It is that time of year again, when the legislature in Annapolis is back in session. This means that it is also time for counties to keep a watchful eye on legislation that is introduced and the effect it may have on our citizens. I am your Talbot County liaison to MACo, the Maryland Association of Counties and the second Vice President of the association. I am serving my sixth year as representative on both the committee and the Board of Directors. I have also been selected for the second time to chair the Budget and Tax Sub-committee.
The goal of Legislative Committee is to guide positions on bills and to advise each county’s representatives on relevant issues. MACo’s staff provides insight into the effects of legislation on the counties. We, the elected officials serving as members set the positions to be advocated for in Annapolis, with each county receiving one vote. This is critically important because the smaller, more rural jurisdictions have the same equal voice as one of the larger counties.
We watch for unfunded mandates and advocate to retain our local autonomy and decision-making authority. When we gather each Wednesday, we leave our partisan hats at the door. We recognize that we have the same issues, no matter big or small, rural or urban, Republican or Democrat. The members in the room understand and agree on what is beneficial or potentially harmful when evaluating pieces of legislation and taking a position.
The tax subcommittee approved two broad statements that will be submitted on many pieces of legislation, in lieu of needing to testify on each one. The first, which is identical to our 2019 statement is “Tax Incentives and Local Government Autonomy.” There will be bills introduced that seek to do a subtraction modification. Since the state would like to give a tax incentive, there is a way to accomplish this without harming the county. By applying a state tax credit instead, the state can give the incentive without it reducing our county income tax revenue. This is similar to how property tax credits work and MACo members feel that State tax credits ought to work the same way.
The second statement is new this year. “Equity with New Revenue Sources” is designed to advocate sharing any additional monies the State is looking to raise to support new education funding. As most may know, there will be legislation introduced this year, based on the Kirwan education workgroup. I have written previously on this topic and more information will be coming when the legislation is introduced. With a price tag of $6 billion annually by 2030 and the counties funding half of all education, we believe that any new revenue source should be shared with the locals to help pay the cost.
We used each of these statements on several of our tax bills this week and will continue to submit them going forward. This also pairs with the first of our four MACo initiatives, “School Funding – Funding Fairness, County Role.”
MACo has three additional initiatives for 2020. “Strong Progress for School Construction” urges State policymakers to retain the State’s commitment to this top funding priority. County governments share responsibility and fund over half of this cost and we need the State to keep up with their share, especially in light of modern cost factors for new environmental and energy standards and a heightened need for security.
“Next Steps in the Drug and Mental Health Crises” is our third initiative as substance use disorders and mental illness remain two of our most pressing health issues. Our local health departments are often the first line of defense, but they have had to do more with less, since there were significant cuts made by the State. MACo is advocating for State partnership in support of innovative and gap-filling measures to improve accessibility and resources.
Finally, “Repeal Implied Preemption Court Doctrine.” Maryland courts have assumed that counties are preempted from making some of their own local laws, even if the State law does not explicitly say so. This will be MACo’s only stand-alone piece of legislation this year, which will state “Legislation should clarify, prospectively, that preemption should not take place in the courts, but in the open and accessible law-making process, where all stakeholders may be heard on the merits of their arguments.”
During week one, there were a few major bills reviewed and several smaller ones, but all are important to consider and sometimes that smaller bill might have a very large unintended consequence. We considered 18 bills and took positions on all but four. We considered bills on a digital advertising tax and sports gaming and used our approved broad tax statements for those. We supported with amendments HB1, Built to Learn Act, as it pairs well with our MACo initiative. We also supported bills on agricultural alcohol definitions similar to wineries and breweries, advancing Next Generation 9-1-1 (HB44/SB47), and Cyber Security (SB5).
Looking forward, there will be no larger piece of legislation than the “Kirwan” education bill but at this point we are still waiting on it to be drafted. It seems there will be changes to the actual Kirwan committee recommendations, but we don’t know at this time what they will be. I will write in more detail about that and all the other pieces of legislation we will consider as they get introduced. But for this week, I wanted to give an overview of the process, and how important the county viewpoint can and must be, in influencing policy in Annapolis.
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.