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December 17, 2007

The Delegation Workload – Part 3

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

We’ve already examined the county commissioner’s legislative wish list; now it’s time to turn our attention to the other groups seeking legislative support in Annapolis.

In addition to the annual requests from the commissioners, the delegation also meets with the Frederick County Board of Education, and Mayor and Board of Aldermen of the City of Frederick, and finally and most importantly, the public.

The board of education has several priorities, one bill and several position statements.

The bill is a returning “All Star.” It seems as throughout my legislative career, such as it is, is destined to include proposed bills that keep coming back, no matter that they get shot down every time they come up.

This one is no different. The board of education wants to remove a requirement that prevents a person who has a spouse serving as a teacher or administrator from running for the board. It has come up three times since we transitioned into an elected school board, and gets killed each time.

No other county in Maryland has a similar restriction. BoE members use the argument that lifting the restriction will increase the number of candidates in the race. Baloney! People will run regardless of this prohibition, but it does set a standard that seems to discriminate against a segment of the population.

There are required ethics disclosures that would make any relationship such as this public. That way, the voting public could decide for themselves whether or not a familial relationship presented a problem for a board member.

There is some important historical basis for this spousal exclusion. Former State Sen. Charles Smelser (D., Frederick/Carroll) was one of the advocates for this. Senator Smelser is a legend; he and former Delegation Chairman James E. “Doc” McClellan (D., Frederick) still have some influence over the process in Annapolis.

As the architect of the exclusion, Senator Smelser still works behind the scenes to protect his work product. Last session, the House members of the Frederick delegation voted to remove the exclusion. Both of our current senators voted against removing it. In Annapolis, having two senators opposed to an initiative will kill a bill.

Given that fact, it’s probably safe to assume we hear Taps playing in the background when it comes to removing the spousal exclusion.

The BoE also told the delegation to fight for continued funding of the Thornton initiatives. Another repeating mantra: We need more money than we got before, and the increase we already got won’t be nearly enough.

Same deal with school construction. This year, the BoE is seeking a record $81 million. The most we’ve ever received from the school construction budget is $25 million, so this request just seems hard to fathom.

The risk, of course, is that if the delegation cannot fulfill the request, we’ll be labeled as ineffective. If getting $80 million is the standard, then I can already predict that we won’t be that effective. I’m not questioning the need, though. We have two high schools in this year’s request.

The Board of Education is also having a problem interpreting a new law regarding boiler technicians. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the way this law was written, the BoE would have to dramatically increase the number of these workers at our schools. This one probably won’t take a bill, just some help in influencing the drafting of new regulations.

Finally, the BoE wants us to oppose any attempts to mandate curriculum, class sizes, and to increase retention incentives for teachers.

The City of Frederick is seeking support for a number of statewide bills being advanced by the Maryland Municipal League (MML). Two are very controversial.

The first bill would allow municipalities across the state to employ radar cameras for speed enforcement in school zones and residential neighborhoods. Montgomery County currently has this authority; now other towns and cities would like it.

Conservatives hate this idea. First, it becomes part of a larger philosophical debate over too much intrusion and the use of technology to control people’s lives. Another serious concern is the idea that these speed cameras often become major revenue generators.

To that end, when this topic came up at the delegation’s meeting with the aldermen, Sen. David Brinkley broached that very concern. You would have thought someone poked Alderman David “Kip” Koontz in the eye with a sharp stick.

Senator Brinkley asked: “Would you be as interested in this if the money had to go to the state?” Mr. Koontz erupted in a fit of righteous indignation, immediately attacking Senator Brinkley for suggesting there was a financial motive behind this request. He was joined by Alderman Donna Kuzemchak, who also seemed deeply offended at the senator’s question.

The problem with their reaction is that the question is not only legitimate, it has been (and will be) asked by other senators and delegates in Annapolis. If the MML lobbyists act as defensive as the aldermen did, legislators will probably assume that there is a connection between cameras and police budgets, even if there isn’t.

The other issue raised by the aldermen ended up causing a dispute between the city and the county. The aldermen raised the issue of the recordation tax, and requested support for a bill to require the counties to share a percentage of the increase in the recordation tax with the municipalities.

It seems that in the late 1960’s, the state eliminated the Bank Tax, and created the recordation tax. Since counties and municipalities shared the Bank Tax proceeds equally, and the share worked out to about $300,000 per entity, that was the number chosen for the counties to share.

What the legislature didn’t see was that the recordation tax was going to rise dramatically, something like 1,000% over the amount of money generated by the Bank Tax. So the county governments received a windfall, and the municipalities made do with their $300,000 allotment.

As soon as the aldermen had made their pitch, County Commissioner President Jan Gardner appeared, almost as if by magic. She immediately attacked the legislative proposal as dangerous to the county’s welfare, citing the fact that recordation taxes are being used to pay bond debt for school construction. The message: Take a share of the recordation tax, and risk future school construction projects.

I must admit to a little secret enjoyment watching President Gardner and Alderman and Mayor Pro-Tem Marcia Hall (two high-profile Democrats) arguing about equity and fairness.

Come on, there are so few moments of joy in this work; we’ve got to take them where we can!

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