So. Md. officials tout successful session
Ninety days and 834 approved bills later, Maryland has a new $42 billion budget passed as the General Assembly finished its session Monday at midnight.
For the second year in a row, the new state budget does not bring with it any new taxes. But it doesn’t include tax relief either, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) sought.
“Once again, disciplined
spending is the order of the day, with a $400 million surplus balance that will result in no new taxes,” Sen. Steve Waugh (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) said this week. “In addition, we delivered on improved education [funding] and more job creation in Southern Maryland.”
The state’s rainy day fund is heading toward $1 billion now instead of the state scrambling to fill a structural deficit, Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mar y’s) said. “The grown-ups are back in charge,” he said.
“The budget is balanced without depending on tax increases, and this is made possible by the 45,000 more people [in Maryland] working this year than one year ago,” Morgan said.
“A very successful legislative year,” said Del. Tony O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s). “Biggest was supporting Gov. Hogan in his budget priorities and getting our state budget under control. This is the second year in a row this governor has submitted balanced budgets without raising taxes.”
Members of the General Assembly representing Charles County said this week that they felt the 2016 session saw some positive outcomes for Charles County and the state as a whole.
Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said he and the senate “successfully” fought for the needs of Charles County and Southern Maryland.
Priorities for the county and the delegation were securing funding for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge and a collective bargaining agreement with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Fraternal Order of Police.
Middleton said the delegation managed to gain a lot of support in both the house and the senate in securing a replacement bridge.
Hogan and his administration would not give a commitment to keeping the replacement of the bridge as their number one priority for transportation, Middleton said.
But because of HB 672, the Maryland Transportation Authority must continue to deposit $75 million into the fund for the bridge’s replacement starting in 2018. The bill states the project must also commence by Dec. 31, 2030.
“There are enough folks to override a veto if the governor chooses to veto it,” Middleton said. “But we would much rather, as a delegation, sit down with the administration and develop a memorandum of understanding rather than a legislative mandate.”
Sgt. John Elliot, president of the Charles County Fraternal Order of Police, said the sheriff’s office and the FOP are satisfied with how the session went. Elliot negotiated with the sheriff’s office and the Charles County Board of Commissioners on the salary schedule of the sheriff’s office.
House bill 505 requires Charles County to collectively bargain with the sheriff’s office beginning Sept. 1 of each year and their pay schedule must match that of the Maryland State Police.
Elliot said he was satisfied with the negotiations and how well everyone worked together. One thing the FOP wanted to have, he said, was binding arbitration for negotiations but that was a concession the sheriff’s office had to give to get the deal done.
“We still came out with a very good bill. We’re still tied with the Maryland State Police pay scale,” Elliot said. “We have full collective bargaining rights.”
County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said he did not sit at the negotiation table with the county and the sheriff’s office and has not officially seen the bill yet, but said all sides were able to come up with something they were satisfied with.
“This shows the commitment that we all have to forging a positive relationship,” Robinson said. “It shows that we all believe in collective bargaining.”
One thing Robinson and Middleton were both unhappy with was both the house and senate voting down legislation providing a video lottery gaming facility along the Potomac River in Colonial Beach, Va.
The purpose of the facility was to find extra funding for the Nice Bridge’s redevelopment, but many had an issue, Middleton said, with the facility being in Colonial Beach and, despite 93 percent of the revenue coming from places other than Maryland, many were worried that Maryland would spend too much money on the facility and would not see a positive revenue stream coming back.
“We were looking for ways we could find money for the funding for this bridge. This would allow an expansion of gaming at Colonial Beach. We put some amendments on it that we thought would make it more plausible, but the committees did not vote it out,” Middleton said.
Robinson said considering the amount of gaming expansion throughout Maryland, he is not surprised the bill did not pass. However, he said, he appreciates the delegation for coming up with a creative solution for funding.
The money from the gaming itself would have benefited the state, Robinson said, and should the bill come back he would support it. But still, he said, he does not know if the bill would gain enough traction to pass.
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said he feels like there were some stones left unturned with some of the legislation passed.
He is satisfied with the passing of Justice’s Law where those who are found guilty in causing the death of a child due to abuse could face tougher penalties.
However, Wilson said, while that bill passed, there were other bills dealing with security and safety that were not, such as House Bill 1215, which would have given adults who were sexually assaulted as children an additional 20 years to file a civil suit against their abusers. House bill 574, known as Ji’Aire’s Law, which was established to protect adults with mental illnesses and their children, never made it out of committee for a vote.
Del. Sally Jameson (D-Charles) was disappointed with the lack of progress with Ji’Aire’s Law this session.
“I was very disappointed it didn’t make it out of committee. I met a lot of different people from different departments and they all expressed concerns. We’ve been looking at mental health issues for years. So, here we go again, stuck,” Jameson said. “It seems to me that nobody knows how to move forward with these mental health issues. And it’s something we’ve got to conquer.”
