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Most Washington Co. bills appear poised for passage

March 31, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS — Seasoned legislators in Annapolis know a lot can happen in the last week of a session in the Maryland General Assembly.

Money can show up for capital projects after fierce lobbying. Bills with momentum can stall as other issues take precedence.

For the 2013 session of the Maryland General Assembly, most of the bills sponsored by the Washington County delegation appear to be on their way to final passage.

But several key issues that could bring state money to the county in the form of grants or money related to capital projects likely will be hammered out this week and early next week before the session ends April 8.

Disparity grant
Del. John P. Donoghue said earlier this week he is holding out hope for getting $100,000 related to planning for downtown revitalization through the state’s supplemental budget.

The supplemental budget might also be the avenue through which the House allocates $1.55 million to the county as its share of a wealth-based grant called the disparity grant, said Donoghue, D-Washington.

Although a Senate committee approved $1.55 million as the county’s share of the disparity grant for fiscal year 2014, the issue has not made much progress in the House.

When House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, was asked about the disparity grant money for Washington County showing up in the supplemental budget, he said, “the only way we (would) consider it is because John Donoghue has been, you know, supportive of the budget ... the only way the House supports it is because of John Donoghue.”

“Voting against the budget and stating that the state spends too much money and then asking for a grant for back home … just doesn’t add up,” he said in a reference to Washington County legislators who have voted against the budget.

Busch also said the county hasn’t maxed out its local piggyback income tax and has a relatively low property tax.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, and the chairman of the Washington County delegation, questioned the correlation between voting for the budget and getting disparity grant money.

“Over the last 15 months I have met with various members of the House of Delegates leadership. They have never said that the Disparity Grant was tied to a vote for the budget and in fact when I brought it up they vehemently stated it was inconsequential,” Serafini wrote in an email.

Serafini has voted against the operating budget during the current session of the General Assembly. So did Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, and Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington.

Bond bill issues
Donoghue said last week he was still trying to secure funding for improvements along the Eastern Boulevard corridor, including the construction of a bridge over Antietam Creek to extend Professional Court.

“It is still up in the air,” Donoghue said.

The capital budget passed by the House has set aside $85,000 for the restoration and renovation of Antietam Fire Co.’s new fire station on Potomac Avenue after a request made by Donoghue.

Another bond bill request for $300,000 by Donoghue to demolish the former Municipal Electric Light Plant in Hagerstown did not show up in the capital budget, although Donoghue said the House was looking at different options to fund the bill.

Serafini said the session had gone well for the Washington County delegation bills.

“Any of the items that were brought to us by people ahead of time have passed both houses. So, we’ve got to get them across and get through the process,” Serafini said. “My fear now for the last days is can we get these bills to be heard in the other chamber, voted on and then taken care of. We are all scrambling.”

Other local bills
Delegation bills that have made progress this year and appear likely to get final approval include one that would authorize the county to borrow $60 million to fund the county’s Capital Improvement Project through fiscal year 2018, another that would let the county enter into agreements with technology-related companies for payments in lieu of personal property taxes to attract and retain these companies, and a measure that would let municipal law enforcement officers in the county be classified as special sheriff’s deputies in some situations so that they could be more effective.

A delegation-sponsored bill to move the fall sports season practice date for high schools by up to two weeks so that athletes could be better prepared did not make progress in the House.

Two other  bills — one reducing campaigning boundaries at polling places to 50 feet from the entry and exit and another giving more authority to the county’s Building Code Board of Appeals — were withdrawn after opposition from local authorities.

Cross-filing bills — introducing similar bills in both legislative chambers — has been one way of ensuring smooth passage of delegation bills, said Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Perfectly good bills can stall for lack of time, Shank said, and cross-filing is akin to an “insurance policy.”

Another measure sponsored by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration that has cleared the House and is now winding its way through the Senate deals with making the distribution of state education aid more equitable by using a more accurate method to calculate the net taxable income of a jurisdiction. If the bill passes, the Washington County Board of Education might get an additional $11.2 million in state aid over the next five fiscal years.

Session’s disappointments
Parrott, Shank and Hough said they were disappointed with proposals from the O’Malley administration such as an increase in the gas tax, the repeal of the death penalty and stricter gun laws.

“This has been a very contentious session,” Parrott said.

“In my view, it has been one of the worst legislative sessions in the history of Maryland,” Hough said.

They contend that an increase in the gas tax would hurt those in Western Maryland disproportionately because those residents rely more on driving than on mass transit.

“What I am seeing more and more, the trend is that there are cultural and political fissures in the state where, you know, the red counties versus the blue counties, there is a marked difference between the political attitudes in these counties …” Shank said. “We just continue to feel, the constituency I represent, out of tune, out of sync, with what the majority population in the more blue-leaning areas are pushing.”

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