We have just passed the mid-point in the legislative session. Each day seems to get longer and longer as we convene early and hold hearings and meetings into the evening in order to handle our work.
Let me start with some very good news. The state Interagency Committee on School Construction has advanced funding for the Hampton Elementary School addition. Full funding is all but assured. This is a terrific step forward for alleviating the severe overcrowding which is impairing the learning of students.
The Stoneleigh Elementary School community banded together to encourage the County Planning Board to recommend funds for the design and engineering for an addition at Stoneleigh. I initiated contact with Board members and the County Executive to ask that money be made available for the addition. On March 3, with help from the Board Chair, the Planning Board recommended that $2 million be moved into a category for schools in the York Road Corridor and further, that the money be designated for an addition at Stoneleigh. This, too is great news!
Problems with the use of schools for craft fairs and other activities continue. The House delegation has asked the school system to reevaluate its policies and rules to make school property more available. I consider the schools to be community buildings that the community should be able to access. We will continue to work on opening schools for more PTA and school based fund raising.
Both the House and Senate will be forming a task force to examine the composition of and way to choose the Baltimore County Board of Education. I have worked on this issue for four years. We need greater accountability and responsiveness by the school board – and I do not like delay. But, this year’s political realities make the task force a reasonable alternative. We will develop a solution for introduction next year. I also want to thank the County teachers’ association for hosting two public meetings to get input on this important issue.
Lastly, let me thank the Teachers Association for inviting me to read Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go” to a group of very young boys and girls at Barnes and Noble as part of Read Across America. What a terrific community activity – and I had a lot of fun!
Since revenues remain flat, reaching a balanced budget is very difficult. The House Appropriations Committee is working feverishly to put together the budget for the coming year. They are struggling with cuts to Medicaid, public education, and local funds for highways, community colleges and libraries. The other major budget issues are the pension and health care benefits of employees and retirees and the growing transportation needs. The Governor made a proposal that is being dissected to determine what may be fair for retirees, state workers and teachers.
While there are many bills regarding taxes and tax credits, the two most notable are the alcohol tax and gas tax. The alcohol tax does calculate to be $.10 a drink. It also translates to an additional $2.40 for a case (24 cans/bottles) of beer, about $1 for a bottle of wine and nearly $4 for a bottle of liquor. The tax on beer and wine has not been raised since the early 1970’s and since 1955 for liquor. I have heard the many pros and cons of this proposal but am a co-sponsor because the added income is to be directed to health care needs, including the growing number of people with mental and physical disabilities who lack appropriate services.
I am more concerned about the gas tax. First, I acknowledge that we need hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars for our roads, bridges, and transit. However, we have not been able to protect the Transportation Trust Fund so we cannot be sure that future gas taxes are going for these needs. Secondly, with gas prices sky rocketing, I am very reluctant to support an additional financial burden. The increased cost of gas is not just felt at the pump but, as other prices go up, further limits the money available for meeting other necessities.
Same Sex Marriage or Marriage Equality
While the budget is contentious, the issue that has evoked the greatest tension is the Civil Marriage Protection Act (HB 175/SB 116) which says that a marriage between two individuals, who are not otherwise prohibited from marrying, is valid in Maryland. The amended Senate bill, which passed nearly two weeks ago, also allows religious entities to deny access to facilities, services, accommodations, goods or privileges if it violates that entity’s religious beliefs.
The House Committee was scheduled to vote on the bill early last week but two Delegates held it up. On Friday, however, the House Judiciary Committee gave the amended bill a favorable report by a vote of 12-10, reflecting the division that exists in the House. The full House is expected to vote on this bill this week.
I am a co-sponsor of the bill and intend to vote for it. I believe that we can and should support two people who are in a loving relationship and who want to make a formal commit to each other. Being married brings respect and acknowledgement by others in our society of the commitment two people are willing to make.
Many recognize that equality cannot be achieved for gay people without fully extending the right to marry. I know many gay people who have been in relationships for 10, 15 and 20 years. They have raised children, shared pain and pleasures of their love and, yet, do not have the basic, civil right to marry. I have heard from hundreds of constituents and a significant majority supports this change in Maryland law. The House is expected to be very close.
My bill to allow wineries to sell bottles at farmers’ markets was heard last week and had a good reception. I hope to see it move soon. At the same time, my bill to require that apartments and condominiums provide recycling is sputtering but, with a little more work, I am confident we can pass it. This bill was also filed by Senator Brochin.
I had a three and a half hour hearing on HB 902 which provides that one’s source of income cannot be the basis for denying a rental or home sale. So, if the income is alimony, Social Security, a Veteran’s Administration voucher or other assistance, a landlord could not refuse to rent. The property owner can still use the same means of reviewing and approving the applicant as they always have, including rental history, criminal history, stability of income and credit. It is a tough issue since many landlords do not want to be required to participate in government programs. A coalition of more than 40 groups has been working with me on this issue. And, importantly, where this law is in place, problems in finding decent and affordable housing has been dramatically reduced.
In previous newsletters, I mentioned my efforts to address pollution from septic systems. I have three such bills this year. Well, while both the Governor and Committee Chair remain committed to the issues raised in my bills, the pressure to pull back has been tremendous. In all fairness, this is a complicated issue that involves our farms, pollution of the Bay, growth management in Maryland and how we direct our resources. This Friday, HB 1107, which limits housing developments on individual septic systems, will be heard in the Environmental Matters Committee. I anticipate that the outcome will not be a passed bill but an intensive, post session work group.
The House regularly is visited by distinguished guests. Recently, Maryland based entertainers Chuck Brown and Run DMC came, as did the Cat in the Hat, star high school and youth athletes, the President of Hopkins Hospital and visitors from China. But perhaps the most profound guest was Leo Bretholtz who came last week. A holocaust survivor who escaped from a train car on its way to Auschwitz, Leo has committed to telling his own story so that others may know of the horrors of the Holocaust and the strength and efforts by Jews and others to survive the terror. I was honored to have the chance to meet and talk with him.
I welcome any thoughts or comments you have about legislation before the General Assembly. You can reach me at 410-841-3487 or at Stephen.Lafferty@house.state.md.us. You can also follow legislation and hearings at www.mlis.state.md.us. We have been inundated by constituents who care deeply about the marriage equality issue so I apologize for any delays in responding to your emails or letters.