Counties to Congressional Delegation: Keep Us In Mind

With a major wave of high-impact legislation under consideration by Congress, and the state and local effects of them drawing substantial attention from counties across the state, MACo has sent a letter to the Maryland congressional delegation. The essential message: keep county governments, and other Maryland specific impacts, in mind as you consider these many weighty measures.

MACo’s letter, approved by the Legislative Committee during its meeting this week, discusses potential effects of the proposed federal budget, health care reform, and tax law changes. In each case, MACo highlights concerns on behalf of county government services, or peculiar to the State of Maryland, urging our Senators and Representatives to weigh these local impacts in their considerations.

From the letter:

The Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), representing the 24 subdivisions providing primary local public services to all Marylanders, urges your caution when considering policy changes currently before Congress.

Both in fiscal affairs and health care policy, the potential exists for an untoward and unfair shift of responsibilities and burdens to local governments. We hope you will keep these local perspectives in mind as you are called to vote on major policy matters in the months ahead.

As always, MACo and our county officials stand ready to help you and your staff with any matters where a local perspective could serve you well. We hope that through our conferences and events, and direct contact with you, this federal-local partnership can serve both our mutual interests, and those of our shared constituents.

New Federal Administration May Propose Sharp Cutbacks

The incoming Trump Administration apparently is developing a range of policy proposals to curtail federal spending and agencies – some of which may have effects both on stat and local governments directly, and on the federal and federal-dependent workforce. Both areas of consequence could be substantial for Maryland and its economy.

From reporting in The Hill:

Staffers for the Trump transition team have been meeting with career staff at the White House ahead of Friday’s presidential inauguration to outline their plans for shrinking the federal bureaucracy, The Hill has learned.

The changes they propose are dramatic.

The departments of Commerce and Energy would see major reductions in funding, with programs under their jurisdiction either being eliminated or transferred to other agencies. The departments of Transportation, Justice and State would see significant cuts and program eliminations.

. . .

The preliminary proposals from the White House budget office will be shared with federal departments and agencies soon after Trump takes the oath of office Friday, and could provoke an angry backlash.

Trump’s Cabinet picks have yet to be apprised of the reforms, which would reduce resources within their agencies.

The budget offices of the various departments will have the chance to review the proposals, offer feedback and appeal for changes before the president’s budget goes to Congress.

It’s not clear whether Trump’s first budget will include reforms to Social Security or Medicare, two major drivers of the federal deficit.

Read the 2016 Heritage Foundation report, referenced as a source for many of the current proposals in development, online at the Heritage website.

Businesses Express Relief With Approval of Federal Budget Deal

Organizations representing Maryland’s federal installations and businesses expressed relief after a two-year budget deal was struck in Congress last week. The deal will lift spending caps previously approved by Congress and raise the federal government debt limit.

As reported by the Baltimore Sun,

“To know that there’s a budget deal and that we have that behind us … is for a lot of us a feeling of relief,” said Jill McClune, president of the Army Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for Aberdeen Proving Ground and counts many contractors among its members.

The article further describes the components of the deal.

The package lifts caps on the appropriated spending passed by Congress by $50 billion in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017, evenly divided between defense and domestic spending. Another $16 billion or so would come each year in the form of inflated war spending, evenly split between the Defense and State departments.

The agreement also raises the government debt limit through March 2017, removing the threat of an unprecedented national default on Nov. 3.

The two-year agreement would avert a looming shortfall in the Social Security disability trust fund that threatened to slash benefits, and head off an unprecedented increase in Medicare premiums for outpatient care for about 15 million beneficiaries.

Cuts include curbs on Medicare payments for outpatient services provided by certain hospitals and an extension of a 2-percentage-point cut in Medicare payments to doctors through the end of a 10-year budget. There’s also a drawdown from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and savings reaped from a Justice Department fund for crime victims that involves assets seized from criminals.

For more information, read the full Baltimore Sun article.

Washington Region Collaboration Encouraged to Combat Effects of Sequestration

To combat the effects of federal sequestration, business leaders in the Washington region are urging government officials to compete less and work collaboratively to create jobs and grow the area’s economy.  As reported by the Washington Post,

A historic slowdown in federal spending — caused largely by the mandated budget cuts known as sequestration — has taken a bite of $11 billion a year in government contracts out of the area’s economy and forced local companies to scramble to respond.

It has also prompted local business and civic leaders to push state and local governments to compete less with one another for jobs, investment and sports teams. They are urging politicians instead to collaborate in areas such as training workers, marketing the region and, above all, improving transportation.

The goal is to nudge the region to compete more effectively with rival metropolitan areas such as Silicon Valley and Boston. The concern is that without such change, the Washington area risks becoming an economic laggard.

To carry out this goal, business and civic leaders have formed a group to “produce a post-sequestration “Road Map” for the region’s economy.

The 2030 Group, led by ­Maryland developer Robert E. Buchanan, organized the effort. It has hired George Mason University economist Stephen S. Fuller to study how to aid seven key local industries, including information technology and bio-health services, that have high growth potential. The group plans to release its results by October.

The eventual goal is one or more “regional summits” to agree on a strategy for “diversifying the region’s economy based on its unique competitive position . . . as the capital of the world’s largest economy,” according to the Road Map’s research proposal.

US Senators, White House Interested in Lifting Federal Spending Caps

As reported in The Hill, a group of Republican and Democratic senators are seeking to remove budget ceilings on defense and non-defense spending next year.  The budget caps were placed on agencies during sequestration in 2011.

