The Maryland General Assembly has just ended its legislative session, Sine Die. However, we left without completing some important business, due to disagreements between the House and Senate over casinos and taxes. This was the most demanding and stressful Session I have experienced while serving in the House. Although several good pieces of legislation were not addressed, there were significant achievements.
I have been, and remain, honored to serve the 42nd District and the State of Maryland. I want to thank all who contacted me during the Session with your opinions, concerns and suggestions. There were many difficult and contentious issues that generated a lot of letters, emails and phone calls. I also want to thank my Legislative Aide, Marsha Tracey, for her tremendous support and assistance.
I want to highlight some of the General Assembly’s work for you. For more information on the work of the General Assembly, please go to the web site, www.mlis.state.md.us.
State Budget and Taxes
The State Budget
The legislative “budget package” included an operating budget and revenues to reduce the structural deficit and to fund the budget. House and Senate members met for days to come to agreement on both. However, their efforts failed at the very end of the Session so that the next year’s budget will have $512 million in cuts. This includes:
Disagreements between the House and Senate prevented a revenue bill from passing so as to prevent these cuts. It does seem that we will be called into a Special Session to address and, likely prevent, these cuts.
No Gas Tax
I received a great deal of emails, letters and calls expressing concern about the proposed gas tax. No gas tax was passed this year. The advocates for the Governor’s 6% sales tax on gasoline made a very compelling case for the need for added funds, describing the deficient roads and bridges, the aging transit vehicles and the potential for significant job creation. However, I believe such an increase, at this time, would have had a too dramatic financial impact on so many businesses and individuals. I could not support the Governor’s proposal.
The Passage of Marriage Equality
Other than the budget, the passage of the Civil Marriage Protection Act was probably the most significant piece of legislation we passed this year. We recognized the civil rights of same sex couples to marry and to share in the rights and benefits of all married couples. Maryland became the eighth state to approve marriage equality. In doing so, Maryland went further in separating religious beliefs and services from the civil marriage rite. Religious organizations are protected from a claim of discrimination should they determine that they cannot provide services or facilities to same sex couples.
Selection of the Baltimore County Board of Education
After years of debate and discussion, the General Assembly again failed to support a change in the way our Board of Education is selected. Members are currently appointed by the Governor. Many wanted to keep the existing system, while many other parents and school advocates weighed in for a hybrid with 6 elected members and 5 members appointed by the Governor.
Efforts to make the proposed change were both emotional and politically challenging since the County Executive opposed any change and the Chair of the responsible committee did not want to see it passed. While her committee did “concur” after 11 p.m on the last day, there was not enough time to get it passed. This is a huge disappointment for me because I have work for five years to improve the system to ensure greater accountability.
Keeping Students in School until they are 18
Late in the Session, the legislature passed a bill to require that, except in certain circumstances, all children must stay in school until they are 18. Currently, a child can “drop out” at age 16. There was much debate about the purpose of keeping youth in school, the need for educational alternatives for those who want to leave, and the funding. I saw both sides of this issue but finally supported the bill as an important tool for better preparing young people for work and the world outside of school.
“Maintenance of Effort”
Maintenance of Effort (“MOE”) is a decades old requirement that county public school systems must maintain, at least, the same level of funding that existed in the previous year. Each county provides funds but also relies on extensive state support for its schools. Over the past few years, however, more and more counties have reduced their contributions and expected the state to provide an increase in the required funds! This is unsustainable.
I supported HB 1412, that requires each county meet its MOE, limit the ability of the counties to reduce its contributions and, if the county does not meet MOE, enables the state to redirect the county’s piggyback income tax from the county to the school system. This is a serious attempt to get each county that is not meeting MOE, or committed to providing needed funds, to take the responsibility for local public education. It is an important educational and fiscal issue for the state.
The legislature passed many good pieces of legislation to protect the environment. In some respects, the environmental legislation was the brightest part of the Session. Here are just some of them.
Recycling in Apartment Buildings and Condominiums
I was very pleased that the legislature passed my bill, HB 1, which requires apartment complexes and condominiums to provide recycling for their residents. As the number of renter’s increases, we want to provide more opportunities for them to participate in recycling. We cannot continue to add to our landfills but must support recycling.
Funding Chesapeake Bay Restoration
The Bay Restoration Fund was created with the “flush tax” of $2.50 per month to reduce pollution in the Bay and its tributaries. These funds have supported the upgrade of 40 wastewater treatment plants, extensive planting of cover crops on farms, and replaced thousands of failing septic systems. However, we do not have enough to meet our federally mandated goals and to substantially reduce pollution that goes into the Bay.
