At the February 9 meeting of MACo’s Legislative Committee, Speaker Michael Busch shared some thoughts on the legislative session ahead. He reflected on the “interesting times” facing all policymakers, and delved into fiscal issues affecting both the state and its local governments.
Speaker Busch did acknowledge that the deep cuts to county and municipal governments essentially came “off the top” as the Governor’s budget came together, and did recognize that the “very deep cuts to highway user revenues, as well as local jails and other things” were a meaningful reduction to counties. He discussed the nature of some other cutbacks in the Governor’s proposed budget, calling several of the proposed cuts and shifts “serious.” Speaking to counties generally, the Speaker said he was pleased with a “pretty good flow of communication” with county leaders.
The Speaker commented on revenues as part of the budget plan for this year, reiterating the public comments he has previously made on the subject: “I don’t sense any appetite for new revenues in the membership [of the House of Delegates].” He commented on the two most widely discussed tax proposals, potential increases in the tax rates on motor fuel or alcoholic beverages. “If there are going to be any revenue increases, it’s going to have to come from the bottom up,” he said in discussing the motor fuel taxes, “we would have to see locals to go to their delegation, and get them going on it.” He agreed there was “some talk about the alcoholic beverage tax,” but suggested that the tax burdens were more than had been described by advocates. “That ‘dime a drink’ that people talk about, it doesn’t mean it’s that simple,” he noted, and mentioned how application of the tax affects pricing differently for different types of beverages.
The Speaker also commented on the Governor’s proposal, raised during the State of the State speech last week, to stop any major developments being approved on septic systems. The Speaker joined many in expressing surprise about the proposal, and indicated “I’m still learning about the issue… and learning what is meant by a ‘major development.’ I’m told that might just be five houses.”
Following questions on the potential for a shift of teacher pension responsibilities, the Speaker suggested the issue faced “legislative math,” as he detailed the positions within segments of the house of Delegates making such an item’s passage difficult. “Unless the Governor is engaged with a plan, we’re not going to take that on,” he indicated.
With another question dealing with the proposed shift of costs for property assessment functions, the Speaker reminded the Committee that “We [the House of Delegates] opposed that before, when it came up two years ago,” and noted that “it should be our responsibility.” He did note that proposed budget cuts represent a challenge, as “you have to find $35 million to do that [resist the proposed cost shift].”