The 2013 legislative session just came to a close: a lot was accomplished in a 90-day time period and I want to provide you with some of the highlights. We passed a balanced budget that reflects our values as a state, we continued record investments in our schools, we protected healthcare and unlike many other states we kept down increases in college tuition all while preparing for any impact from the Federal sequester.
While not everyone will agree with every decision made in Annapolis this session, I am proud that, unlike the gridlock we are all witnessing on Capitol Hill, our Governor and our Legislature faced some very tough issues head-on and made decisions that balanced our budget and will improve our quality of life. It is my greatest honor to represent the citizens of District 30 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. Senator John Astle and I continue to work closely together with our 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.
MORE SUPPORT FOR ANNAPOLIS AND ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY
State operating aid to Anne Arundel County increased by almost 7%, with police aid, transportation, education and open space receiving the most significant increases, bringing the total State aid for the County to $475 million. On the capital side, the County will receive $66 million in funds for school construction, waterway improvement, and community initiatives, including:
· Over $25 million in school construction dollars, including over $4 million for Annapolis High School, $2.5 million for Phoenix Annapolis at Germantown Elementary School, $1 million each for Annapolis Elementary, Mills-Parole Elementary and Rolling Knolls Elementary schools.
· $17 million for upgrades to the Annapolis Water Treatment Plant
· $1.4 million for renovations to the Administration Building at Anne Arundel Community College
· $700,000 for upgrades at Sandy Point State Park
· $500,000 for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts
· $500,000 to renovate the Clatanoff Pavilion for Women’s and Children’s Services at Anne Arundel Medical Center
· $250,000 for restoration of William Paca House
I worked closely with the Governor to provide the Annapolis Historic Foundation with $125,000 in additional operating support to allow this organization to continue the important work of historic preservation in and around our capital city.
We also passed legislation extending the County’s warrant intercept program, which requires the Comptroller to withhold income tax refunds from those individuals with outstanding warrants in Anne Arundel County. The House passed important legislation to give County employees protections if they are discriminated against by the County government, but that legislation did not pass the Senate.
ELIMINATING THE STATE’S STRUCTURAL DEFICIT AND PROTECTING OUR PRIORITIES
After years of struggling with recessionary budgets, the Legislature and the Governor have all but erased the state’s structural deficit. Ongoing revenues now cover 99% of state spending and our state fund balance exceeds $1 billion this year. By FY 2017, the state is projected to have a budget surplus. We accomplished this through a combination of difficult spending cuts and revenue increases. These actions have been implemented in a strategic manner that allow Maryland to remain one of only 9 states with a AAA bond rating and at the same time, to maintain a high quality of life for our citizens.
This year, the Governor and the Legislature set aside $100 million to hedge against the potential impact of federal sequestration cuts. Growth in spending increases only 2.3% in the current budget, well under the 4.5% forecasted growth in state personal income. Overall, state spending has increased less under the current Administration than under each of our four previous Governors.
Once again, education is the largest category of budgetary expense, accounting for nearly half of the state’s general fund budget. This investment has paid off. For the 5th straight year, Maryland’s public school system is ranked first in the nation. While other states have experienced double-digit tuition increases at their public institutions of higher education, tuition in Maryland has risen only three percent per year in each of the past three years following three years of zero tuition increase.
FUNDING THE STATE’S TRANSPORTATION NETWORK
While I know increasing the gas tax is not a popular thing to do, the State’s fixed-rate gasoline tax has not been raised in over 20 years and has not kept pace with inflation and rising construction costs. Today, the D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan areas are the 1st and 5th most congested in the nation. By 2017, Maryland will not have enough transportation funding for anything except maintenance of its existing infrastructure. The Governor proposed and the General Assembly passed a comprehensive transportation funding bill that will maintain our economic competitiveness with surrounding states, create thousands of new jobs, and ease congestion by investing in our transportation infrastructure. Eighteen states – including our neighbors Pennsylvania and Virginia – are considering or have recently passed legislation that would raise their gas tax rates as well. It was important to me that we minimize the impact to consumers on the front end, so I proposed a slower phase-in of the wholesale gas tax. This year, a 1% sales tax on gasoline will start on July 1st, equivalent to 3.8 cents per gallon. The rate will increase to 2% in January of 2015 and 3% in July of 2015. If Congress passes federal Internet sales tax legislation by December 1, 2015, those sales tax revenues are dedicated to transportation. We also passed a transportation lockbox, to be considered by the voters in the 2014 election, to reassure State residents that Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) revenues will be used solely for their intended purpose.
CLEANING UP THE BAY and PLANNING FOR CLEAN ENERGY
The General Assembly made a significant investment in Maryland’s energy future and economic development with the passage of the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act. This legislation will help advance Maryland’s renewable energy goals, with the potential construction of a major wind energy project off of Maryland’s coast as well as create over 1,000 jobs in construction and ongoing operations. The legislature also continued to support cleaning up and protecting the Chesapeake Bay and its waterways, including establishing a voluntary Maryland Agricultural Certainty Program (SB1029) to certify farms that meet State agricultural nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment reduction goals; improving monitoring and reporting of sewage overflows into the Bay; and passing a tax credit to help growth the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population by recycling used oyster shells.
