Suit Challenges County “Tax Cap” Override, State’s Authority

Taxpayers in Prince George’s County are suing, arguing that a 2015 tax rate increase adopted under state-passed provisions violates a citizen-enacted charter limitation. The lawsuit has advanced through preliminary motions, and will be heard in Circuit Court in December. The litigants seek to place the 2015 measure onto the ballot in 2018, for approval by county voters.

From coverage on the WTOP website:

The county is confident the courts will find it acted lawfully, a county spokesman said.

“The property tax increase that was implemented and voted on by the Prince George’s County Council was done in accordance to state law, which allows for property tax increases in jurisdictions that have tax caps, as long as it is restricted to funding education,” said Scott Peterson, spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

The central argument in the case, apparently, will be the state’s authority to legislate a provision that overrides elements of a county charter. Four counties currently have rigid tax limitations in their charters, but 2012 legislation authorized counties to exceed those limits if they did so to support public education. The Attorney General opined soon after that bill’s passage that the provision was legal.

Lunch & Learn: Strategic Sourcing Summit, October 10 in Dorchester County

US Communities, working with MACo, is offering a complimentary event for public sector purchasers and decision makers — to learn how to save time and money through the U.S. Communities program.

Network, enjoy lunch, ask questions and share feedback. Don’t miss the opportunity to:

  • Learn about new solutions and the latest innovations in procurement
  • Network with other local agencies using cooperative purchasing and hear what is working for their agency
  • Connect with U.S. Communities’ suppliers to receive their lowest overall government pricing
  • There is no cost to attend and lunch will be provided. For more info, contact Matt East.

    Register now for the Strategic Sourcing Summit!

    Baltimore Fiscal Health Report Card Packages Numerous Indicators

    The Baltimore City Budget Department has developed a “fiscal health report card” to isolate ten measurable items as a quick look at the city’s fiscal status:

    The measures, ranging from the City’s debt ratios to its funding reserves, spotlight many indices of fiscal health and responsibility, and can offer citizens a quick one-stop-shop to get a snapshot of the City’s fiscal situation. The FY 2017 version of the report card is available now.

    Indiana County Raises Income Tax for… 9-1-1?

    A county in Indiana has established a county-wide “Public Safety Answering Point Tax” at 0.1% of residents’ adjusted gross income, to supplement the waning revenues from that state’s 9-1-1 telephone surcharge.

    Conduit Street doesn’t make a regular habit of covering news and notes from local governments across the country… but the parallels in this Indiana jurisdiction map awfully well onto a high-priority debate here in Maryland. The county’s revenue from a dedicated fee is falling far short of needs to maintain its system, forcing the county to increasingly supplement its costs with general tax revenues. In Maryland, the same plight faces our counties, where the combined state and county 9-1-1 fee is only $1 per monthly bill (not per line, like every other state), and most counties commit more tax revenue than fee revenue to 9-1-1 operations.

    In Howard County, Indiana, the solution was a dedicated income tax increase. From coverage in the Kokomo Tribune:

    The Public Safety Answering Point tax, which was approved unanimously by council members, imposes a tax rate of 0.1 percent on the adjusted gross income of county taxpayers.

    The tax hike is expected to raise between $1.5 million and $1.7 million annually for Howard County dispatch, according to Auditor Martha Lake, and will cost a resident with $50,000 in adjusted gross income a total of $50. Taxpayers will see the change on their paychecks starting Jan. 1.

    “One of the reasons for this ordinance is … the 911 fund has been funded by phone – charges on phones, and then as the landlines have dropped, the income for this fund has also gone down,” said councilman Jim Papacek, who presided over Monday’s meeting in the absence of President Dick Miller.

    “And this is a way to keep all this new equipment that we’ve received, help keep it all up to date, the maintenance on it, and make any additions to it that we need,” Papacek added, referencing the county’s newly implement P25 radio program.

    For more coverage of the Howard County, Indiana PSAP Tax, see the Kokomo Tribune article online.

    Maryland counties generally face a similar challenge as that described in the Indiana article. Maryland’s one-of-a-kind system of levying the 9-1-1 charge per bill, rather than per line, has made the revenue losses here even sharper, as many wireless phone companies have aggressively marketed multi-line plans, which has an indirect but profound effect on 9-1-1 fee revenues. A fiscal note from recent state legislation suggested tens of millions in lost 9-1-1 revenue from Maryland’s anomalous fee structure alone (even before any comparison of the rate structure with those of other states).

    MACo 2018 Initiatives: Infrastructure, Schools, Sunshine, and 9-1-1

    Each year MACo adopts a slate of top legislative initiatives, typically representing the wide swath of services counties deliver to Maryland residents. 2018 is no exception, as the MACo initiatives cover education, public safety, public works, and citizen access issues.

