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Fund rescue, tax revision top feats in 2008 session

April 15, 2008

The Maryland General Assembly's 2008 session ended April 7 and the scorecard shows some good results for the Washington County delegation.

The two most important pieces of local business - revision of the county's excise tax legislation and the rescue of most of the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown funds - were accomplished.

The funding was placed in jeopardy when Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary's, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, took $2.1 million of USM-H funding for fiscal 2009 and proposed dividing it among several non-USM centers, with Hagerstown getting only a small share.

A furious battle took place, with Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, and state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington, leading the charge.

Eventually, all but $100,000 was restored, but there is no guarantee that something similar won't happen again.

The excise-tax formula is something both the county commissioners and the delegation have been tinkering with for years. Both groups hope they've found a solution in the 2008 legislation.

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In 2007, the commissioners got the OK to change the tax on new construction from a flat fee to a per-square foot formula.

This year the commissoners recommended a rate of $3-per-square foot for nonresidential retail, $1 for other nonresidential and $3 for residential buildings.

What was approved was a cap of $4 for nonresidential retail, $1.50 for other nonresidential and $4.50 for residential buildings. That allows the county government some room to raise rates, if necessary, without seeking a change in the law.

Other business that transpired included:

· Passage of a number of housekeeping-type bills that, among other things, require the county liquor board to have an annual audit, alters some of the county clerk's duties and require permits for certain large events.

· It was more obvious in the USM-H funding fight, but the session just concluded also featured a partnership between Donoghue, the delegation's only Democrat and Munson, its top Republican.

The bills they cross-filed included changes in how the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts was funded, a bill seeking $125,000 for Maryland Theatre improvements and a bill to give Discovery Station additional time to provide evidence that it had raised funds to match a $40,000 grant it received in 2006.

It's an example of the bipartisan action that will be needed in 2009 and beyond to keep Washington County's GOP-dominated delegation from being overrun by the legislature's Democratic majority.

Both Donoghue and Munson asserted themselves in a way they seldom had before. Donoghue told delegation members to back off during USM-H negotiations and Munson voted for a surcharge on millionaires to help ensure the return of the campus cash.

It might displease some other delegation members, but the reality is that in Annapolis, the Republicans are greatly outnumbered.

GOP members need not abandon their party's principles to succeed, but tossing verbal bombshells at the Democratic governor won't get the job done either.

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