Today Senate Bill 273, State Forest, State Park, and Wildlife Management Area Revenue Equity Program passed second reading in the Senate with significant amendments, with little discussion on the floor.
This bill addresses a longstanding funding shortfall to counties for their acreage of State forests, parks, and wildlife management areas.
It establishes an Open Space Incentive Program which, as introduced, would have provided counties an annual payment of $250,000 for every 10,000 acres attributed to State forests, State parks, and wildlife management areas. As amended, however, it requires the state to pay those counties with at least 40,000 acres of qualifying open space (Allegany, Dorchester, Garrett, Somerset, and Worcester) the equivalent of property taxes for the land.
MACo believes SB 273 will serve as an appropriate incentive to counties to preserve their State forests, parks, and wildlife management areas. As State lands or designated wildlife areas, these properties are exempt from the local property tax, which is the counties’ top revenue source. These revenues fund a large portion of county expenditures from which these lands benefit, including law enforcement, emergency management services, stormwater infrastructure, and roadways. Providing services to these areas without revenues for this specific purpose draws funds away from other parts of the county budget.
Last year, both the Senate and House passed versions of Senate Bill 263, which closely resembled Senate Bill 273 as it was introduced. That bill passed out of both chambers but did not survive conference committee. MACo also supported that bill.