GOP defense hawks have long protested the sequestration budget ceiling for the Pentagon and some are now warming to the idea of dealing with the cap for non-defense domestic programs. In the midst of the Ebola crisis last fall, for example, several Republicans had called for an end to sequestration because the government’s health agencies couldn’t operate properly under the spending limits.

The White House would welcome a budget deal that lifts the caps, according to the article,

President Obama’s budget request for fiscal 2016, which begins in October, asks Congress to eliminate sequestration by raising the defense cap by $38 billion and the non-defense spending cap by $37 billion. . . Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan has said the White House would welcome a deal similar to the one crafted by then-Budget chairmen Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in December 2013. Their agreement relieved sequestration caps for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

For more information, read the full story here.

Mikulski Protects Maryland In Federal Spending Plan

Barbara Mikulski official portrait c. 2011.jpg
U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland

U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee negotiated a $1 trillion bi-partisan spending bill late Monday that would keep the federal government running for most of this year while directing hundreds of millions of dollars to Maryland interests, according to the Baltimore Sun.  Maryland counties have especially strong economic ties to the federal government because many federal employees and several federal agencies call our counties home.

Senator Mikulski spoke out against sequestration, and protected funding for Maryland airports during the shutdown.  According to the Baltimore Sun, Mikulski said that this agreement marks a step away from “shutdown” politics,

“This agreement shows the American people that we can compromise, and that we can govern,” Mikulski said in a statement. “It puts an end to shutdown, slowdown, slamdown politics.”

Maryland is a home to federal agencies and this new bill will build on the federal government’s presence through new construction projects, as described in the Sun.

Maryland is home is some 300,000 federal employees and several major agencies, including the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Independent economists believe the state’s economy weathered the economic downturn better than other states in large part because of the federal presence. . . Other Maryland provisions in the bill include more than a dozen construction projects on military bases in the state. The measure includes $210 million to build laboratory facilities at the Aberdeen Proving Ground and more than $200 million for cyber operations at Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency.

For more information, see the full story from the Baltimore Sun.

State Taps Reserves To Offset Sequestration

As reported by the Washington Post, Governor O’Malley announced that funds set aside in the fiscal 2014 budget to mitigate the effects of sequestration have been tapped into to cover shortfalls in social programs. From the article:

O’Malley said the beneficiaries of the $9 million will include nearly 500 low-income children who will be able to participate in Head Start; about 3,000 adults who will receive food through Meals on Wheels; 2,500 seniors who will have access to health screenings; and 7,000 people who will receive job placement and training assistance.

Anticipating such service abridgements, a total of $100 million has been set aside in the FY 2014 state budget for these purposes.

Head Start Programs Cut Back in Maryland, Elsewhere

Recent data on the effects of federal sequestration have been released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, showing an effect in service delivery in Maryland. According to coverage in the Baltimore Sun (limited free views available):

Newly released numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tell a bittersweet story: Federal sequestration spending cuts had a smaller impact on Maryland’s Head Start early childhood education program than expected, but they still hurt.

The state lost funding for about 460 spots in Head Start centers this year, representing 3.6 percent of the 12,700 children served. In Baltimore, that equals 122 positions out of 3,400.

Read more in the full Sun article.

See the state-by-state estimated loss of Head Start positions.

Federal Cuts Weaken Justice System

As described by the New York Times editorial board, while its impact may have been stymied elsewhere, sequestration is causing real damage to the American justice system.

The $350 million reduction in the federal judiciary’s budget for fiscal 2013 has resulted in a roughly 8 percent cut to the network of high-quality federal defender offices across the country. It has forced the layoffs of many experienced lawyers who have devoted their professional careers to the underappreciated and underpaid work of representing indigent federal defendants. And it has inflicted a pay cut on the defenders who remain on staff in the form of up to 20 unpaid furlough days.

These hits to the core legal staff have been accompanied by other blows, including reductions in lawyer training, research, investigation of cases and expert help, including interpreters. The cuts have also meant crippling reductions to federal probation and pretrial services, including mental health treatment, drug treatment and testing, and court supervision — all with disquieting implications for people’s rights and public safety.

The cuts to federal defenders may end up costing taxpayers more and reduce the effectiveness of the system, the editorial describes.  In New York, a high-profile terrorism case was delayed five months because of cuts to resources and staff.  Additional cuts of up to 14% for Federal defender offices are expected in October 1, 2014.

For more information, see the full story from the Times.

Maryland Airports Secure Funding Through 2014

Hagerstown Regional Airport

As reported in the Herald-Mail, federal funding announced Monday ensures that federally-contracted air traffic control towers, like the tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport, will remain open through September 2014.

Funding had been set to expire at the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30, putting contract towers at five Maryland regional airports in danger of being shut down.

In addition to Hagerstown, the other four airport towers slated to close due to the federal across-the-board cuts known as sequestration were at Easton/Newnam Field, Frederick Municipal Airport, Martin State Airport and Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport.

According to the article, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a news release that $130 million has been earmarked to keep all 149 contract towers open through fiscal year 2013-14, which ends Sept. 30, 2014.

James Jenkins, manager of county Public Relations and Community Affairs of Washington County responded to the news in a press release,

“This new extension through September 30, 2014, is great news; however, Washington County government will continue to work with partners to advocate for the indefinite solution to keep the control tower open.”

For more information, see the full story from the Herald-Mail.