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March 13, 2006

General Assembly Session 2006 – Part 10

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

We’re just past the halfway point in the 90 days of the 421st General Assembly session. So much has already happened that it’s hard to believe the really hard stuff lies ahead. This week we’ll recap some of the big issues, and consider a forecast of things to come over the next five weeks.


There are two major competing proposals on this one policy matter. The counties espouse one approach; the towns and cities represent a very different view. The county bill would require that future annexation proposals be subject to the approval of county government.

Current law gives the county a voice in two ways. One, they vote on the consistency of the town zoning with the county zoning designation. The county has the ability to find an annexation proposal inconsistent with county zoning, which can delay the development of land in that annexation area by up to five years.

Counties also have the water/sewer master planning process as a tool for control. The land in the annexation area must go through the county process for obtaining water/sewer map amendments, and failure to gain county concurrence can impact development plans.

Counties argue that growth in municipalities contributes to school overcrowding and other impacts, and that county government should be able to weigh in with an approval because of the need to address that impact.

Also, there are a few cases (particularly on the Eastern Shore) where a municipality will more than double as the result of a single development proposal. One of these, just outside the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, we’ll talk about in more detail below.

Municipalities argue that given the mechanisms of control already in place, county government has more than sufficient opportunities to express themselves on annexation proposals. The state code has an entire section dedicated to land use planning and zoning, Article 66B.

Article 66B defines these relationships, and the municipalities argue that they should have a constitutionally protected right to control their growth. Since the annexation boundaries represent their only chance to accommodate new residents, establish job creation opportunities, and expand their revenue base, the towns and cities will fight aggressively to protect that right.

Often, the lobby group that represents county government, the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO), and the group that represents the municipalities, the Maryland Municipal League (MML) are aligned on policy issues.

They count on a supportive group of legislators to help them get their bills passed every year. This year, those same legislators are lined up against each other over the annexation issue. I’m with the towns on this issue.

My prediction on this issue is that some form of a bill will pass. The powers-that-be seem to be leaning towards the county position, but ultimately, I anticipate a compromise – like requiring municipalities to either adopt an APFO substantially similar to the county’s or to be forced to disclose long-range growth plans to emerge in the waning days of the session.

Blackwater Refuge

The Blackwater Refuge is located on a small tributary of the Choptank River, outside Cambridge, a mid-sized town on the Eastern Shore. It is a scenic and pristine wetlands refuge, with a plethora of waterfowl and migratory birds.

A developer approached the Town of Cambridge a few years back about potential annexation. This development would represent a huge expansion of the town’s – and Dorchester County’s – tax base.

In a rare display of congenial relations, town leaders and Dorchester County commissioners got together and worked out a development plan, including water and sewer infrastructure and road improvements.

According to the annexation agreement, the developer would pay for many of those improvements, and development impact fees would be used to mitigate those impacts.

All of this was going along swimmingly until the environmental community realized what the stakes were. Blackwater would be impacted. We’re talking about a development with thousands of residential units, commercial and office space.

On a recent trip to the shore, I stopped by Blackwater and visited the site. It is an incredible place, with breathtaking vistas and serene surroundings. Clearly, a large residential subdivision would alter the area.

Environmental groups – like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 1000 Friends of Maryland, and the Sierra Club – have determined that Blackwater should be a development battleground. It is one of the annexations mentioned in support of the anti-annexation bill we discussed above.

Sen. James Brochin (D., Baltimore Co.) has introduced a bill to restrict residential development in or around sensitive areas. The unusual component of the bill is the “retroactive” section, which would directly affect the Blackwater development.

The senator who represents the Cambridge area, Richard Colburn (R., Dorchester) is steamed that a Baltimore County representative, on behalf of environmental groups, would put in a statewide bill designed to stop one project.

It is very rare that local courtesy is ignored. Rarer still is a situation where another representative would so blatantly wade into another’s territory. This outcome is too difficult to predict, but you can bet it’s going to get very ugly.