She said she can understand that solutions cannot be found instantly every day but while they search for solutions many people are being “lost in the system.” She said the Health and Government Committee had a lot on its plate with opioid bills, the Prince George’s Regional Medical Center and other things.
“It’s just a shame that we were not able to move this one study forward. I’ll continue to fight for this and do what I can to keep up on mental health issues,” she said. “There’s always another year.”
Wilson said he does not believe the state and some state legislators prioritize public safety enough. People react to statistics, he said, and not situations. If legislators experienced or witnesses some of the crimes and situations these bills pertain to, their perspectives may change.
“Everything they read is that the justice system is unfair to minorities, and I do agree that it is to a certain extent, but we’re also primary victims of these crimes as well,” Wilson said. “They don’t realize the ramifications of things that they’re doing can actually hurt the people they want to protect.”
Middleton said he was able to fight for project open space and grant more rights to farmers looking to buy property with two bills he supported on the senate floor.
About $40 million of the $90 million will be used to contribute to capital projects and the development of parks around the state, Middleton said. The state has fallen behind in keeping up with park maintenance, he said, and this will provide an opportunity for the county to develop hiking trails or bike trails in its parks next year.
Overall, Wilson said, he feels there were some very successful floor debates, but the Southern Maryland delegation still has things to fight for.
“It’s very much a mixed bag. We had some success. I think I did a good job of representing my state and my county,” Wilson said. “I think good bills may take years to get through. So I try to be as positive as I can about my fight up there. It’s difficult.”
St. Mary’s County is to receive the most state construction money in the region in this budget cycle with $7.4 million. That includes $3 million for the design of a third academic and research building for the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center in California. Calvert County will receive $6 million, with $3 million going to stop erosion around St. Leonard Creek. Charles County will receive $2.1 million.
“I think overall Southern Maryland did really well,” Waugh said. Jameson agreed. “We pretty much got everything checked off our checklist,” Jameson said. “It was truly a mixed bag depending upon what each county’s priorities were. I was pleased with the outcomes of the Harry Nice bridge. We were able to get a bill passed to put money into a special fund so that we can build up funding to complete the bridge. That wasn’t easy to do. I think we all worked very hard to make sure that we were getting something set up for that.”
“Will the governor believe that it is an important enough issue to sign? I know he’s got a lot on his plate, but I do believe that for Charles County and Southern Maryland it is one of our top issues. So I’m really hoping that it will move forward,” she said.
She said she is not done with the gaming bill and will continue to push for the gaming facility in Colonial Beach.
Del. Deb Rey (R-St. Mary’s) voted against the final budget, though she said she supports the governor. “I voted against it, but in good conscience I couldn’t vote for a 4.9 percent increase,” she said. “We’ve got to cut the mandates. The legislature creates these mandates.”
Rey voted no more often than any other lawmaker in the 2015 session and has been nicknamed “Red Deb” by a colleague, she joked. No votes on bills are signified in red on the electronic vote tally board in the House of Delegates; yes votes are green. Rey doesn’t know if she voted no the most times again this year, but said in her defense, “if the bills are bad, the bills are bad.”
In this year’s session, “we had a minimal number of stupid bills and we only had a couple of losses,” Waugh said, citing bills that offered tax cuts and looked at gerrymandering in congressional districts.
Overall in Maryland, “we’re going in the right direction. We’re going really, really slowly, but we’re going in the right direction,” he said.
Morgan called the Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act of 2016 “the worst bill of the session by far,” and
“the Democrats’ response to having the [Metro] Red Line cut” for Baltimore.
The bill “was very aggravating,” Rey said.
The bill creates a scoring system for state transportation projects, to be crafted in nine categories by the transportation secretary. The bill went through several amendments, was vetoed by the governor and his veto was overridden by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
“It’s not as bad as it was, but it’s still pretty bad,” Morgan said.
The scoring system is retroactive on projects back to 2014, which could jeopardize the $33.3 million pledged to road projects on Route 5 in Leonardtown and Scotland and the bridge over Gilbert Run Swamp on Route 234 in Charles County, Morgan said.
“Once again, the Democrats stuck it to the rural areas of the state,” he said.
“We’re going to hear about this for another two years,” Waugh said. “This is going to be a long, multiyear fight.”
Morgan co-sponsored a bill that would have placed limited terms in the General Assembly to three. That bill failed.
“Commissioners have terms, governors have terms, presidents have terms, but legislators do not,” Morgan said. Term limits would be a quick fix, but there also needs to be reform in campaign finance and redistricting. “It’s fundamentally wrong for a legislator to draw themselves into a district they can never ever lose,” he said.
According to the bill’s analysis, about a third of the Maryland General Assembly members have served more than three terms already. Only 15 states have term limits on their state legislators. Staff