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December 11, 2007

The Delegation’s Workload – Part 2

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

We’ve already looked at the county commissioners’ bill proposals that the county’s legislative delegation will wrestle with, now we’ll consider the bills that affect the whole state, not just our county. These face a much more difficult, if not impossible, path to passage. We’ll also take a gander at the policy statements of the Board of County Commissioners.

4.) Maryland Constitutional Amendment to prohibit “Economic Development” Takings – The commissioners are seeking an amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would prohibit the use of eminent domain to transfer the ownership of a piece of property form one private owner for the economic gain of another. An outgrowth of the Kelo v. the Town of New London U. S. Supreme Court decision, this idea has come up several times in the General Assembly.

PRO – Everyone I’ve ever talked to agrees in concept. It just seems to fly in the face of our constitutional protections to allow governments to take a piece of land and give it to another for private financial gain.

CON – Like everything else, this just isn’t as simple as it first appears. The City of Baltimore uses a similar practice to seize properties that are being used as drug dens and havens of criminal activity. In fact, the much-ballyhooed Inner Harbor was partially acquired through one of these takings.

Likely Outcome – Since a number of high-ranking legislators consider local power more important that private property rights, this one goes nowhere, fast.

5.) Pubic Disclosure of Income Tax Returns by Out of State businesses seeking state grants, loans, and other forms of support – The commissioners, led by populist reformer John “Lennie” Thompson, issued a resolution stating that 64 of the largest 150 for-profit corporations in Maryland did not pay any state income taxes in 2005. The commissioners believe that a condition of receiving government aid should be the production of state income tax records.

PRO – Is there any harm in asking that corporate tax returns be provided to another state agency, and that grants and loans funded by taxpayers be conditioned on the demonstration of those tax filings? Probably not.

CON – This is another in a series of initiatives perceived as “anti-business.” The businesses are already required to file tax returns with the State Comptroller, so why require this additional step? Because it allows another opportunity to decry corporate welfare and entitlements, that’s why.

Likely Outcome – Probably DOA.

6.) United States Constitutional Convention to Address Citizenship/Immigration Issues – The controversial, but least effective, of all of the requested legislative action.

This one grew out of the ugly community debate over Commissioner Charles Jenkins’ proposal to restrict county-funded services to illegal immigrants. Faced with a room full of angry residents, it was apparent that the Jenkins proposal wasn’t going anywhere.

Given that the commissioners didn’t have the votes or interest to move a bill that actually did something, they defaulted to the next best thing, a bill that sends a signal. This bill would seek a resolution from the Maryland General Assembly to support the convening of a Constitutional Convention to address citizenship/immigration issues. Yeah, sure.

Congress has studiously avoided taking any kind of meaningful action on the thorniest problem facing our nation; but, hey, the Frederick County Board of Commissioners wants a Constitutional Convention, so we’d better get on the stick, huh?

PRO – If Congress doesn’t do something, and soon, to address the issue of illegal immigration, the country will be faced with a myriad of local laws adopted by cities, counties, and states to help manage the problem. Immigrant anxiety and community anger and frustration will continue to build; creating confrontations and mistrust.

For the commissioners’ resolution to actually accomplish anything, two-thirds of the state legislatures across the country would have to join in the call. Assuming they did; and amendments are proposed by the convention, those amendments wouldn’t become effective until they were ratified by the state legislatures of three-fourths of the states. If it makes your head hurt to contemplate the possibilities, it’s because the Founding Fathers wanted it that way.

CON – The Maryland General Assembly just passed a bill to provide tuition assistance to illegal immigrants. This state provides an official photo ID, access to health services, and the whole range of employment, housing, and language assistance to people, regardless of their legal status. Does anyone really think, for one moment, that the Maryland General Assembly will entertain a call for a Constitutional Convention that would likely lead to dramatic changes in how we deal with those who are here illegally?

Likely Outcome – Less than nothing.

7.) Policy Statement #1- Electronic Tolls – The commissioners would like: - the delegation to join with them in a call to the Congress to require the installation of electronic toll devices on all new cars sold in the U.S. at some point in the future; - federal authorization to collect tolls on all federal highways and interstates in Frederick County; - state authorization to collect tolls on all state highways in Frederick County; and - state authorization to use revenue bonds to finance highway construction in the county, with proceeds from electronic tolls used to repay the debt on the bonds

This proposal is often referred to by Commissioner Thompson as his Appian Way program. The Appian Way is a historically significant symbol of the Roman Empire’s road construction program, and was also a toll road. Overcoming my own policy biases, I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this policy statement results in a change in state or federal roads policies. I’m guessing not.

8.) Policy Statement #2 – Schools Construction and Economic Development:

In the best traditions of Louisiana populist Governor and U.S. Senator Huey P. Long, Commissioner Thompson has persuaded his colleagues to include a statement in their legislative package that says that they don’t think the state should provide more money in economic development to foreign-owned business entities than they do for school construction.

Never mind that most of the economic development money to MedImmune and BP Solar (the two largest of these foreign- owned businesses) came in the form of tax increment financing, which isn’t a transfer of cash as much as it is reducing the taxes paid for the first few years of a job-creating expansion.

Ask a dozen people on the street if they agree with the commissioners’ statement, and they will. Phrase it differently by including all of the data, and fully describing that the two are not even remotely related, come from different parts of the budget, and that other counties will gladly except whatever economic development benefit we don’t want, and you get a different answer.

Next week I’ll examine the wish list from the Frederick Mayor & Board of Aldermen and the Frederick County Board of Education.

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