Your Key Takeaways From The #MACoCon General Assembly Forecast

U.S. Senator Cardin gives Federal outlook as part of 2017 General Assembly Forecast Session

Every year’s winter conference lands at just the right time to hear of plans ahead for the legislative session. As usual, a large crowd gathered to hear four prolific leaders offer their views for the 2017 session. Here are a few key items that were raised that seem to set the tone for counties and other Conduit Street readers.

#1 – Budget Uncertainty: Well, That Escalated Quickly

Both Senate President Miller and House Speaker Busch dwelt on economic issues, noting the recent write-down in state revenues and speculating on the effects for the coming year’s budget. President Miller spoke of making “real cuts to programs,” but ruled out tax increases as a component of the solution for the year ahead. Without much specificity, it seems clear that the last two years’ relative fiscal comfort (and even a year without the need for a reconciliation bill!) have given way to a tougher task for FY 2018. The on-the-margin budget decisions are going to gather more attention in the 2017 session than the first two years of this Administration’s tenure.

Expect attention on the state’s revenue forecasting methods, a potentially tougher road for tax reduction proposals, and more general engagement from service recipients.

#2 – Eyes On Washington

Maryland has multiple reasons to be focused on Washington DC for policy reasons. That strong connection – and currently its own uncertainty – was evident during the panel discussions as well.

Maryland has a heavy reliance on the federal workforce, as the state houses multiple major federal agencies, and hosts thousands of other federal employees as state residents. So, any changes in federal employment policies or overall workforce will have an outsized effect on the local economy. As America awaits clarity on the incoming federal Administration’s priorities – if “drain the swamp” translates to a meaningful reduction in federal workforce – expect the Maryland economy to be among the first ripple effects.

The Chesapeake Bay is also under multiple federal mandates for cleanup, as a declared “impaired waterway.” The future federal role in enforcement and oversight of Watershed Implementation Plans is another unknown. An earlier roundtable discussion at the conference focused on this in detail — but the fiscal and policy effects on state and county governments are substantial. Counties are already underway with a variety of cleanup efforts, and what trajectory makes sense for the years ahead is not yet clear.

#3 – Pieces of the Governor’s Agenda Are Coming Into View, And It May Indeed Be “Robust”

Governor Hogan’s Special Adviser Keiffer Mitchell commented on the Governor’s pending package of legislative proposals, and even the broad outlines suggest this will be the Administration’s most aggressive year before the legislature. The Governor has announced plans to introduce “family leave” legislation for private employers, which will likely help shape a high-profile debate in the year ahead. Mr. Mitchell also spoke of the transportation “scorecard” legislation from 2016, and reiterated the Governor’s intent to pursue its repeal (as the Governor himself had indicated at the MACo Summer Conference).

The Governor also plans to pursue incentives for manufacturing employers in the state, with “a focus on areas that have not been able to grow their jobs as much,” according to Mr. Mitchell. This proposal is likely to include multi-year tax incentives in economically distressed areas. Coupled with the Governor’s very visible outreach to the incoming leadership in the City of Baltimore, a focus on redevelopment and longtime “One Maryland” may be its own 2017 motif.

#4 – Nothing About Medical Marijuana Is Going To Be Mellow

While the state licensing process is not a central issue for county government, the panelists at the forecast session all recognized its gravity and spoke to it. Couple that with a standing-room-only audience at a workshop on medical cannabis earlier during the three-day conference — it’s clear that the topic remains very lively.

The takeaway? This is far from over. The licensee system, and resulting controversy, will surely trigger legislative action. And the eventual implementation of the full spectrum of growers, manufacturers, retailers and the associated questions of zoning, public safety, and security will keep this topic bubbling for the foreseeable future.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties