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Political Notebook: Unanimous vote on county budget possible for first time in years

ElectionsFinanceBudgets and BudgetingDemocratic Party

The Howard County Council's lone Republican member, Greg Fox, has voted against the county budget every year since he and the other four members started serving together in late 2006.

This year, that streak may be broken.

"There's a chance I might actually go for it this year, other than the fire tax increase," Fox said.

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 31.

Fox, who is opposed to County Executive Ken Ulman's proposal to increase the fire tax rate to 17.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, could vote for the main budget bill without voting for the fire tax hike, one of several pieces of companion legislation to the budget.

The proposal to raise the fire tax follows the council's 4-1 vote in March, with Fox as the lone dissenter, to eliminate the county's two separate fire tax districts. Residents in the rural west have been paying $11.55 cents per $100 of assessed value and residents in the east have been paying $13.55 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Fox said he will be filing an amendment to reduce the increase to 14.25 cents, the rate county officials said is needed just to balance the fire department's budget for fiscal 2013.

However, officials have also said that if the council were to set the rate at that level, the rate would have to be raised again several times in the next few years, ultimately costing the average taxpayer more. That argument has seemed to resonate with the council's four Democrats, meaning they are unlikely to support Fox's amendment.

Though Fox is hoping for a compromise regarding the fire tax increase, he acknowledges it's "unlikely" he'll be voting for that part of the budget.

Regarding the rest of the budget, Fox said, "there's a couple of things that I'm still waiting to see from an amendment standpoint." Among those things, he noted, are additional funds for speed humps in the capital budget and $2,000 that was cut from the community services grant funding for the Howard County Autism Society restored in the operating budget.

If Fox gets the amendments he's hoping for, he said he may vote in favor of the main budget bill this year.

Last year, the council delayed voting on the budget for several hours, as they discussed various amendments aimed at producing a unanimous vote. Fox, however, ended up voting against the budget after he failed to get support from other council members to move money that was set aside to fill various vacant county positions to a fund for future county employee retirement costs.

Gambling work group

State Sen. Ed Kasemeyer and Del. Frank Turner, both Columbia Democrats, have been selected to serve on a state work group to consider gambling expansion, an issue that divided legislators during the final days of the 2012 General Assembly session last month.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch announced the 11 members of the work group this week. In addition to Kasemeyer and Turner, the members include a senator and a delegate from Montgomery County, a senator and a delegate from Baltimore City and four members of O'Malley's administration. Prominent businessman and chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority John Morton III will head the work group.

The work group is scheduled to meet in June. If members reach a consensus on the issue, a special session will be called the week of July 9 so the General Assembly can pass legislation in time to get it on the November ballot. Any expansion of gambling requires approval from the majority of Maryland voters.

Kasemeyer, who served as the Senate floor leader of the slots legislation in 2007, is the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the committee through which gambling expansion must pass. His committee during the regular session did pass two different bills that would have authorized a sixth casino in Prince George's County and table games at the new facility, as well as the five previously approved slots-only casinos; neither bill had enough support to pass through the House.

Turner is the chairman of the House Finance Resources Subcommittee, which vets all gambling legislation before sending it to the entire Ways and Means Committee and then the House floor. Turner has taken a fairly hard stance against expanding gambling until all five slots locations approved by the voters in 2008 are up and running.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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