This legislative session began in January with a focus on fostering the state’s continued economic recovery, funding educational priorities, and balancing the state’s budget. The session ended with a number of policy accomplishments – including legislation for a cleaner environment, job creation, ensuring equal rights under the law for all Marylanders, and stronger protections for the state’s investment in public schools – but not with the passage of a comprehensive budget package that protects the most vulnerable Marylanders from significant cuts.
The inability to pass a completed budget package reflects poorly on all state leaders, including me. It has been my greatest honor to represent the citizens of District 30 during my tenure in the legislature and I work hard each and every day to do what I believe is the right thing for the people of this district and the entire state. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Annapolis to address the challenges ahead and to support our shared priorities of a strong education system, accessible healthcare, safe neighborhoods, and a clean environment.
While the budget challenges will continue to be debated and perhaps be the subject of a special session, I want to highlight a number of important bills that the General Assembly did pass this year for the environment, job creation, education and ethics reform.
The federal government, in partnership with states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, has established stringent requirements and timelines for improving the health of our greatest natural resource, the Chesapeake Bay. Anne Arundel County boasts one of the longest shorelines of any county in the state making clean water and a clean bay even more important to our communities and our property values.
In order to meet the first round of federal requirements by 2017, the state increased the “flush tax” this session from $2.50 to $5.00 a month to complete installation of enhanced nitrogen removal technology at Maryland’s 67 major wastewater treatment plants, including renovations at Cox Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant here in Anne Arundel County. The fee increase will sunset in 2030, once Maryland has complied with the federal requirements for Chesapeake Bay cleanup. In addition, legislation passed that requires the state’s largest counties to charge a stormwater fee to fund the installation of low impact stormwater systems. Stormwater runoff from developed land is a major contributor of pollutants and sediment to the bay.
Finally, the governor proposed, and the General Assembly passed, legislation to promote smarter local planning and zoning policies to curb pollution into the Chesapeake Bay and coastal waterways. As amended, instead of an outright ban on septic systems, the legislature created four (4) planning tiers for counties to adopt as a part of their comprehensive planning program and grandfathered existing development projects already in the pipeline. We took great care to ensure environmental protections while, at the same time, allowing counties the flexibility to continue development in areas of designated population growth.
Taken as a package these three bills represent a significant step forward toward cleaning up the bay for this and future generations.
Job Creation & Business Development
The legislature created a new tax credit this year to support jobs and companies coming to and operating in Maryland because of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). The credit will provide a tax offset for expenses related to obtaining security clearances. This is particularly important to Anne Arundel County, as Fort Meade is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new BRAC process, and allows Maryland businesses to be more competitive with their out-of-state counterparts. This legislation helps put Maryland contractors and workers in the best position possible to win those jobs and contracts.
The Capital Budget is the best tool that state government has to support job growth in a construction industry hit hard by the recent national recession. This year, the Capital Budget, totaling $1.1 billion, creates and maintains 44,000 jobs by making substantial investments in the state’s infrastructure. This includes over $360M in school construction and modernization and nearly $300M for the state’s universities, community colleges, hospitals and research and development institutions. Anne Arundel County will receive $138 million in capital funding from the state for projects including renovations to Northeast, Broadneck, Chesapeake and Annapolis High Schools, improvements to Sandy Point State Park, Annapolis Public Boating Facilities, construction at Anne Arundel Community College as well as funding for capital improvements at the YWCA and Hospice of the Chesapeake. Upgrading Maryland’s infrastructure puts our citizens back to work while positioning Maryland for the future.
Strong Schools for a Strong Future
Over the past decade, state tax dollars have supported a nearly 100% increase in public school funding for local governments. Some counties, however, have not kept pace with our investment at the state level. Important legislation passed this session to protect the state’s investment in education by requiring counties to continue to provide adequate funding for education while giving them the flexibility to make adjustments in tough times. Legislation signed by Governor O’Malley last week, closes loopholes in the existing law and requires counties to apply to the State Board of Education for a waiver if they are unable to maintain their commitment. The legislation encourages counties and local school systems to find shared efficiencies to reduce ongoing expenses. A well-educated workforce is the key to our state’s future so we must continue to invest in our public school systems.
Over the past decade, Maryland educators have reported a significant reduction in instructional time devoted to social studies in all grades. Last year, after the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) discontinued the Government High School Assessment, the Senate President and I joined together to craft legislation to reinstate the Government High School Assessment in the 2015-2016 school year and require that MSDE develop and implement a middle school social studies assessment. Government only works when there is an educated and engaged citizenry so we must ensure that every student understands how our government works.
On average, about 9500 students per year drop out of Maryland public high schools. Legislation passed this session phases in an increase in the age of compulsory school attendance from 15 to 17. Beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, children will have to remain in school through age 16. In the 2017-18 school year, the age would rise again to 17 – meaning students could not drop out until turning 18. In addition, the legislation requires the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) to analyze local interventions currently used to support students at-risk for dropping out of school and make recommendations for best practices. MSDE will also develop a GED Option program for the State of Maryland that will enable eligible students to stay enrolled in school while studying for the GED.
