The General Assembly’s session finished in an unusual and unfortunate posture. Key fiscal measures failed in the waning minutes of the session as a result of a dispute over whether the state should license a sixth casino within our borders.
I wanted to give you a brief rundown on some of the key issues this year.
Budget: The 2013 Fiscal Year Operating budget was adopted, but neither the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act (BRFA) nor any tax increases were enacted. Accordingly, approximately $900 million has been cut from the budget.
Unless additional action is taken in a special session, the cuts will include: a) approximately $240,000,000 in cuts to K-12 education; b) cuts of about $75,000,000 to higher education; and c) cuts of $128,000,000 through elimination of state jobs, agency funding and reductions in state employee compensation and benefits. Montgomery County will lose more than $41,000,000 in state aid.
Teacher Pensions and Maintenance of Effort (MOE): The legislature spent a great deal of time and energy debating legislation that would have shifted a portion of the burden of paying for teachers’ pensions to the counties, as well as deliberating a separate measure that changed the requirements for maintenance of county efforts on education funding. While the teacher pension shift died with the failure of the BRFA, the “Maintenance of Effort” bill was enacted. I opposed both measures.
The MOE legislation prohibits counties from substituting state education aid for county monies, much as current law does. But if counties fail to meet the Maintenance of Effort requirements, the Comptroller is authorized to seize county income tax revenues and redirect them in order to enforce the legislation. Despite my continued support for the goals of the MOE legislation – the protection of local funding for our public schools – I felt that it would be a terrible precedent to give the state the right to seize county revenue and spend it in a manner, however laudable, different from that approved by the county.
I expect that during the special session there will be another attempt to pass the teacher pension shift. In the latest version of the bill, counties would take over the responsibility for the “normal” pension costs of their teachers. While the State would retain responsibility for the costs of the unfunded pension liabilities, any shift in teachers’ pension costs to local jurisdictions threatens to undercut the strong investments Maryland has made in our schools. To shoulder additional pension costs, counties will be forced to cut local education funding – resulting in lower teacher pay, fewer qualified teachers and larger class sizes.
Gambling: A measure to license yet another casino, to allow table games at all casinos and to reduce the state’s share of gambling proceeds found last minute traction this year. I thought the bill was ill-advised, but it passed the Senate. Thankfully, it did not win support in the House of Delegates. It may well be resurrected if the General Assembly is returned for a special session.
Marriage Equality: I cosponsored the law that grants same-sex couples the right to marry in Maryland beginning January 1, 2013. This law secures equal treatment for gay and lesbian couples, while also establishing protections and exemptions for religious institutions. However, an effort is under way to petition this law to referendum. If the effort is successful, the measure will be on the ballot in the election this November.
Public Defender: As the result of a decision by Maryland’s Court of Appeals several months ago, substantial changes were required to the operations of the Office of the Public Defender (OPD). I sponsored legislation that requires the OPD to provide representation to indigent individuals at bail hearings before a District Court or Circuit Court judge. The bill also allows police officers to charge a person by citation for any non-violent misdemeanor or local ordinance violation for which maximum jail is 90 days or less – rather than take offenders into custody where they may face incarceration pending trial. This will alleviate some of the additional burden on the OPD and reduce the burden on our courts and jails, without posing any increased threat to public safety.
Maryland Health Benefit Exchange: The legislature also approved an Administration bill expanding the operating structure of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange by, among other things, authorizing the exchange to contract with health insurance carriers, and establishing the framework for the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Exchange. This proposal will help both individuals and small business owners compare prices for health insurance, buy policies and obtain federal subsidies. The exchange is scheduled to be in operation starting January 1, 2014.
Bikeshare: Delegates Bill Frick, Ariana Kelly, Susan Lee and I were successful in our efforts to secure state funding for Montgomery County’s proposed bikeshare program in Bethesda and Chevy Chase. The County will piggyback on Capital Bikeshare, the District of Columbia’s successful program that makes bicycles available at numerous locations near Metro stops, other transportation hubs, and commercial centers at low cost for commuters and recreational users. The result will be fewer people on our congested roads, more parking in downtown Bethesda, and less pollution – a win for Montgomery County across the board.
Fracking: I also introduced legislation that will provide greater protection to home-owners whose wells become contaminated by methane or other toxic chemicals. If a property owner’s well is within 2,500 feet of a natural gas drilling site that utilizes hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and the well becomes contaminated within one year of drilling, it will be presumed that fracking caused the contamination. This is a critical step forward in making sure that we don’t allow oil and gas companies to extract our resources at the expense of families and communities in Maryland.
Offshore Wind: Unfortunately, after passing the House, the Governor’s proposal for offshore wind projects failed in the Senate Finance Committee. The proposal would have paved the way for wind farms off the Eastern Shore, creating jobs and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Bay Restoration Fund Fee: I’m happy to report that the legislature passed a measure that will help reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay from wastewater treatment plants. The measure will support the upgrade of sixty-seven of Maryland’s largest wastewater treatment plants and the planting of cover crops by raising the Bay Restoration Fund Fee from $2.50 per month to $5.00 for public water users, or from $30 to $60 per year for homeowners with septic systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that this revenue is absolutely necessary in order for the State to meet its promises to clean up the Bay.
Other Environmental Measures: Legislation was also passed that will limit the use of septic systems in the State and help prevent pollution from flowing into the Bay through stormwater remediation measures. Legislation banning arsenic in chicken feed also passed.
To balance the state budget and to avoid painful cuts in school funding and other important services, I hope that the General Assembly will be re-convened promptly. I oppose linking any of the budget measures to the expansion of gambling in our state. The legislature seemed to be on the verge of taking these necessary and responsible steps on the eve of our adjournment. I am hopeful that we can finish the job in the next few weeks.
I remain grateful for the time you have taken to contact me with advice and counsel about issues before the General Assembly. I hope you will continue to share your views with me.
All the best for a good spring and summer.