    Below is the set of top issues for the year ahead, adopted by the Legislative Committee on September 27:

    Local Infrastructure Fast Track for Maryland (LIFT4MD)

    Investing in infrastructure – a call addressed to every level of government – improves safety, economic development, and quality of life. Nonetheless, funding for local transportation assets, water delivery systems, public safety centers and more all lack predictable centralized funding commitments.

    MACo calls on state leaders to take action in 2018 to:

    – Approve meaningful new FY 2019 funding for local transportation infrastructure – building on last year’s gains
    – Restore the historic 30% local share of transportation revenues – phasing back to the tried-and-true formula in place for decades
    – Inventory the condition of local infrastructure across the state, using existing resources – assessing the needs and revenue sources targeted for each area
    – Prioritize additional funding for local infrastructure, should the State receive extra infrastructure support from the Federal government

    Strong and Smart State Funding for School Construction

    The State’s commitment to school construction funding needs to remain strong and smart – to best serve the modern needs of our schoolchildren, educators, and communities. State funding needs to recognize modern cost factors as we achieve new environmental and energy standards, satisfy heightened needs for technology, ensure student safety, fulfill community resource needs, and mesh with evolving teaching methods.

    County governments share responsibility for financing K-12 school construction with the State, whose funding depends on statutory formulas and regulations. MACo advocates efforts to promote the smartest and most effective funding for modern schools, and urges State policymakers to retain the State’s strong commitment to this top funding priority. In addition, MACo supports reasonable school construction improvements including alternative financing, public-private partnerships, and innovative models of school construction and design.

    Align Public Access Laws with Modern Technologies

    Maryland’s Public Information Act creates a balanced framework for guaranteeing public access to open information, while protecting sensitive and private material. The rapid ascension of new technologies has strained the implementation and effect of these laws – potentially chilling their otherwise beneficial use. Maryland should clarify and reframe its Public Information Act to better accommodate citizen electronic engagement, personal surveillance footage from first responders and other county officials, and the release of sensitive personal information.

    Advancing Maryland Next-Generation 9-1-1 Systems

    Maryland citizens demand and expect 9-1-1 emergency service to be reliable and efficient. Next-generation technology is required to keep up with this increasingly complex public safety function – improving wireless caller location, accommodating incoming text/video, and managing crisis-driven call overflows. Maryland must accelerate its move toward Next Generation 9-1-1, deliver these essential services equitably across the state, and assure effective coordination with communications providers. MACo urges a concerted statewide effort to guide this critical transition, harnessing the expertise and needs of front-line county managers.

    = = = = =

    At MACo’s Winter Conference, December 6-8, we will again hold a closing session on “Paths to Success in 2018” detailing means for county officials to get engaged in the fight for each of these top issues. Register today for the conference!

    Governor Moves MDP Secretary Peters Into Smart Growth Job

    Wendi Peters (right), joins MDE Secretary Grumbles and Governor Hogan at an announcement on the Conowingo Dam (courtesy of MyEasternShoreMD)
    Governor Hogan has moved Acting Secretary of Planning Wendi Peters into a new role, as a state coordinator of Smart Growth efforts. The move, into a position that does not require Senate confirmation, provides at least a temporary respite in an ongoing struggle between the executive and legislative branches over the Governor’s appointment authority. Ms. Peters had been serving without pay since July due to a dispute over the propriety of her continued appointment.

    From coverage in the Baltimore Sun:

    Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said Friday that Planning Secretary Wendi Peters, whose pay was cut off July 1 in a tug-of-war between the governor and the General Assembly, was reassigned as special secretary for smart growth.

    Unlike the planning secretary job, Peters’ new role does not require Senate confirmation. The Senate refused to confirm Peters’ nomination to the planning role this spring amid complaints from Democratic leaders that she was unqualified and had mismanaged the department while serving as acting secretary.

    Mayer said Peters would continue to attend Hogan’s Cabinet meetings in her new role.

    MACo Agenda: 2018 Initiatives, Growth Plan, and School Funding

    MACo 1st VP and Acting President Jerry Walker presides over a Legislative Committee meeting in Annapolis
    MACo’s offices will be abuzz on September 27, as the Legislative Committee will meet at 11am, and an ad hoc discussion on school funding will follow in the afternoon.

    The 11am meeting of the Legislative Committee involves designees from each jurisdiction, selected to represent their county. County officials, both elected and appointed, are welcome to attend the discussion as well. The Committee will receive an update from Matthew Rowe of the Maryland Department of Environment, on the efforts toward a new “Aligning for Growth” policy, designed to incorporate water pollution generated by new development into the State’s Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan.

