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Lawmakers will carry ideas, expectations to Annapolis

January 07, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • Washington County's state lawmakers
Washington County's state lawmakers

Money and marriage are on the minds of Washington County’s state lawmakers heading to Annapolis.

So are foreclosed properties, virtual schools, petition privacy, parole and probation violators, and Washington County’s proposed senior center.

With the 2012 Maryland General Assembly session set to begin Wednesday, a majority of Washington County’s delegation anticipates state budget negotiations and a battle over legalizing same-sex marriage taking up much of the legislature’s time and attention.

Maryland again is facing a $1 billion structural deficit. Republicans are expecting Democrats to propose a mix of taxes to help fill the gap.

A possible increase in the state’s gasoline tax of 23.5 cents per gallon is expected to come up, along with a higher “flush” tax on sewer and septic systems.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said the gas-tax increase would particularly damage Western Maryland, where people depend a great deal on driving to get to work.

Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, said the state needs to address a backlog of transportation projects, but a gas-tax increase might not be wise this year.

“I don’t feel right about it with the economy the way it is,” he said.

Although a gas-tax increase might not be popular, it might be the only way to get funding for important projects that can’t wait several years, said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

The General Assembly is expected to revive last year’s debate over same-sex marriage, this time with Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, pledging to lobby for legalization. The Senate approved a bill last year, but the measure died in the House.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, said he’s gearing up for another fight against the same-sex marriage bill, which must go through his committee.

Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, who serves on the same committee and also opposes legalization, said O’Malley might be pushing same-sex marriage to bolster his resume for a run for higher office, in light of the boost Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo received last year when the measure passed in his state.

A simmering issue in recent months is PlanMaryland, the state’s effort at managing growth.

Counties in Western Maryland and other rural areas are concerned that the state is trying to usurp local decision-making authority. Washington County is among a group of counties that banded together to hire two lobbyists to protect their interests.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said PlanMaryland is “a bridge too far” and should go through the legislature for a review.

But Young, a former deputy secretary of planning in Maryland, said opponents have ginned up a controversy where none exists, mostly as political strategy. PlanMaryland is based on smart growth principles in place for many years, he said.

Still, Young said the state brought grief upon itself in its handling of PlanMaryland.

“It was just a real (public relations) debacle,” he said.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, is worried the state is reaching a hazardous level of debt in hopes of stimulating the economy.

He also anticipates a budget battle this year over education money, including the “maintenance of effort” requirement that counties provide schools with at least as much funding as the previous year.

There are significant penalties for violating the requirement, but the state has granted waivers, lowering the counties’ year-to-year baseline, he said.

Counties also will watch for — and resist — efforts to make local governments share in teachers’ pension costs, a shift favored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert/Prince George’s.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, noted that a surprise issue usually pops up at some point in the session.

Usually, at a basic level, it’s a fight over money.

“The budget dictates a lot of other stuff,” he said.

This year, the legislature also will review new legislative boundaries proposed by an appointed Democratically controlled panel.

Every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, states update their congressional and legislative districts. Maryland’s congressional plan already has been approved and withstood an initial court challenge.

The proposal for state Senate and House districts will be presented to the General Assembly, which can pass a different plan within 45 days. Otherwise, the original plan will go into effect.

Hough has strongly criticized the legislative redistricting plan, alleging that Republicans were unfairly packed together and Democratic districts underpopulated so there would be more of them. Also, blacks were not given full representation, he argued.

Hough said he and the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee are working on a new legislative map with one delegate per district (eliminating multimember districts), although he admitted the counterproposal almost certainly will be rejected.


Individual bills

While keeping an eye on the big pictures, Washington County’s lawmakers also will pursue their own issues and causes by submitting bills.

One of Hough’s bills would grant credits to nonviolent offenders on parole and probation who pay restitution, letting them be removed from direct supervision and saving the state money.

He also wants mediation as an option for some minor criminal cases and will propose tightening Maryland bail requirements after learning that Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach accused of numerous counts of child molestation, was released on unsecured bond in Pennsylvania.

Among Washington County’s representatives, Young has perhaps the largest agenda, planning to sponsor about 30 bills.

He’ll try to have certain agricultural property exempt from estate taxes and create a tax credit for wine production.

He is proposing tax exemptions for AmeriCorps scholarships and a phased-in elimination of taxes on certain levels of retirement income.

He’ll file bills to keep people from having to reveal social media passwords to employers or higher-education institutions.

He wants to keep group homes at least a quarter-mile apart, force financial institutions to maintain foreclosed properties, let governments post legal notices on websites instead of paying for newspaper ads, let restaurants expand their capacity four times a year by removing tables and force the state to give preference to American-made products for its purchases.

Other bills will address slot machines for fraternal and veterans’ groups, cemetery plots and balcony inspections.

Shank will try again to pass Justice’s Law, to increase the maximum penalty for first-degree child abuse resulting in death, and will push to allow protective orders when the parties aren’t married or living together and don’t have children together.

Shank plans to file bills to conquer project-delaying inaction by the State Highway Administration and encourage “virtual schools,” which have different learning models and use more technology.

Serafini will propose another possible reform of the state’s pension system and, with Shank, changes to the taxation system. He also has ideas for simplifying regulations and fixing a problem in the power-of-attorney system.

Myers expects to file a few bills dealing with the construction trade. Another will address a dispute about whether students in Allegany County can attend Hancock Middle-Senior High School.

Donoghue said it’s time, through legislation, to revisit problems that surfaced several years ago in the state trauma-care network.

He also expects to submit an $800,000 bond-bill request to help fund a proposed Washington County senior citizen center and will try to change the definition of a “distressed county,” giving Washington County a chance at certain tax credits.

As of late last week, Edwards said he still was listening to constituents and wasn’t ready to decide on his bills, although he keeps a running file of possibilities and still has several weeks to file anything.

Parrott has pre-filed a bill to make signatures on petitions private, similar to votes. He said he also will concentrate on trying to defeat bad bills.

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