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Once again, excise tax plan creates concern in Annapolis

January 20, 2006

As Yogi Berra might say, it's deja vu all over again.

The Maryland General Assembly session has begun, but a key part of the Washington County Commissioners' legislative package is only half-formed.

The topic is a familiar one - the county's excise tax, which was reworked in the final days of the 2005 General Assembly session.

On the plus side, the county government is way ahead of last year's pace. But that experience, which saw last year's revisions approved on the last day of the session, should have convinced the County Commissioners to work out all of these details far in advance of the 2006 session.

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Why did it take so long to figure out that to help create new jobs, the county government might want to have the power to waive the tax?

On Wednesday, when members of the delegation asked Assistant County Attorney Kirk Downey to provide details of how the waiver might work, he couldn't offer many.

Downey said the county wants to issue waivers when "imposition of the tax is outweighed by the benefits that could be garnered" by bringing in new businesses or helping existing ones expand.

"Significant job creation" would be one criterion, Downey said.

But given that small business creates most of the new jobs, how would "significant" be defined?

Perhaps more important, if one business got the break and another one didn't, what legal challenges might the county face?

Downey said he hadn't researched those issues and assumed the county's Economic Development Commission would make recommendations as to which firms would get the waiver.

Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick, said that setting specific formulas for how the waivers would be handled would make the program difficult to administer.

Weldon has a point, but in this case it seems the delegation is not trying to micromanage so much as it is trying to ensure that the County Commissioners have thought this issue through.

Downey was hired in August as the third full-time attorney on the county staff. A story written then said that he would handle litigation while attorneys Richard Douglas and John Martirano would handle planning and public works issues respectively.

If it hasn't happened already, one of the three should be assigned to preparing legislative requests. That would allow delegation members to clear up any concerns before the session starts.

Such a move would go a long way toward giving state lawmakers confidence that the commissioners know what they want - and why.

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