Report from Annapolis – Part 6 by Laura Price

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It’s “crossover” time in Annapolis.  So, what does that mean?  It means that the legislature is done with introduction of bills and now those that have had favorable committee reports in either the House or the Senate, can crossover to the other chamber.  There were some bills, that were “cross-filed” at the time of introduction, but most are just filed on one side to begin.  Overall, there were almost 2500 bills introduced and about 926 have crossed over.  The MACo policy team analyzed over 900 of the total bills that were introduced and brought about 150 before the legislative committee that have met each Wednesday.

We have had some wins and some disappointments on the bills I have written about so far.  First the wins.  The biggest is the “Next Generation 911 Implementation” bill. (HB397/SB339)   This was MACo’s biggest initiative bill.  As I wrote in week 1, our system is built on 1970s technology and because 80% of all 9-1-1 calls are now coming from cell phones, we need to be able to accurately pinpoint their location and also be able to respond via a text message.  It will cost approximately an additional 50 cents per phone line, not per plan, but it is well worth it and is vitally important in emergency situations.

The small cell bills, “Wireless Facility Siting” (HB654/SB937 – the industry bill and HB1020/SB713 – the community input bill…the one we like), puts the counties at odds with the industry.  The industry bill would allow refrigerator-sized boxes to be mounted anywhere, on any pole or building, without having to comply with any of our local zoning laws.  It would not require the industry to help our rural, underserved areas.  These bills have been referred to an interim study.  The committee could look at them during that time, but they don’t have to.  This issue may have been put to bed without the industry getting what they wanted, which the local governments consider a success.

A bill we were quite concerned about and opposed was HB264, “Homestead Property Tax Credit.”  This would have transferred the existing tax credit to any new first-time homebuyer in Maryland, which totally undermined the purpose of the existing law and would have a devastating effect on county revenues.  This bill did not move and is considered dead.

Two of the three election bills I discussed have had favorable results.  SB363 “Voting Systems for Voters with Disabilities”, would have mandated every voting machine be equipped with a special ballot device at a cost of $4000 per machine.  SB411 “Polling Places at Continuing Care Communities” would have required each local board to establish a polling place at any continuing care community of 200 or more on the premises.  Both of these would have been very costly to the counties, we opposed them and fortunately, they are dead.  The third bill HB286 “Same Day Registration and Voting at Polling Places” requires every polling place to have additional poll workers at every precinct to handle the same day registration.  The fiscal note is $2.1 million collectively for the counties.  MACo’s amendment was for the state to split this cost with counties, since it is their mandate. The amendment was rejected and the financial burden will fall completely on the counties.  The bill is still moving forward at this time and because of the voter referendum will pass.

We supported several bills on Public health, Mental health and substance abuse that are not moving.  First up is SB645/HB1082, this was another MACo initiative to “Reprioritize Public Health.”  Thanks to the recession, the counties have incurred dramatic funding reductions that jeopardize being able to provide critical services – especially with the opioid epidemic.  The State needs to restore this funding and help us provide this treatment.  We are disappointed that this bill has had no movement.

HB306/SB402 “Mental Health Inmates in Correctional Facilities.”  This would require the state to reimburse our local detention center if the inmate has been identified that they should be in a state mental health facility. This bill is not going to move, but there is likely to be an interim study, so there’s always next year.

SB506 “Mental Health Substance Use Disorder Study”, would require the Maryland Department of Health to conduct a study to determine existing capacity and estimated unmet needs for services by region.  This bill is not moving and is also considered dead.

HB102, “Transportation – Toll Roads County Consent Required” as written said “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.”  The Eastern Shore was very concerned that it would apply to a “new” Bay Bridge crossing and that it would remove “veto” power from an Eastern Shore county that didn’t want it.  MACo didn’t take an official position but submitted a letter to leave the Shore out.  This bill is dead.  Very good news for us!

Of the previously discussed bills, the last one is HB92, “Conowingo Dam/Water Quality Certification would have required Excelon to do more to remove the trash and debris as part of getting approval from the MD Dept of the Environment for their relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulation Commission.  Maryland has identified and worked extremely hard to clean up the bay and spent millions of dollars, mostly focused on the sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous removal.  We now know that we need our upstream neighboring states to help.  The debris is also a part of the problem and even with a strong Bi-partisan sponsor line, this bill did not get out of committee.

Of the 150 bills, the legislative committee reviewed, there are only 14 left that MACo is closely following until the end of session.  One is HB109 “Property Tax – Collection of Unpaid Taxes and Tax Sales.  This is another mandate on county government that would place restrictions on when a property can be sent to tax sale.  The local effect is that our revenues would decrease, potentially significantly, as a result of the bill’s limitations on the use of tax sales to enforce liens.  Tax sale is a necessary and important tool used by counties to enforce these payments – it is worth noting that about 99% of properties sent to tax sale NEVER CHANGE HANDS.  The homeowners usually pay the overdue accounts once the property gets to this point.  Removing this tool would be a costly mistake. This passed out of the House committee, but is unlikely to pass in the Senate, MACo is strongly opposing and we have some good allies to help defeat it.

Another of the “final 14” is HB532/SB744 “Blueprint for Solar Energy” establishes a commission to evaluate proposed solar energy projects and submit a report by January 1, 2020.  Solar photovoltaic systems are land intensive (several acres per megawatt).  The demand has grown and has the potential for conflict over the appropriate use of the State’s finite amount of land.  MACo supports this creation of this commission, but is advocating for more balanced representation in our amendment.  As drafted, there is only 1 MACo representative and 4 members from the industry.

The rest are a mixture of Support, Support with Amendment and Oppose.  They are all still in the policy areas of Taxes (HB884/SB533 Residential Lodging Sales Tax), Environment (failing septic and forest tree canopy bills), school construction (HB727/SB731 – Build to Learn Act), and Public Safety (HB116/SB846 – Correctional Facilities Opioid Use Treatment) and Health Services funding (HB1082/SB645).  If you want to follow along, the MACo website, www.mdcounties.org is a great resource.  There is also a blog that is updated daily and I will be following right along until Annapolis is done for this year’s session and report back right here.

Laura Price is on the Executive Board of Directors of MACo, the legislative liaison and member of the Talbot County Council.

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