Budget and budget cuts

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich has taken advantage of the $2 billion surplus to fund many of his signature initiatives and policy priorities. In fact, he has increased state spending in historic amounts in some areas of the budget.

Seems funny to hear that the Democrats are attacking a Republican governor on spending, and funnier still to see the discomfort in incumbent Republican delegates and senators who find themselves defending these same increased spending levels.

Governor Ehrlich is using a new technique to deal with the cuts being made by the legislature to his FY-07 budget. Instead of staying in Annapolis and trying to catch the reporters in the State House hallways, the governor has taken to the streets.

He has begun carrying his message to the voters of Maryland, bypassing the traditional horse trading that takes place in Annapolis. Frankly, I don’t blame him at all. His prior attempts to mollify the legislative leaders have always blown up in his face.

The governor has held an event to discuss health care cuts, an event to discuss environmental program cuts, and an event to discuss public safety cuts. In each case, he has targeted important programs and services that he had created room for in his budget that the legislature now plans to reduce or eliminate.

This new direct communication method has outraged Democrats. Spitting and sputtering, they trot out the over-used phrases about Capitol Hill-style politics. This isn’t about D.C. This is about breaking from a traditional approach where a Democrat governor was able to deal in good faith with a Democrat-controlled legislature to either fund new programs or defend existing priorities.

Governor Ehrlich does not have that same ability. He can’t even count on the mass media for fair reporting, since the BS (Baltimore’s Sun) is still angry about the recent court ruling affirming the right of the governor to decide which reporters the administration will deal with.

Voting Issue

A few journal entries ago, we looked at the issue of early voting and voter access. A new firestorm in Annapolis is brewing over the integrity of the Diebold touch-screen voting machines.

Governor Ehrlich has expressed a lack of confidence in the machines we’ve brought on line. A security demonstration in California proved that the computer that controls the memory was susceptible to hacking.

The governor wrote to the State Election Board expressing his lack of confidence in Diebold. Election Board Director Linda Lamone disagrees with the governor and feels that the Diebold system can meet the needs of the electorate in the 2006 elections. Senate President Mike Miller (D., PG) seems to agree with Ms. Lamone.

Given how highly regarded Ms. Lamone is by the legislative leaders (remember last year’s Linda Lamone Career Protection Act, the bill that took the power to get rid of the Elections Director away from the board), this would normally mean that the governor’s opinion would be ignored.

Not so this year! The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Del. Sheila Hixson (D., Montgomery) supports the idea of a temporary return to the optical scan voting system in light of the integrity issue.

It looks like the next few weeks will see a battle between the House and Senate over the use of optical scan machines. The House passed a bill authorizing optical scan machines for this year’s election, while President Miller suggests the Senate may not agree.

Hijacking Republican sponsored bills

A new phenomenon is emerging this year. Good policy bills, submitted by Republican sponsors, are dying in committee while newer, Democrat-sponsored bills are being dropped late and moving through the process.

We have a local example. Del. Patrick Hogan has sponsored a really good lead paint bill in the last several years. He has worked really hard to understand the impacts of the legislation, and has worked in a very bi-partisan fashion to build a strong coalition.

He reintroduced the bill again this year. He had more co-sponsors, and almost every organization in the affected industries and advocacy groups were supportive.

Imagine his shock when his bill, with wide bi-partisan support, died a quiet death in his committee. Imagine his even greater surprise when an exactly similar bill appeared, sponsored by Del. Anthony Brown (D., PG), minority whip and lieutenant governor candidate on the Martin O’Malley ticket.

Delegate Brown had the nerve to approach Delegate Hogan and suggest that he (Patrick) should sign on as a co-sponsor to Delegate Brown’s bill, since that would be the bill that would move forward.

There are a number of similar situations, approximately 20, where a Republican bill will disappear while a duplicate bill, submitted late in the process by a Democrat will reach the Floor.

The next five weeks promise to be a bloodbath, especially now that Governor Ehrlich has found his voice out among the voters of Maryland.

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