Gas Tax, Chesapeake Bay and Pensions Among Policy Issues to be Discussed This Session

The Baltimore Sun reports that the $1.6 billion budget deficit tops the list of difficult issues legislators will deal with during the 90 session, but many policy issues are also on the table.  A few of these issues, which will affect all counties, are listed below.

The gas tax

Maryland hasn’t raised its 23.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax in nearly two decades. The state Transportation Trust Fund, which the tariff supports, is dwindling.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is among the leaders in Annapolis who support raising the gas tax. Opposition is expected from Republicans, and the question of what to do with the new revenue could provoke fights even among supporters.

Miller and other Democratic legislators say a gas tax increase would enable them to stop diverting money from the general sales tax to the transportation fund. Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry described such a move as “just a behind-the-door way of adding more money to the general fund.”

But Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, hinted that a gas increase would go toward day-to-day state operations.

“As we have in the past, we can borrow from the Transportation Trust Fund,” the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Chesapeake Bay

Efforts to accelerate cleanup of the bay are likely to be handicapped this year by the state budget crisis, but some lawmakers hope to reduce pollution by limiting homeowners’ use of fertilizer.

Lawn services are regulated to reduce runoff, and the nutrient content of fertilizer sold in home-and-garden stores has been slashed through voluntary agreement with the industry. But proponents say there is room for further reductions by spelling out when and how fertilizer can be applied by individuals — barring application when it’s raining or during late fall, for instance.

Environmentalists, who could receive support from unlikely allies in the building industry, also plan to renew efforts to make Maryland’s communities deal with their runoff. Advocates intend to revive a bill that died last year that would require all Maryland counties and municipalities to raise funds for retrofitting storm drains, installing rain gardens and other measures to capture and filter rainwater that flushes pollution into streams and, ultimately, the bay.

All of the state’s localities have the authority to levy storm-water pollution fees, but only a few do. The costs of retrofitting storm drains and reducing runoff in communities statewide is estimated at $10 billion to $20 billion. The O’Malley administration did not support the bill last year, and it died in the Senate amid opposition from local officials. The administration has indicated it would support mandating storm-water fees in a year or two if localities fail to act to fund pollution-control measures.

Pensions

Scaling back the state’s ballooning pension costs is among O’Malley’s priorities. He hasn’t said how he will do it, but he has taken some options off the table.

He opposes the idea of creating a 401(k)-style retirement arrangement. “Rather than privatize the system, I think we have to make a sustainable defined benefit for the long term,” O’Malley said.

He also won’t propose shifting the costs of teacher pensions to local governments — at least this year. That announcement won him a standing ovation from anxious local leaders at a pre-session meeting with the Maryland Association of Counties, but he could just be delaying the pain: He said he wants to tackle systematic changes before having a “conversation” about making a shift.

A pension sustainability commission chaired by Democratic former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has proposed several ideas: increasing the number of years before an employee becomes eligible for a pension and health care; pegging cost-of-living increases to investment returns rather than inflation; and reducing other benefits.

Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has vowed to fight “tooth and nail” against any proposed changes to the package of benefits for retired state workers.

The state teachers union is pushing the idea of delaying — Annapolis-speak for killing — wholesale changes to the plan. David Helfman, executive director of the Maryland State Education Association, called the pension commission’s work “offensive” and “rushed.” He said lawmakers who support reducing benefits would hear “loud and clear” from his members.

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