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January 14, 2008

General Assembly Journal 2008 – Volume 1

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

With the tension of the recently completed special session still hanging thick in the Annapolis air, and the unusual spring-like warmth banishing the normal overcoats and gloves, 188 legislators again descended on the state capitol to begin the 425th session of the Maryland General Assembly.

The talk was all about taxes raised and possibly rescinded, constitutional violations, lawsuits, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s policy successes, and the big issues for the new year.

Republican leaders were hopeful that a Carroll County Circuit Court judge would void all of the tax increases enacted during the special session. A forged official Senate document, prepared by the House clerk with the knowledge of both the speaker’s staff and the Senate clerk, seemed a sufficient basis to claim a serious constitutional error.

From the beginning, I never really understood the value of the strategy. Assuming the judge was to void the results, and invalidate the tax increases, how long do you think it would take for the majority to expedite a new set of taxes? Answer: a few days, that’s all.

It didn’t really matter, though. By weeks end, the announcement came that the special session, while conducted under a clear violation of the stat’s Constitution, did not rise to the level that warranted such an extreme remedy.

That aside, the General Assembly can now focus on really important matters, like the distribution of energy efficient light bulbs by Allegheny Power. Yep, believe it or not, this was the big issue of Week One.

Allegheny Power approached the Maryland Public Service Commission last year to discuss a consumer education and outreach program. The PSC, now populated by O’Malley appointees, enthusiastically embraced this new “greeny” mentality from the utility giant.

Part of the consumer outreach included the distribution of low wattage fluorescent light bulbs, with a monthly surcharge applied to a utility customer’s bill to recoup the cost of the bulbs.

The feedback from the Allegheny Power service area was instant and obvious. Angry customers are seeking a legislative remedy, and legislators contemplating re-election are eager to accommodate them. There are a number of bills already being drafted.

The most fun may come from watching the PSC try to distance itself from this monumentally stupid undertaking. They’ve called Allegheny Power executives to appear at an upcoming public meeting. Some squirming will undoubtedly be involved.

Aside from light bulbs, this session promises to be a daily highlight reel for the evening news. Gay marriage, the environment, the death penalty, and the possible repeal of some of the taxes enacted during the special session bode well for reporters and pundits.

Locally, I thought this would be a relatively quiet year. The county commissioner’s package was fairly light, with several bills dealing with statewide issues. The trash franchise issue is back like a bad penny, or should I say an old beverage container.

Any pretense of quiet went out the window when talk of a bill to implement municipal revenue sharing piqued the ire of Commissioners John L. “Lennie” Thompson and Jan Gardner. This issue, an old and long unresolved matter relating to a shift away from a bank tax to the recordation tax, resulted in municipalities getting stuck with a small fixed allocation while revenues skyrocketed for the counties.

The House Majority Leader, Kumar Barve (D., Montgomery), introduced a statewide bill during the special session to remedy the imbalance by making it mandatory that counties share a greater percentage of this revenue with their municipal partners. The counties objected strenuously to this, and the bill died.

The issue has come up again, raised locally by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of the City of Frederick. It has a huge local impact, mostly because the commissioners have decided to use this recordation tax revenue to pay for school construction. They claim that any attempt to raid this revenue will result in major changes in school expansion plans, a sure way to fire up the Board of Education, public school advocates, and the PTA.

As a result of a few conversations with the media in Annapolis, talk of revenue sharing appears to have triggered a swift and punitive retribution in Frederick. A news report of last Thursday’s commissioners’ deliberations indicates that they voted unanimously to eliminate tax equity offsets from their next budget. Their logic seems simple, but childish. If the state is going to potentially mandate that they share recordation tax revenue with municipalities, then they chose to reduce the budget item used to provide funding to municipal corporations for services that the towns provide.

Remember, however, that no bill has passed, and no bill has even been submitted. The commissioners took this action based solely on the talk of a bill.

Now it appears that there may be some additional fallout from the poisonous relationship between the county, the municipalities, and the legislative delegation. Bills dealing with land use and zoning are possible, and the existing legislative requests from the commissioners may be in jeopardy.

Some elected officials thrive on chaos and revel in dysfunction. They’ll love the next 90 days. For the rest of us involved in local government issues, this may be one of the most contentious and confrontational sessions of the legislature in recent history.

So much for a peaceful and uneventful General Assembly session! I’m packing a shiv, a set of brass knuckles, and a length of pipe for the next delegation meeting. Talk about chaos and dysfunction.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
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