The General Assembly passed ethics reform and campaign finance legislation this session to create even more transparency for the public. Now, legislators’ conflict of interest forms will be completed electronically and posted online. Legislators will also be asked to submit their occupation/employer or primary business interest as well as that of their spouse to the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. Candidates for public office will also be required to post the occupation and employer of contributors who give more than $500 between elections, making it even clearer from where campaign contributions originate.
Subject to approval by Maryland voters at the November 2012 General Election, legislation passed this session proposing to amend the state constitution to suspend from office without pay or benefits any state or local elected official who is found guilty of a felony or certain misdemeanors related to the elected official’s public duties. Currently, the constitution provides for such suspension only on conviction, which often occurs months after an initial finding of guilt. In addition, the legislation proposes to amend the constitution to remove immediately from office a state or local official who pleads guilty to a felony or certain misdemeanors related to the elected official’s public duties. This provision closes a loophole that currently allows an elected official who has pled guilty to remain in office through sentencing when guilt is clear and no possibility of an appeal exists.
Required under the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), legislation passed to implement the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange and make health insurance more affordable and accessible for thousands of Marylanders. The Exchange will be a fair, transparent marketplace that provides individuals and small businesses one-stop comparison-shopping for affordable insurance options. Private insurers will offer competitive plans, allowing consumers to compare rates, benefits, and quality to find coverage that best suits their needs. The Exchange will help low-income Marylanders determine their eligibility for Medicaid or federal subsidies to buy private plans, and it will support small business access to affordable coverage. The federal government must certify The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange Act of 2012, by January 1, 2013.
Equal Rights under the Law
During the 2012 legislative session, the governor introduced and the General Assembly passed, the Civil Marriage Protection Act, providing same sex couples in Maryland the legal right to marry. The legislation confers upon same sex married couples all of the rights and responsibilities that now apply only to heterosexual married couples. These include health related benefits, tax benefits and responsibilities, financial rights and responsibilities, adoption rights and other rights and responsibilities regarding the children of same sex married couples. With the passage of HB438, Maryland became the 8th state in the country to legalize same sex marriage. This legislation extends important protections to many Maryland families.
The Act provides only for civil marriage and includes what are likely the most stringent religious protections in the country, no church or religious clergy are required to condone, officiate, or in any way participate in the solemnization or promotion of a same sex marriage ceremony.
The bill also extends protections and immunities from civil suits to religious organizations, associations, societies and any non-profit institutions operated, supervised or controlled by the same. As of this writing, an effort is underway by opponents of the legislation to petition the bill to referendum. If this effort is successful, Maryland voters, in November’s General Election, will decide the issue of civil marriage.
As you have likely seen in recent news accounts, the two chambers of the General Assembly agreed to, but were unable to pass in time, three bills that comprised the Fiscal Year 2013 budget package: (1) a Budget Bill containing specific spending reductions; (2) a Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act (BRFA) to implement certain reductions and share costs with local governments; and (3) a State and Local Revenue and Financing Act to increase revenues for state and local governments so that spending priorities such as education and public safety can continue to be protected. The combination of these bills would have nearly eliminated the structural deficit that Maryland, like all other states, has been grappling with since the start of the national recession in 2007.
On the final day of session, the legislature passed the Budget Bill as required by the constitution, containing $512 million in contingent reductions that would take effect only in the event that the other two components of the budget package did not pass. In addition, the bill contained over $200 million in other spending reductions that affect both this and the upcoming fiscal year.
The Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act did not pass. This legislation would have shared with the counties a portion of the costs of funding pensions for educators in their schools. At full phase-in, county governments would have been responsible for approximately one-third of teacher pension costs while the state would have continued to cover the remaining two-thirds.
The revenue agreement between the two chambers also failed to pass. Negotiations on that bill centered mostly on who would be affected. The House of Delegates took a firm position that to the extent possible, the state should avoid raising taxes on the middle class. This sentiment ultimately prevailed and the bill, as agreed upon, would have required only the top 13% of tax filers to pay more.
As the final day of session came to a close, it was apparent that two components of the budget package, agreed to by both chambers, would not have time to pass. Under the state constitution, the legislative session can be extended by a 3/5 vote of the members of each chamber of the General Assembly. While the House of Delegates passed such a measure, the Senate did not, effectively ending session before the full budget package and other legislation could be passed.
As a result, the $512 million in additional budget cuts will take effect including: eliminating almost $200 million in K-12 education funding, which may result in changes to classrooms at the local level; cutting $21 million in local law enforcement grants, which will likely eliminate several successful public safety initiatives that have reduced crime in jurisdictions across the state; cutting $39 million in funding to public universities, which will result in tuition increases; reducing state support for private universities and colleges; cutting $25 million in tax credits for construction on historic buildings and important medical research; reducing funding for developmental disabilities, foster care, and mental health providers; and laying off approximately 500 state workers. At the time of this writing, it is unclear whether the governor will call the General Assembly back into a special session to finish work on the budget or whether these cuts will stand.
If you have additional questions or need more information, please do not hesitate to contact my office at 410-841-3800. As always, thank you for your continued support.
Michael E. Busch