Last week I discussed the role of MACo (Maryland Association of Counties) and reviewed our three legislative initiatives. I also serve on that subcommittee which decides what our priorities are each year and all three have been drafted into legislation. They appear to be moving forward, with sponsors having signed on to introduce and support our bills.
MACo’s legislative committee has reviewed 38 bills in our first two weeks. We cover all policy areas including budget, taxes, finance, land use, education, election law, business affairs, employee benefits, government liability, health services, public safety and transportation. We will review and discuss hundreds more before the 90-day session in Annapolis is complete.
The first I would like to talk about are six bills that are called Subtraction Modifications. Don’t let your eyes glaze over, I can explain this simply. Sub-mods are the same as the deductions you take on your actual income tax returns, which reduces the amount of money you pay taxes on.
I believe in lower taxes so you might wonder why I would think that a tax deduction would be detrimental to the county. The problem is that the state is mandating a reduction to our revenues when they have another way to accomplish the same thing by giving a state tax credit instead.
What is the difference? The sub-mod or deduction reduces your overall income, which reduces the taxes paid to both the state and the county. The tax credit reduces the actual tax owed to the state. So, if the state offers a tax credit instead, it can have the same effect to the taxpayer, without it reducing one of the county’s only two revenue sources.
Why does this have an especially detrimental effect on Talbot County? We have a property tax revenue cap, so income tax is very significant for us. We have been able to keep the rate on income tax the second lowest in the state. That keeps more people living here, which gives stability to our base. The income tax revenues are what pay for most of the county side of our budget, most importantly public safety. Property taxes mostly go toward education and as I explained last week, the maintenance of effort law from 2012 allows for unlimited increases in education spending through an education supplement, our tax cap notwithstanding.
As chair of the budget and tax subcommittee, I was able to propose and explain to the full committee, that we use an actual calculated example of how it could be accomplished, so that the lawmakers see there is another option that won’t be harmful to the counties. This suggestion has been included in the testimony that MACo gives to the legislature.
HB286 is on Election Law, Registration and Voting at Precinct Polling Places. The legislature already passed a law that allows voters to same-day register on site during early voting. This year, the bill introduced would expand that to same-day registration on Election Day, based on the constitutional amendment the voters approved in November. But the problem here for the counties is the expense of having to pay extra poll workers at every polling precinct. The election officials think it will be hundreds of thousands of dollars per county per election. What’s even worse about this bill, is that the state hasn’t even been able to figure out what the “fiscal note” is yet.
The election board is already different than almost any department we pay for. They are all state employees that the county must pay for. They present a budget to us, but the county council really has no ability to limit their expenses. And we definitely cannot limit their salary -the state sets their pay. The state pays for nothing, other than splitting the cost of the voting machines 50/50 (MACo advocated for the split in 2001 when the systems were switched, so we do have successful amendments).
When discussing whether to support the bill or not, we have suggested an amendment that the state pay for the increased staff. I stated to the committee that it seems unlikely they will approve it, since they don’t share any operational expenses. Whether that amendment takes root isn’t clear, and the bill might well pass “as is” – which would be very costly to the counties. This is unfortunately a recurring theme, that the state passes a mandate that has no fiscal impact to them and is entirely the responsibility of the county, yet they are the one making the decision.
One of the transportation bills we reviewed was HB102, Toll Roads, Highways and Bridges – County Government Consent Requirement. As written, “expanding to all counties in the State, a prohibition on State agencies constructing with the nine Eastern Shore counties a toll road, toll highway or toll bridge without the consent of a majority of the affected counties.”
We believe this was written about I-270, but as it specifically mentions the Eastern Shore, alarm bells went off immediately. How would that affect the future decision regarding a third span of the Bay Bridge? Currently, anyplace the bridge would “land,” that county would have “veto” power. The language references the majority of “affected” counties. Define affected! MACo has seen a letter of advice from the Attorney General’s office, but not a formal opinion that the “affected county” is the “receiving county.” But there are still concerns that any county could claim they are affected with regards to reaching the beach. This is a poorly written bill and there was much discussion whether to oppose, support, or take no position. MACo is taking no position; however, it will include a statement to leave the language regarding the nine Eastern Shore counties out of the bill. Let’s hope we are successful in our argument.
There are so many more bills I would like to discuss in detail, but I hope that gives you a sense of what we are facing so far. Again, I would urge you to follow what is happening around the county and around the state. The Conduit Street blog by MACo is an excellent resource for more information.
Laura Price is a member of the Talbot County Council.