ENDING THE DEATH PENALTY
As many of you know, I supported the death penalty early in my legislative career. As more evidence came forward about the possibility of putting an innocent person to death, the cost to taxpayers and the racial and jurisdictional disparities in Maryland’s capital punishment system, I supported the repeal of the death penalty. Maryland will continue to have a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Maryland became the 18th state in the nation to eliminate the use of capital punishment, along with 141 other countries across the globe.
PIT BULL DECISION REMAINS UNCHANGED
PIT BULL DECISION REMAINS UNCHANGED
While we passed important legislation this year to deal with the animal shelter overpopulation and animal euthanasia rates by establishing a stronger spay and neuter program, I am disappointed to tell you that we were not able to reach a compromise to overturn a Court of Appeals decision that discriminates against pit bulls. While we passed compromise legislation early in session, the Maryland Senate added onerous requirements for dog owners that ultimately may have led to increased homeowner’s insurance rates. With the uncertainty of the impact to homeowners insurance, the House did not pass the conference committee bill. This remains an important issue that we will again work on this interim, with the hopes of passing legislation next session.
PROMOTING THE BOATING INDUSTRY IN MARYLAND
Maryland is home to the Chesapeake Bay, yet Maryland boat dealers and marinas continue to report declining employment since 2007. As a result of declining sales, the Department of Natural Resources has seen revenue in the Waterway Improvement Fund drop significantly since 2007. Senator Astle and I worked closely to pass SB90, which takes a two-fold approach: redirects 0.5% of motor fuel tax revenue (approximately $3M) to fund the Waterway Improvement Fund, while capping the vessel excise tax for the purchase of new boats for three years to encourage more purchases, registration and repair of boats in Maryland to rejuvenate the boating industry.
This year, the House created a Business Climate Workgroup, a bipartisan cross-section of legislators to focus on business issues, engage the business community and advocate for legislation that supports the business community. Legislation this year creates a streamlined public-private partnership process that encourages private sector investment in infrastructure development in Maryland. P3s are an innovative financing tool that will allow State budget dollars to go further; leverage private sector investment; and, jumpstart infrastructure development, which will create a significant number of jobs.
The legislature also passed two new laws to help connect people with employment. The Maryland Employment Advancement Right Now (EARN) Program establishes a competitive grant program to connect Marylanders to jobs by closing critical skills gaps that prevent their employment and will ultimately grow sectors of the State’s economy that are vital to our future economic competitiveness; and the Veterans Full Employment Act of 2013 that expedites the issuance of occupational and professional licenses, registrations, and certificates for active military personnel, veterans, and their spouses who relocate to Maryland from another state.
We also focused this year on creating and enhancing tax credits. The U.S. Chamber has ranked Maryland #1 for entrepreneurship and innovation, while the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation says Maryland is among the 5 states best positioned to succeed in the new economy. We expanded the research and development tax credit; security clearance tax credit for BRAC and the biotechnology tax credit; and created the cybersecurity investment tax credit.
Following the massacre of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut this past December, gun safety not only took center stage nationally but also at the state level. The United States has more guns per capita than any other country in the world, and approximately 283 million guns in civilian hands. The average number of guns per owner has increased from 4.1 in 1994 to 6.4 in 2004, while the number of gun owning households has steadily declined over the past four decades. In 2011, for the first time in 14 years, firearms were the leading cause of death for police officers in the line of duty.
I worked closely with the Governor this year to pass common sense gun control measures that do not criminalize Maryland gun owners, but keep military style weapons off of our streets. The Firearms Safety Act of 2013 bans military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazine clips like those that killed the children in Newtown; establishes a new licensing system for handguns, which account for the majority of gun deaths in our State; requires gun safety training courses for first time handgun purchasers; and establishes important new restrictions on access to firearms for those suffering from serious mental illness. In addition, the bill targets straw purchases by requiring mandatory reporting of lost and stolen firearms and prohibits gun ownership by those given probation before judgment for serious criminal offenses including domestic violence.
While tough gun laws are important, they are only part of a comprehensive strategy to combat gun violence. In addition to the legislation passed this year, the FY 2014 budget contains over $37 million aimed at increasing public safety, including $25 million for safety improvements at schools.
Two bills also passed this year that will toughen Maryland’s laws on human traffickers: an asset forfeiture law to seize real property, vehicles and cash from defendants convicted of human trafficking; and a bill eliminating a defendant’s ability to claim “mistake of age” in cases that involve human sex trafficking of a minor.
TIGHTENING CAMPAIGN FINANCE
To help eliminate long wait times at the polls and improve voter access, we passed legislation to expand early voting dates, times and locations; increase penalties for voter fraud; and authorize same day voter registration, with proof of residency, during early voting periods.
The Supreme Court in its decision in Citizens United removed the limits on campaign contributions known as “independent expenditures” or “electioneering communications” which led to a staggering $6 billion spent on such expenditures during the 2012 election cycle. We also passed significant campaign finance reform, to close loopholes preventing owners of LLCs, such as developers and casino owners, from spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in an election; require reporting of donors to entities that make independent expenditures; establish civil penalties for violations of campaign laws; and increase the reporting of potential conflicts of interest in the procurement process. Maryland now has among the strongest reporting requirements in the nation for money spent during an election by entities operating independently from campaigns.
As always, it is my honor to continue to represent you in the Maryland House of Delegates. If you have additional questions or need more information, please do not hesitate to contact my office at 410-841-3800.
Michael E. Busch