    The Legislative Committee will also hear a final report and presentation from the 2018 Initiatives Committee, and is scheduled to adopt a slate of legislative initiatives for the 2018 legislative session. The MACo policy staff will offer updates on issues developing over the “interim” months, as multiple work groups and task forces have been progressing on topics relevant to counties.

    Following the Legislative Committee and our ever-popular lunch, county leaders are invited to join a “deep dive” discussion to catch up on public school funding issues. The Kirwan Commission has been meeting regularly through the Summer months, and has recently sharpened its focus on financing issues — including the pattern and role of county funding. This opt-in discussion will position county leaders for continued engagement on this major topic as the Commission points toward the coming session for legislative recommendations.

    If you have questions about either the Legislative Committee meeting or the school funding discussion, contact Michael Sanderson at MACo.

    Would State Block Grants Deliver Health Insurance Reform?

    With the US Senate again considering a fast-track vote on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), much national attention has focused on a key notion in the proposed Graham-Cassidy Amendment: offering states “block grants” to offset health care costs, but without the prescriptive elements of the ACA.

    Don Kettl, Professor at University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, offers his take on this matter in an article on the Route Fifty website:

    There’s a basic assumption in the Graham-Cassidy health care bill. It would slash federal cash for the states that didn’t expand their Medicaid programs under Obamacare by $180 billion, or 11 percent, by the year 2026. It assumes that new block grants for the states would allow them to find enough efficiencies to make up the difference.

    That is a very, very tall order. What’s the evidence that the states would prove more efficient managers of health care funding than the feds?

    Two things seem certain. One is that it’s going to be impossible for the states to make up the shortfall with greater efficiencies. The other is that we’ll end up with greater disparities in the health coverage that citizens get, as different states go down different roads to cope with the cuts.

    Those favoring repeal-and-replace are deep in a corner from which there are few escape routes. But before pursuing the block grant strategy, which would load all the tough decisions onto the states, it’s worth looking carefully ahead at where this road would lead.

    Looking specifically at the effect on Maryland, a state that expanded Medicaid eligibility based on the strong federal funding provided through the ACA to do so, Governor Hogan has opposed the current proposal in the Senate. From the Baltimore Sun coverage:

    The governor released a statement emphasizing that the current law needs to be fixed, but he rejected the repeal measure sponsored by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

    “Unfortunately, the Graham-Cassidy bill is not a solution that works for Maryland. It will cost our state over $2 billion annually while directly jeopardizing the health care of our citizens,” Hogan said. “We need common sense, bipartisan solutions that will stabilize markets and actually expand affordable coverage.”

    This high-profile issue is pressing in several ways. Sources differ on the likelihood of a Senate floor vote being called next week, and the prognosis for the proposal’s passage remain very unclear. After the end of September (and the close of the federal fiscal year), the process of budget “reconciliation” closes, and a full 60-vote margin (to overcome an expected filibuster by opponents) would be practically required to enact any changes to federal health care law.

    Will Criminal Justice Reform Reappear on Congressional Agenda?

    In 2016, advocates of major reforms in criminal sentencing thought a rare bipartisan deal might bring dramatic reforms to light. That possibility fizzled out, but may be put back into play this year by two US Senate sponsors.

    The changed landscape with a new Executive Administration, and a new tone from the US Department of Justice, has left reform supporters unclear of the next steps for the issue.

    According to Reason, a libertarian-leaning news and information site, the bill’s two sponsors intend to reintroduce it this year:

    The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, originally introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) and Dick Durbin (D-Il.) in 2015, would reduce the mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines for repeat drug offenders without serious violent felonies and would broaden the “safety valve” exception to federal mandatory minimum sentences. It would also add new mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic abuse and for providing support for terrorists, while strengthening penalties for certain other crimes.

    Grassley and Durbin say they will reintroduce the bill this year, although they did not say when.

    “While the political landscape in Washington has changed, the same problems presented by the current sentencing regime remain,” Grassley said in a statement, “and we will continue to work with colleagues in Congress and the administration, as well as advocates and members of the law enforcement community, to find a comprehensive solution to ensure justice for both the victims and the accused, and support law enforcement in their mission to keep our communities safe.”

    Read more on the Reason blog.

    Gov’s Grants Conference

    Join Maryland State, local governments, and nonprofits for the Governor’s Grants Conference on Monday, November 13, 2017. Experts will convene to discuss grant opportunities, the federal grants landscape, how to manage your grants properly and prepare for a clean audit (Uniform Guidance!)

    Hear from federal and private funders and meet the State Grants Team at the Roundtable Session. Network with other organizations to collaborate on projects for a better chance at winning competitive grants. A special EARLY BIRD PRICE is available until midnight, September 21. Register a.s.a.p. as this event sells out early every year!

    More Information | Register Today