering a challenge in court.

Ode to the road

ANNAPOLIS - Earlier in this legislative session, members of the Greater Hagerstown Committee heard from House Minority Leader George Edwards that funding for needed improvements to local thoroughfares likely would take a back seat to the Inter County Connector, a proposed highway for Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

But during a break during the General Assembly's final day, the state's transportation secretary - once introduced by Gov. Robert Ehrlich as "Sec. Robert 'If-the-ICC-isn't-completed-ahead-of-schedule-you're-fired' Flanagan" - insisted to The Herald-Mail that Washington County projects remain a priority for his department.

"We've got to widen (Interstate) 81" among other projects, such as improvements at the intersection of Edgewood Drive and Dual Highway.

There were no promises on how soon those projects might be accomplished.

No swan song for Busch

ANNAPOLIS - As the legislative session ended last week, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who frequently treated Statehouse correspondents to impromptu concerts during the 90-day assembly, reflected on his disagreements with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller over proposed legalization of slot machine gambling.

But rather than breaking into song as he had on previous occasions, he chose to deliver a somewhat abridged rendition of the classic poem "Casey at the Bat."

The lines of the poem, he said, were off the record. But what can be said here is that the closing line went something like this:

"The mighty Mikey struck out."

Needless to say, the Speaker wasn't referring to himself.

A concise final analysis

ANNAPOLIS - Most legislators were waxing philosophical during the final week of what was a particularly contentious General Assembly, but Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, probably summed up the sentiments of all of them in one simple declaration:

"I'm glad it's only 90 days."

- Tamela Baker

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