County Issues Watch – Week of March 28 – April 1

The General Assembly has passed its “crossover” date, meaning most legislation destined to pass has been approved by its house of origin. As always, exceptions apply – and there remains much work to be done in Annapolis in these final days until the April 11 end of session. Here we will detail issues of interest to the county community that are likely to play out during the week of March 28-April 1, 2011.

Budget Conference

The Senate will debate its budget plan on the floor this week, and then House and Senate budget leaders will begin their conference — meetings between the two chambers to produce a consensus budget plan to bring to both chambers for a final “up or down” vote. Most of the major county fiscal issues have seemingly been narrowed by agreement between the two chambers — rejecting a massive shift of teacher pensions, rejecting a dismantling of Program Open Space and other transfer tax funded programs, but agreeing to a substantial cost shift for administration of the pension system. Continued debate will likely address reforms to pension and health care benefits for employees, and different approaches to revenues from the two houses.

On the list for county governments, the largest dollar amount remaining unresolved is the proposed shift of assessment costs, beginning in FY 2012. The Governor proposed shifting 90% of these costs (about $35 million), the House reduced this shift to 50% (roughly $20 million), but the Senate accepted the Governor’s full shift proposal. The amount of this shift will have an immediate impact on county budgets still in development.

Maintenance of Effort – Waiver Deadline May Focus Discussion

SB 53 and HB 44, the two bills MACo has supported to reform the waiver process for Maintenance of Effort, remain apparently stalled in their committees. Both bills had public hearings weeks ago (February 2 in the Senate, February 9 in the House), but neither has been taken up for attention in a subcommittee, nor brought up for a final committee vote. With the bills introduced as “Emergency Bills” (meaning they would take effect immediately upon being signed into law), MACo had hoped for prompt action to reform the waiver process for FY 2012 budgets. However, with no new legislation in effect, the State Board of Education’s April 1 deadline for waiver requests remains, and the standards and timing under current law will apparently remain in effect for this year’s requests.

MACo remains hopeful for action on these important bills. If multiple counties seek waivers for the Fy 2012 budget year, perhaps the legislative committees will recognize the breadth of the issues raised by this challenging funding level in an environment of declining revenues.

Should State Law Extend Local Permits?

HB 1050, legislation to provide an extended “tolling period” for local permits has passed the House, and is heard this week in the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. MACo has opposed the bill, raising concerns that its overbroad application simply mandates one-size-fits-all rules to a wide spectrum of local permits — many of which apply to land use decisions that may have been appropriate at their origination in 2008, 2009, or 2010, but do not necessarily merit a multi-year extension granted by the bill. A similar bill failed in this Senate committee last year, but MACo will continue efforts to articulate the importance of local autonomy in managing these local approvals.

Unemployment Insurance – Potential for Relief?

The Administration’s bill ( HB 1228/SB 882) to accept federally-paid extended unemployment insurance benefits for private sector workers has raised concerns with the effect on public sector employers, who are self-insured and must pay for these benefits directly. MACo and MML have jointly worked to seek administrative relief from these costs, and are pursuing amendment language to effect some offset to these potential costs. Both bills are still awaiting action, presumably pending the outcome of these negotiations.

Keep reading the Conduit Street blog for developing news on county issues as the session progresses.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties

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