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Washington County delegation looks back on 2011 General Assembly session

April 16, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

The Republican majority of Washington County's delegation was glad to see a same-sex marriage bill fail this year and discouraged that Maryland voted to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Local Republicans also opposed other measures that passed this year — such as a 50-percent increase in the sales tax on alcohol — and some that failed, including a ban on septic systems in major developments, an effort to extend anti-discrimination protection to transgendered people and an offshore wind program.

In several cases, Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, was the only local lawmaker aligned with the Democratic majority on key issues, favoring both the same-sex marriage and in-state tuition bills.

"Elections have consequences," Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said, referring to Democratic gains in the last election. "I think we are seeing a definite tilt to the left ... on social issues."

Members of the Washington County delegation had mixed feelings on the $34 billion fiscal 2012 budget that passed.

Spending will rise by about $2 billion from the current fiscal year. The state pension system and retiree health insurance coverage were amended to reduce large unfunded liabilities.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, said there were some positive steps, such as a reduction of about 40 percent in the structural budget deficit.

"But we need to keep going," he said, recommending a sweeping review of state spending, possibly with across-the-board percentage cuts.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, spoke on the House floor several times about his concerns about state spending, including the capital budget. He said the state is on the verge of having to raise property taxes to offset borrowing.

But Young said the General Assembly passed a generally good budget that protects education funding, attacks the structural deficit and helps maintain the state's AAA bond rating.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, sounded his familiar critique of Republicans who voted against the budget, saying it's a "reality" that legislators who vote no will have trouble getting funding for their constituents.

"If you're going to vote against everything in the state ... you're saying, 'We don't need your money,'" he said.

This year, the budget vote wasn't strictly partisan within the delegation.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, was one of two Republicans in the House to vote for the budget. (Del. Wendell R. Beitzel from Garrett County was the other.)

Myers said he doesn't support the final version of the budget, which he called "bloated," but voted for it to keep funding for necessary programs and priorities.

Myers, who was the delegation chairman this past session, said he was pleased that funding was protected for some big Washington County projects, such as a new state police barrack and a library renovation.

The University System of Maryland at Hagerstown budget also was left intact.

"Given the environment, I think it was a very good session," Donoghue said. "Washington County was dealt with very fairly, I think."



'Urban vs. rural'

Edwards said this was more of an "urban vs. rural" year than usual, citing the attempted septic-system ban and a movement by lawmakers from the metropolitan areas to rename mountains in Western Maryland.

But on those issues and others, such as an attempt to halt natural gas-drilling in Western Maryland's Marcellus Shale formation while it's studied for two years, rural legislators fought back and won, he said.

The same divide surfaced in the plan to raise the sales tax on alcohol from 6 to 9 percent. Opponents from Western and Southern Maryland objected to the revenue distribution, which favored larger counties.

Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, said on the House floor that the higher sales tax would hurt border districts, such as his, where people easily can shift their purchases to Virginia and West Virginia.

Shank said not much happened this year to make small businesses feel better about their tax burden in Maryland.

Although most of the major issues were split along party lines, Donoghue broke ranks on some of them, opposing same-sex marriage, the alcohol tax increase, the gas-drilling study and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, has taken the first steps toward a petition drive on the in-state tuition measure, hoping to  overturn the legislature's decision through a statewide referendum.

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Coming next Sunday: A look at how Washington County's state delegates and senators fared in the 2011 General Assembly session.

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