We have gotten through the first 30 of 90 days in Annapolis legislative session. MACo reviewed three dozen bills which prompted wide-ranging discussion. The tax committee had our usual assortment of subtraction modification bills that MACo again sent letters to advocate issuing State tax credits instead.
There was a bill, HB565 – “Income Tax – Business and Economic Development Tax Credit Termination,” which is similar to HB223, “End Ineffective Business Subsidies Act,” that I previously wrote about and MACo opposed. Our economic development departments need these tools to attract and retain businesses that help create and add jobs to our economy. It seems the purpose behind some of these bills is to see how much money the State can claw back from the counties to pay for the Kirwan education bill. On the opposite end of the spectrum is HB492/SB493 – “Small Business Development Center Fund,” which MACo supports. This bill would increase the minimum appropriation from $950K to $1.5 million. This helps fund our local offices that work directly with our small businesses which are just getting started, helping them create business plans to become successful business in our communities.
From the education committee, HB665 – “Public School Construction and State Buildings – Use of Geothermal Energy,” was considered. This would prohibit the construction of a new public school unless it had geothermal installed. It would also require a State building to install a geothermal energy system. While there is an interest in more environmentally friendly buildings, this is not a technology that can be utilized everywhere. It might work well for the soils on the Eastern Shore, but would not be cost effective to drill down through rock in Allegany County. It also doesn’t make sense to rip out existing systems and do systemic upgrades. It would be problematic in a building that has a chiller. The decision to use geothermal should be made on a case-by-case basis, by the engineers and architects and by considering what actually makes the most sense and will be efficient.
A bill we did support, SB495 – “Bay Restoration Funds – Municipal Wastewater Facilities (Eckardt), would especially benefit the more rural counties. This would expand the authorized uses of the BRF to include costs associated with connecting a property to an existing municipal wastewater facility with enhanced nutrient removal. Here in Talbot, we have been particularly focused on getting people off of septic and onto a sewer line. If we can expand the use of funds to help offset some of the capital costs, we can really make progress on removing more nitrogen and phosphorous from reaching the Bay waters.
HB586 – “Public Safety – Criminal History Check – Fire Departments and Ambulance Services” would prohibit our public safety departments from conducting a criminal history check or requiring an applicant to disclose those records before an initial interview. This is an add-on to the “Ban the Box” bill that passed last year. The question asks whether the job applicant has a criminal history and is now prohibited on employment applications. We can debate if this is a good idea or not, however, when it comes to our emergency and public safety positions, it is vitally important that the employer know this information. These employees are our front-line defense, often going into individuals’ homes. It would also require these departments to establish a peer review committee and they would have some input in the hiring process. Our department heads should not have to abdicate any of their authority to decide who is the best candidate to employ.
SB388 – “Circuit Court Employees – Collective Bargaining” would establish collective bargaining rights to employees of the circuit and district courts. These are state-mandated positions that the counties have to fund completely. The local jurisdictions ought to be able to control the wages of our local employees without a State labor relations board also mandating how much a county must pay. This is another example of the State mandating the position and the pay, when the county taxpayers are footing the bill, hence MACo opposes this bill. We do like HB498 which would appropriate $1 million in the State budget to be used to make grants to area agencies to expand aging in place programs for seniors. It is so much more cost-effective than having our senior citizens have to go to nursing homes and have a much better quality of life if they can stay in their own familiar homes.
All that and the Kirwan bill had not been officially introduced as of this writing. By the time you read this, Education bill SB1000/HB1300 most likely will have been made available for all to read. (http://mgaleg.maryland.gov ) I’m sure by next week, this entire column will cover what is in the bill. Word is that it will follow pretty true to the actual recommendations that were made by the Kirwan commission and also maintain the funding formulas and the split between the State and the Counties.
My fear is that it still may not identify any actual funding source for how to pay for it. That would be almost exactly like “Thornton” from almost 20 years ago. Big policy ideas for improving education, but no specific way to pay for it. In reality, at least for the county share, it will require large tax increases, because we can’t possibly cut enough in current spending to be able to afford it.
The final report from November left some questions unanswered. Such as, what is the County timetable phase in? What will count toward the mandate (school nurses from health department, school resource offices in our law enforcement, for example)? Will there be any triggers to not increase for a time period, if there is a downturn in the economy? And will there be any changes to wealth formulas? For example, in Caroline county, One penny only raises about $250k, to fully fund Kirwan, they may have to come up with $10m, which would be an increase of 40 cents on their property tax rate. That is unaffordable for the citizens and there are many, if not most counties in similar situations.
Once again, stay tuned and stay informed.
Laura Price is 2nd Vice President on the Executive Board of Directors of MACo, Chair of Budget and Tax, Talbot’s legislative liaison and member of the Talbot County Council.