What an overwhelming amount of bills MACo’s dedicated policy staff reviewed this past week. The race continues with the Senate having introduced 743 bills and the House 866 bills to date and the avalanche will continue for at least a few more weeks! The staff reviewed hundreds before they managed to get it narrowed down for our Legislative Committee. Out of those, we considered 40 bills just this week that would have a meaningful effect on counties. Our work is still being done virtually, but the participation among the committee members is robust and discussions have been thought-provoking. Hearing a different perspective from each county helps us come to a unified consensus that we can all agree with.
Every year there are always dozens of bills that would reduce certain taxes through a process called subtraction modifications. “Sub-mod” bills lower or eliminate taxes for specific groups of people, like Retirees, Military, Veterans and Disabled, Union Members, EMS workers and many other specific types of people. This issue is not about whether you favor or oppose tax reductions for these individuals, but the problem is the method with which these are proposed by the State.
Counties only have two main revenue sources, income tax and property tax. Local governments must pay for mandated education expenses, public safety, emergency services, county road maintenance and so much more. There is very little flexibility in our budgets and if these revenues are severely reduced, we will not be able to cover these costs and provide much needed services here at home.
These “sub-mod” bills mandate that the taxes are reduced at the State and County level. The testimony given from MACo states, “MACo stands for local self-determination. Counties, led by locally elected leaders directly accountable within the communities they serve, are best positioned to govern local affairs – ranging from land use to fiscal matters. MACo steadfastly guards this local autonomy and consistently advocates against one-size-fits-all policies that override local decision-making. MACo urges the Committee to primarily consider state income tax credits as the best means to incorporate local tax relief as part of a broader policy.” Approaching it this way would leave critical revenues in place for the county governments to serve our citizens.
There are always bills introduced each year that would make school construction much more costly, even if the idea behind them is well intended like HB365 “Fossil Fuel Based Energy System Costs – Prohibition – Green School Construction Act.” The cost of a new or replacement system may NOT be considered a capital improvement cost and may NOT be paid by the State and eliminates ANY State funding contribution if a County builds a school that uses coal, natural gas or petroleum for its heating system. This is a challenging question and many are looking for alternative energy sources to be more environmentally sensitive. Here again, if the State is going to make a decision that adds to the County costs, then they should pay a larger share of it. MACo will suggest an amendment that says just that. Additionally, there needs to be a waiver requirement if, for example, solar or geo-thermal is not an option based on the geographic location of the building. Unfunded mandates and “one size fits all” are always going to be issues that counties need to guard against.
Along the same lines, SB259 “Procurement – Prevailing Wage” would expand the prevailing wage law beyond building construction to include ALL mechanical systems, HVAC, refrigeration, plumbing and electrical. Under current law, the County must pay the State’s prevailing wage on any capital project (primarily school construction), where the State contributes just 25% of the cost. This has been problematic because it does not adjust for regional cost of living differences where actual costs could be far less. An example is the recent $50 million Easton Elementary school project. If Talbot had been able to use a normal wage, more appropriate to a rural Eastern Shore County, where the cost of living is far less (and not based on a higher Montgomery or Prince Georges County wage rate), the project could have been about 20% less. This new legislation will pile on to that law and make project costs even higher by a significant margin. Every county would be obligated to pay these higher costs, regardless of market realities. The bill, once again, usurps local authority and prescribes a one size fits all (read, one size fits none) approach over facilities management.
There are a couple of disease presumption bills that have been introduced. HB439 / SB374 “Workers Compensation Occupational Disease Presumption for 9-1-1 Specialists” makes the assumption that if a worker is diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) that they are presumed to have an occupational disease that was suffered during the course of employment. SB10 “COVID-19 Occupational Disease Presumption” says that public safety employees and health care workers are assumed to have an occupational disease that is compensable under workers compensation and applies retroactively.
To attribute a certain type of disease simply to where one works shouldn’t be an automatic assumption. There are other aspects to one’s lifestyle that could account for these health issues and a reasonable method of determining the cause should be recognized and documented. Employers need to be accountable, and are responsible for true workplace injuries. This is the reason they pay into a workers compensation fund for each employee.
On a more positive note, MACo wholeheartedly supports SB448 “Regional Resource Centers and Library funding.” All Maryland counties are highly supportive and are already funding many times over the mandated levels. This bill proposes to increase the State share so that there is additional funding of up to $20 per resident per year. This will be a nice addition. Libraries have become so much more than books and are essential resources in every community. Computers are just one example and key to so many people that don’t have that critical access at home.
You may have a noticed a theme throughout this article, a “one-size” approach by the State. The reason you elect local officials is because we know our own backyards, we are closer to our citizens and we understand our local economies. The State has a very important role but so do the Counties. Let us do the job we were elected to do and retain our autonomy. As I look again at the nearly 100 bills and the broad range of topics the Legislative Committee has advocated for so far, the impact it would have to the counties and our citizens is enormous.
Laura Price is President of the Executive Board of Directors of Maryland Association of Counties, former chair and current member of Budget and Tax, member of MACo’s Initiative subcommittee, Talbot’s legislative liaison and member of the Talbot County Council.