Report from Annapolis
To bring a different perspective on what is going on in Annapolis, I will be writing periodically. We tend to hear things from a state perspective, but very few know how these decisions truly affect us at the county level. Being a part of the Maryland Association of Counties in several different roles has given me the opportunity to share a viewpoint that few have.
I will start with what does MACo do? MACo advocates on behalf of the 24 jurisdictions in the state of Maryland. Each is represented by a legislative liaison from each county. Potential legislation is reviewed first at the staff level, and then items that are deemed as having a significant impact on the counties are brought before the legislative committee for a vote each Wednesday during the 90-day session in Annapolis. Hundreds of bills are reviewed and a recommendation is made so that staff and some of the elected officials can give testimony either in favor of, against or of fer amendments to make the legislation better.
We start in subcommittees; this year, I am chairperson of Budget and Tax. We discuss the bills in more detail in this smaller setting, then we bring our recommendations to the full legislative committee. It is very fast-paced and the representatives must be able to fully comprehend the impacts of the bills and how it will affect each jurisdiction. We then vote whether to support or not.
What is so very different is that each county only gets one vote. Unlike the Senate and House of Delegates, which are based on population, within MACo, each county has an equal voice. That gives Talbot, like other smaller, rural jurisdictions, a much greater impact. But what I have found is, in that room, we all tend to speak with one voice. Large or small, Democrat or Republican, our problems are the same.
What gives MACo credibility with the state elected officials is that a “MACo position” on a bill means that elected officials from across the state got involved, discussed the bill and came together to decide whether a bill is good or bad for all counties. We are there every Wednesday. MACo is very selective in the bills we take positions on, which keeps our effectiveness high. We don’t want to dilute our message. We are able to have a very candid exchange with one another in that room and it is the elected officials that drive the train. MACo is one voice that works very well and has an enormous amount of credibility when we speak.
We certainly do not get everything we want with the state legislature, but we have a very high success rate, and if a bad bill is going to pass anyway, more often than not, an amendment that we have offered is incorporated, to make it better for the counties.
We have already had a couple weeks reviewing dozens of bills, and I will be summarizing them soon, but I would like to share with the readers the three main initiatives that MACo will be advocating for this legislative session.
“Continuing State Commitment to Education” sounds very broad, but with the Kirwan Commission recommendations likely to turn education on its head with nearly
$4 billion in new spending, it is extremely relevant. MACo has talked about needed state funding on the school construction side for a few years and that is a part of this initiative, but with the “operational” side coming with astronomical increases in the next year, we need to be sure the state is planning to foot most of this bill.
How would this affect Talbot? Even if the state funds the majority, we are talking about massive tax increases, whether on the state side or mandating it on the county side. The counties’ two main funding mechanisms are income tax and property tax. As I am sure you are aware, the county council put an initiative to change the tax revenue cap on the ballot. Unfortunately, it failed. However, property taxes can go up an unlimited amount through the “education supplement” that was mandated in the Maintenance of Effort law that passed in 2012.
Second is “Re-Prioritizing Public Health.” Similar to losing HUR (highway user revenues) from the state, the counties have incurred dramatic and lasting funding reductions as well as threatened cost shifts that would endanger the capacity to provide these crucial services. It is the typical “do more with less.” These cuts have been made much worse by the deadly opioid epidemic that everyone is experiencing. Health departments are critical and the state needs to restore this funding help to provide treatment to those who desperately need it.
Last is the “Next Generation 9-1-1 Implementation.” Our current system is built on
1970s technology and call centers need additional support to more accurately and expeditiously handle the massive increase in call volume, due to wireless phone usage. 80 percent of all calls are now coming in from cellular phones. Enhancements are also needed to be able to handle video and text messaging in an emergency situation, as well as improving the location tracking accuracy.
Please continue to pay attention to both what is happening at our county level and also the state level. Your voices really do matter, we do listen, and expressing your opinion really can help affect change.