Legislative Leaders Tell Counties To Lobby Against Cuts

… Say they won’t raise taxes unless local officials ask them to …


By Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

9:56 PM EST, January 12, 2011

Gov. Martin O’Malley had already said he wouldn’t propose tax increases this year. And as Maryland’s legislative session opened Wednesday, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller made it clear that lawmakers don’t want to, either — unless county leaders ask them to.

The Democratic leaders said they will look to Baltimore and the 23 counties to reject O’Malley’s budget and propose alternatives to lawmakers. Options could include increases to state taxes on millionaires, gasoline and alcohol. Or county officials could hike local property and income taxes, they said.

In a session where the state’s freshly reelected 188 lawmakers and O’Malley must close a $1.6 billion deficit, the legislative leaders made it clear that lobbying by the counties will play a key role, particularly if the governor continues defer to others on the tax debate.

O’Malley is due to unveil his spending plan next week. State finances are expected to dominate the 90-day session.

“I don’t for a second think that this will be the last word on the budget,” O’Malley, a Democrat, told the newly sworn-in House of Delegates in remarks during the brief and largely ceremonial opening day of Maryland’s 428th legislative session.

Spouses and children joined many of the lawmakers, including 30 new delegates and 10 new senators, in the ornate and historic chambers.

At the annual morning legislative forum hosted by radio personality Marc Steiner before the session, Busch predicted O’Malley’s budget would include “significant pain at the local level,” including further depletion of road maintenance money.

When they see what’s in store, Busch said, county leaders might want to make their case to lawmakers.

“If there is some kind of reaction from county executives and city governments to come to Annapolis and say, ‘This is not palatable for us. We have to look at some alternative,’ ” Busch said, “I think many members of the General Assembly and the governor will get together and find if there is some way to increase revenues.”

Following tradition, county executives and municipal leaders mingled in the State House lobby before and after the day’s session, rubbing elbows with lawmakers and administration officials. The State House also was packed with advocates for a wide range of causes and groups.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, the president of the Maryland Association of Counties, said there has been “internal discussion” among county executives about increasing the gas tax — so long as the money helps counties with local road projects. He said Howard County has not seen a major state-funded repaving project in two years.

Ulman, a Democrat, said “some” other county executives would support a gas tax increase. He said he is “conflicted” about a separate proposal to increase the state’s alcohol tax.

Newly elected Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, a Democrat, was more direct: “I’m planning to tell our delegation to support any measure to put revenue in the state’s coffers.”

He also pledged to testify in Annapolis for increased gas and sin taxes.

Democratic Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said he would “fight hard” for alcohol and gas tax increases.

But Republican county executives said they won’t be joining that push.

Harford County Executive David Craig said raising taxes at either the local or state level “will do nothing but drive out more businesses,” further eroding state revenues.

“We can’t be taking money out of people’s pockets right now,” he said.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said he doesn’t support increasing taxes on gas or alcohol, but said if lawmakers do raise the gas tax, they owe it to motorists to use the money on transportation projects.

O’Malley has routinely transferred money out of the transportation trust fund to pay for state operating expenses.

Miller has been one of the most vocal supporters of a gas tax increase, which has remained at 23.5 cents per gallon for nearly two decades. In 2007, he pushed to raise the rate by 12 cents. But crude oil prices began skyrocketing that year, and the legislation failed.

Gas prices are rising again. Miller said Wednesday there is “never a good time” for a tax increase; he said success would likely require the governor’s active participation.

“A governor has to spend political capital to make it happen,” Miller said. “He’s going to have to lead.”

An increase to the alcohol tax would be a more difficult sell, at least in the Senate. Miller called the idea “nonsense.”

At a conference of local leaders last week in Cambridge, the Senate president pointed out that counties could be doing more to save money and to increase taxes.

Miller and Busch both have noted in recent weeks that state employees have endured far more furlough days that their local counterparts. At the same time, they said, counties have not been raising local taxes — and have in some cases even decreased them.

Just four jurisdictions — Baltimore, and Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — levy the maximum local income tax rate allowed by state law. Five counties reduced property taxes this year; seven did last year.

Miller said Wednesday that Maryland is “awash in money compared to other states” and some counties are “stuck in the Dark Ages” when it comes to being creative with taxes, pointing out that many do not levy parking, amusement or hotel taxes.

Some county executives said state leaders seem to have short memories about what they’ve asked the counties to do over the years.

“For two decades, the state has balanced its budget by raiding funds that would have otherwise gone to the counties,” Leopold said. He said his county has lost almost all of what two years ago amounted to more than $25 million in state aid for road maintenance. Dredging and land-preservation money also has dried up, he said.

“The counties have shared the burden of reductions,” Leopold said.

Craig described the situation as “frustrating” and argued that county leaders were more adept at budget management than state legislators.

“Nobody in there had to wake up this morning and worry about snow removal,” he said. “We did.”



Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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