Following extensive and heated debate, the legislature passed HB 446, to increase the “flush tax” to $5 per month to meet our legal obligations to clean up the Bay. Since western Garrett County and Ocean Pines do not send water into the Bay, their fees will remain $2.50 a month. I proudly voted for this increase. The need for upgrades is so great and we are under legal requirements to address Bay pollution. Every county will be required to establish “hardship provisions” for those unable to pay. These monies will allow the upgrade of wastewater treatment facilities, including Back River, fund upgrades to more failed septic systems and add funds so farmers can plant more cover crops.
Managing Stormwater Runoff
Storm water runoff remains one of the biggest problems in the urban and suburban communities. “Storm water runoff” results when rainwater carries pollutants into the storm drains and into Bay and rivers. Reducing stormwater pollution is very expensive. After five years of discussion and debate, the legislature passed HB 987, to require ten counties, including Baltimore County, to establish a stormwater remediation fee to address this problem. These counties are already required to address stormwater as part of their Phase I Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit. Baltimore County will determine its appropriate fee. Getting better control and management of stormwater is very important so I voted for this legislation.
Sustainable Growth and Septic Systems
Another environmental victory came with the passage of SB 236, which will further restrict development on septic systems. While acknowledging local planning control and authority, it is a step towards greater protection of farmland, reducing pollution in the Bay and managing future growth. It is not nearly as strong as I wanted, and worked for, but it advances the issue of better planned growth in Maryland.
In order to further protect the environment, the legislature set Maryland apart by banning the use, sale and distribution of Roxarsone and other arsenical additives to chicken feed. However, the law will be abrogated if the federal Food and Drug Administration finds that these additives are not harmful to the environment, animals or people.
Fracking and the Marcellus Shale
The issue of drilling for gas miles below the surface with hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) was first addressed in 2011. The Governor set up a commission to thoroughly review the process, benefits and potential impacts. This year, we had ten bills regarding this process. Since the Commission has not completed its recommendations, most were not passed. One, HB 1123, was adopted to set an impact area to provide protections for homeowners whose water wells may be contaminated by this natural gas drilling.
SB 920, was one of many bills introduced to address legislative ethics. Legislators and Executive appointees must file ethics’ forms and financial disclosure statements. SB 920 will require that the ethics forms and the employer of the legislator and his/her spouse will be listed on-line to provide greater transparency and accessibility. Further improvements to ethics laws will be addressed by a study group this year. This is a good and important action that I supported.
Lead Paint Poisoning
Maryland’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has had huge success in eliminating lead paint poisoning of children. However, since the Court threw out the law last year, we took steps with HB 644, to further safeguard children by requiring all rental properties built before 1978 to comply with lead testing requirements and created a presumption that landlords have provided a lead safe or lead free unit. In order to encourage compliant landlords to stay in business, the legislature will be examining ways to provide insurance coverage.
The General Assembly passed two important bills to improve Maryland’s foreclosure picture. HB 1374, will provide for mediation with the lender earlier in the process in order to mitigate the number of foreclosures. Also, HB 1373, will create a registry of foreclosed upon properties so that neighborhoods and local governments will be able to find out who is responsible for vacant houses. This is a very important step to prevent destabilization of communities.
Source of Income
Under current Maryland law, a landlord can reject a potential tenant solely based on their source of income. Whether that source is inheritance, Veteran’s vouchers, alimony, retirement income or unemployment, there is no prohibition. I think this is wrong and have had bills for two years to change it. Unfortunately, opposition in the Senate prevented the bill from going forward again this year. However, it is a very important issue that I will continue to pursue.
The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange Act of 2012, HB 443, expands the structure of the Exchange to authorize it to contract with health insurers, to create a framework for a Small Business Health Options Program, establish standards for qualified health care plans and qualified dental plans and establishes a ‘navigator’ program. This year’s bill builds upon prior years’ work to create a Health Care Exchange in order to reduce the number of uninsured Marylanders, provide health insurance for small businesses and to provide additional options.
This was truly a demanding session. There were many difficult issues and many political and fiscal challenges to be addressed. Although the 2012 legislative Session is over, I will continue to work on those issues important to the 42nd district. If you wish to contact me, you can email me at Stephen.Lafferty@house.state.md.us or call 410-841-3487. Please note that during the interim period, our office is staffed only three days a week.