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March 24, 2008

General Assembly Journal 2008 Volume 5

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Crossing Over


Okay, I’m not talking about that show where they talk to dead people. This is Cross Over Week, the constitutional deadline for bill passage in the House and Senate so bills can “cross over” to the other chamber by Sine Die.


If the General Assembly had a Hell Week, this would be it! We had long sessions in the House chamber, longer sessions in the committee room, with meals on the run and no time for constituent service work. To hear my colleagues complain, you’d think they were part of the Bataan Death March.


Since cross over presses on legislators like impending danger, a review of the state of the county’s legislative package is the best way to describe the madness.


1.)     County Finance Filing Date: a totally non-controversial little bill that aligns the county’s ability to complete their fiscal report with the state’s due date to receive it. There’s no reason that this should become a controversy, except for the fact that the county neglected to include an important aspect. The deadline extension covered both the Annual Financial Report and the Annual Audit Report; but the county neglected to include the Audit Report in their request. A Senate amendment has fixed that, so the amended Senate bill will cross over and the House bill will be amended to “conform” to the Senate version. Nice catch, Senator (David) Brinkley!


2.)     County Solid Waste Franchise Agreements – This is a very divisive issue, one that has caused great anguish for county residents and the delegation. This bill allows the commissioners to design and award trash collection franchises. This idea flies in the face of free trade and consumer choice, by suggesting that the commissioners, not the consumer, will make a good choice when it comes to picking a trash hauler. The bill was approved on a split vote of the delegation, and as soon as it was passed, a paid lobbyist for the Waste Hauler’s Association started working to kill the bill. Now there’s an amendment being offered in the Environmental Matters Committee, one that would require the Board of County Commissioners to come back to the delegation for approval once the plan has been designed. To say the commissioners disapprove of this direct intervention into their business is the understatement of the year.


3.)     Text Amendment Bill – This little gem of a bill has been this year’s answer to last year’s Ethics/Disclosure bill. Essentially, this one was a problem from the git-go. This issue pits the commissioners, freshly elected on a slow-growth platform, against Del. Galen Clagett, who is a pro-business Democrat who also happens to work in the land development field. The commissioners enacted a new process for considering text amendments that requires a vote of three of them to move forward on a proposal. Delegate Clagett sees this as a no-growth power play to deny people access to their government. The delegation spent a good deal of time wrestling with the issue, trying to strike a balance between the interests of the commissioners and the needs of applicants to the process. The revision to the bill that finally passed was immediately dismissed by the commissioners; in fact, President Jan Gardner joked to the media that the amended bill was a paper tiger, that the changes neutered the original intent to the extent that they wouldn’t have to do anything different. Delegate Clagett (and others in the delegation) just happened to read those same news reports. He has now drafted another amendment; this one “fixes” the neutered bill, and forces the very changes that the commissioners felt they had dodged with the prior version.


These bills have already passed a vote of the delegation. The franchise collection bill squeaked by with a one vote margin, and the text amendment bill passed with only one dissenting vote (Del. Sue Hecht).


Now both bills are facing the cross-over deadline, and need some additional work before the clock runs out. As the chairman of the delegation, my personal preference would be to pass the bills without any amendments. Clean bills are easier to manage; every conversation, email, or extra vote can spell unexpected problems.


Delegates (and senators) are elected to legislate, and if a delegation member wants to prepare an amendment to a bill, there are a number of ways to introduce it into the process. They can present the amendment to the delegation, get an affirmative vote, and move forward with a sponsored amendment. They could introduce the amendment through a committee member on the standing committee of jurisdiction over that bill, or finally, they could offer the bill from the floor of the House on the Second Reading of the bill.


Delegate Hecht would prefer the text amendment bill be subjected to a local public hearing in Frederick. Delegate Clagett, on the other hand, feels that he was elected as a legislator to (sit down here kids) legislate. He isn’t so concerned about obtaining the commissioners buy-in, in fact he’s happy listening to their dissatisfaction.


So, setting aside the in-fighting within the Frederick delegation (as if that were even possible), Cross-Over Week also means crunch time on the state budget.


This is the year of the Great Budget Cuts, the first year in my six down here where there is absolutely no talk of tax increases, at least not to balance the budget. Not hard to figure out why, though. Only the poorest among us isn’t aware of the $1.5 billion in new taxes passed during last fall’s special session.


Even the working poor are impacted, though. The many increases included a 20% sales tax increase, so the poor and the elderly are thoughtfully included. Thank you, Democrat majority!


Hanging over the budget deliberations like the Grim Reaper’s scythe are the “write-downs,” one of my personal favorite political phenomenon. When the state estimates revenue for the coming year, they use a number of complex formulae to develop a revenue number. If the number drops, we “write-down” the estimate. If the number increases, that’s called “over-attainment.”


No amount of “figuring liars” (as in “Figures Lie and Liars Figure”) can fully anticipate that impact of the national economy. Republican legislators were joined in a warning chorus by the state’s top tax collector, Democrat Comptroller Peter Franchot, in urging caution during the special session.


Caution was thrown to the wind, though. Riding a several year bandwagon of over-attainment, where revenue comfortably exceeded estimates, tax increases were piled on top of tax increases.


On March 6, the fiscal analysts in the Department of Legislative Services released their latest revenue estimates. Now the trends line up with what we’re hearing and seeing on the national news, and revenues are plummeting. The latest figures suggest a write-down, or reduction, of revenue near $333 million.


As a result, the Fiscal Year 2009 budget, already cut nearly a billion dollars, faces another round of reductions. This time around, we’ll be looking at the “third rail” programs, the stuff we’re not supposed to touch, like public education and Medicaid. The environment, public safety, and land preservation have already gotten their hits. In an interesting twist, when former Gov. Bob Ehrlich recommended cuts like these, he was attacked by the tree-huggers and do-gooders as a devil. Gov. Martin O’Malley is treated like a hero, and he doesn’t even have to apologize.


The House and Senate budgets are different, but not so much as to make reconciliation impossible. In the end, the Democrats will fall in line and take one for the team. Republicans, on the other hand, will just bide their time and await the short voter memories in 2010!


Talk about your cross-over!


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