Building Blocks: A Guide to Curious Legislative Language About Capital Projects

This article is part of MACo’s Policy Deep Dive series, where expert policy analysts explore and explain the top county policy issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Policy Deep Dives.

During the Maryland legislative session, the General Assembly considers dozens of bills about capital projects and how governments fund, procure, and implement projects to build, expand, or repair public facilities. Some bills specifically focus on procurement and labor processes, some on funding projects and State aid, and others on requirements for the engineering and building public facilities.

Have you ever cracked open a Maryland bill and quickly realized you weren’t sure what it meant and if it affected your county? If so, you aren’t alone. Sometimes, bill language explicitly includes county governments as intended subjects. Other times, you have read between the lines. It can be hard to parse through dense legislative language to understand the intention — and the intended audience — of such bills.

Here, we dive into some tricky legislative language specific to capital projects and offer tips on determining if county governments are included in the bill.

Legislative language to look out for

The following is an unexhaustive list of terms to watch for to help you decide if a capital projects bill intends to include counties in its mandates. Many capital project bills set construction, maintenance, procurement, facility standards, and labor parameters based on the amount of State funds used to complete the project. Others focus on the government structure, using language like “governmental units.” Here are some standard legislative terms:

“Any State funds”: Some capital projects and procurement bills apply to any project that uses any State funds. For example, HB 1353 — Omnibus Procurement Reform Act (“OPRA”) of 2022 sought to significantly reform procurement policies for any county project that used any amount of State funding. The bill’s fiscal note clearly demonstrates the significance of the bill’s language around “State funds.” In this case, the bill is clear that any county project using any amount of State funding falls under the bill’s mandates.

“Percent of State funds”:  Sometimes, bills set other funding thresholds to include most county capital projects. For example, amended 2021 bill HB 37 Procurement – Prevailing Wage – Applicability before the House Economic Matters Committee applied to the “construction of public work using at least 25 percent of  State money. This would encompass most projects related to county schools, courts, detention centers, libraries, community colleges, and other smaller projects using at least 25 percent of State funds.

“Governmental unit”: Bills often refer to “governmental units” in vague language that makes it unclear if local governments are considered to be such. Reference the bill’s definitions section (after the bill summary/purpose section) for a more precise definition of the terms used in the bill and whether or not they include county governments. For example, SB 355 — Occupational Safety and Health – Public Buildings – Indoor Air Quality from 2023 uses the term “governmental unit” and clearly defines it as including county governments.

On the other hand, terms like “unit of State government” apply only to agencies and departments within the government of the State of Maryland and not local governments. 2023 HB 817 — State Government – Regulation Procedures and the Maryland Register is a good example of this language.

Other helpful tips

While the legislative language tips above are helpful, they sometimes do not provide definitive answers to a bill’s intentions.

Read the bill’s policy and fiscal note.

Professional staff from the Department of Legislative Services (DLS) analyze every bill introduced in the General Assembly for fiscal, state, and local impact. A bill’s fiscal note is a great way to confirm whether or not it impacts county governments, especially when the bill language itself isn’t clear.

For example, 2023 bill HB 6 Department of General Services – Energy-Conserving Standards (Maryland Sustainable Buildings Act of 2023) reads as if the bill intends to impact any building “acquired, constructed, or renovated” using more than 50 percent of state funds.

At first read, you might believe that the bill intends to include any county government project for which the State is the majority funder. However, HB 6’s fiscal note reveals otherwise, specifying that it only applies to State buildings.

On the other hand, SB 355 is a good example of a fiscal note that clearly demonstrates a capital projects bill that intends to include county buildings.

Look for clues in the bill summary.

Sometimes, a bill’s summary or purpose statement at the beginning of the legislation can help you understand its intended impact and audience. HB 6 again provides a good example here, clearly stating that the bill is only for State buildings.

Review the section of Maryland law the bill intends to alter.

Another helpful hint is to look up the section of Maryland the bill refers to. If the bill impacts a section that strictly deals with State capital projects or procurement, it likely does not impact county governments. If it deals with a section of the law that does include local government or defined “governmental units” inclusive of local government, then the bill does impact counties. Be mindful, however, that this is not always black and white. Sometimes, a bill refers to a section of law specific to State projects and doesn’t mention local governments. Still, local governments often model their local laws after those applicable to the State. In this case, the bill in question might impact counties.