The County Legislative Process - 2008
August 8, 2007
Instead of thinking about Annapolis and January 2008, I've been spending the summer on home repair projects, carnival attendance, and "Seussical." Unfortunately, a trip to Winchester Hall last week ended my summer revelry.
The county commissioners have started the clock on their 2008 legislative package. The process of arriving at their final wish list begins with a morning worksession. County Attorney John Mathias kicks things off with a review of the past session's accomplishments.
Having attended these meetings for the last five years (not counting my own tenure on the Board of County Commissioners), I know the drill. The commissioners first focus on the bills they requested that failed to pass the legislature.
There were several bills that didn't survive the 2007 Session. Of particular note were the bills to restrict underage drinking; to prevent housing discrimination to particular individuals; require cars to change lanes to avoid emergency workers; a bill to create a dedicated schools renovation fee; a protection against eminent domain "takings;" and a divorce surcharge.
In previous years, the commissioners often voted to bring failed bills back, to "try again". In fact, we've had a number of bills that failed for at least four or five years, yet they always made it back into the legislative package.
That always seemed like a tremendous waste of time to me, regardless of the policy benefit of the proposed legislation. Oh, well, it's certainly their prerogative.
At the start of the discussion on the coming session county legislation, Board President Jan Gardner made what I thought was an important observation. She advised her colleagues against loading the legislative package with a bunch of bills that might shift the focus away from the looming structural deficit.
Her logic is that she'd rather focus their efforts on trying to protect the county from a dramatic reduction in state funding than she would on several bills that aren't very likely to pass, in this or any General Assembly session.
After her opening statement, there seemed to be some sympathy for her cause, at least it seemed that way at the outset. After some discussion, Commissioners Lennie Thompson, David Gray, and Kai Hagen all seemed to feel that if one commissioner felt strongly about an idea, it should be taken to the public hearing.
That alone does not mean the idea will be in the final package, but it certainly insures the idea doesn't die a quick death, either.
So, here's what the wish list looks like so far:
Solid Waste Franchises - It's been around for a few years, this idea that the commissioners would be granted authority to award franchises for trash collection. The big policy change is that residents would lose the ability to contract directly with a trash hauler, but would be served by a franchise hauler chosen by the county.
Two issues here: 1.) Would the franchise hauler pick up a resident's trash for less money than the private hauler chosen by the resident; and 2.) Would the services provided for that county franchise cost be the same as the services contracted by individual resident.
Last year, small haulers had their customers inundate the delegation with phone calls, email, and visits. The opposition will carry less weight if there are truly major savings to be derived from the franchise approach, but somebody had better be able to prove that, or expect the bill to fail once again.
Recycling fees/taxes - Commissioner Thompson has been arguing for bottle recycling fees and/or taxes as an incentive for increasing the volume of plastic diverted from the waste stream. This idea hasn't ever picked up much steam from the public, though.
BOE/FCTA Negotiations in public sessions - Commissioner Thompson argues that the salary and benefits negotiations between the Frederick County Teacher's Association and the Board of Education should be done in an open public meeting. As usual, this really matters to Mr. Thompson, but apparently not to too many other people.
Electronic Toll Collection - Commissioner Thompson is pushing state and federal legislation to allow for the automatic collection of toll revenue for certain roads as a way of generating revenue to pay for improvements to those same roads. I don't see thousands lining up clamoring for mandatory toll collection, to say nothing of the logistical problems, such as retrofitting older cars and out-of-state vehicles.
Repeal Revenue Bonds for economic development projects - Commissioner Thompson wants the county to end the practice of "corporate welfare." These revenue bonds have been a primary mechanism for that. Mr. Thompson will have a small group of his advocates, but there are many more people who support economic development projects.
Repeal Provision of the Open Meetings Act covering economic development discussions - I'll bet you can't guess who proposed this one? Yes, Commissioner Thompson thinks that all economic development discussions should be held in open session.
Citizenship Verification - Commissioner Charles Jenkins believes that the county should require the disclosure of citizenship status before providing county services. This one will generate a lot of interest from immigration issue advocates, and not positive, either!
Farmstand Exemptions - Commissioner Jenkins also supports broader exemptions for farmers who operate farm stands from which they sell the products they grow.
The County Finance Office would like to amend the law specifying when financial statements must be submitted (shifting the date from November to January) to cleanup the data used to prepare the reports. YAWN!
Finally, Commission Gardner is proposing a Resolution on County Budget Security, which would essentially express strong opposition to any state budget cuts to county government. She made it clear that this resolution might be the most important piece of the county legislative package for the coming year, and I tend to agree.
The recycling bills are an interesting idea, but it is simply not a workable solution to adopt a one-county bottle recycling strategy. No amount of rhetoric will alter the fundamental truth that the only truly effective recycling schemes are those that are regional. As a border county (PA, WV, and VA), it would be very difficult to administer a recycling plan effectively.
The economic development restriction bills are great for producing "everyman" campaign literature and commercials, but they are not effective policy. The Maryland General Assembly, with both Democrat and Republican votes, has spoken on this question. Creating and sustaining jobs in targeted sectors is a priority of the legislature, and one (or two, or even three) county commissioner cannot alter that fact. Likewise, both Republican and Democrat governors have expressed economic development as an administration priority, so we are where we are. I know how Mr. Thompson can accomplish his ultimate goal: He should run for governor! Then he truly can set the policy.
Commissioner Jenkins deserves great credit for guts in asking a difficult set of questions about immigration. Unfortunately, the Maryland General Assembly majority will not see things the way he does, and if his bill passes the commissioners, it will probably hit a wall in Annapolis.
Finally, Commission President Gardner is onto something with her suggestion to reduce the size of the package this year. The budget battle will dominate the session, and having delegation members fighting over the details of the county legislative package means we're not fighting the budget battle. In my opinion, the county would be better off sitting on most of the stuff that's already on the table, and keeping the new stuff in the drawer until next year.