The 2014 General Assembly session got underway Wednesday, turning Annapolis into the state's center of debate, protest, legislation and proclamation for the next 90 days.
Legislators from Anne Arundel County are promoting bills that range from rolling back stormwater fees to legalizing refillable containers of wine. Local lawmakers also will take another crack at changing the makeup of the Anne Arundel school board — a seemingly perennial issue for the county delegation.
On that front, the bill being considered is identical to one proposed last year to create a school board with seven elected members, three members appointed by the governor and one student member, said Del. Steve Schuh, a Gibson Island Republican who is chairman of the county's House delegation.
The current school board has eight members who are appointed by the governor and then are subject to a confirmation election, plus one student member.
Last year's bill was approved by Anne Arundel's delegates but did not advance further in the full House of Delegates. A Senate version of the bill was killed in committee.
"Each year it has made better progress than the year before," Schuh said. "This year, it's got a chance to make it further."
Anne Arundel's lawmakers also will focus on major debates that are expected to unfold, such as decriminalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage and modifying or eliminating stormwater fees. Lawmakers are expected to consider a number of bills related to the stormwater fees, which critics have dubbed the "rain tax."
Schuh said he'll sponsor a bill to exempt Anne Arundel County from the state's requirement that the large urban and suburban counties implement a fee to raise money for stormwater pollution projects.
Last year, state lawmakers required counties with significant stormwater pollution to create a fee to pay for remediation projects to help the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Counties have taken varying approaches, with Anne Arundel phasing in a residential fee that ranges from $34 to $170 per year.
A handful of local bills have already been filed, including one from Del. Ron George, an Arnold Republican who is running for governor, that would allow voters to use absentee ballots for any reason, and one from Sen. Ed Reilly, a Crofton Republican, to create a task force to study school starting times.
Del. Herb McMillan, an Annapolis Republican, has a bill to prevent an Anne Arundel school superintendent from getting a cash payout for unused sick leave — refering to a package former superintendent Kevin Maxwell received when he left for a job in Prince George's County last year.
Del. Cathy Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, has filed six bills, including one to expand a law allowing certain establishments to sell growlers of beer to also sell refillable containers of wine.
Local lawmakers have also started submitting requests for bond financing for local projects at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, the former Light House shelter in Annapolis, the Calvary Food Bank in Severn and a historic property at 1 Martin St. in Annapolis.
While lawmakers expect to be busy, Del. Don Dwyer will not be attending lengthy committee hearings or committee voting sessions. House Speaker Michael E. Busch stripped Dwyer of his committee assignments. Dwyer was convicted last year of drunken boating and drunken driving charges and is serving jail time on weekends.
Dwyer, a Pasadena Republican, has not yet sponsored any bills but is a co-sponsor of a Republican bill to repeal the stormwater fees.
The session also carries high stakes for local and county leaders, particularly in regard to school funding and capital projects.
Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman said she'll present her legislative wish list to lawmakers Jan. 17.
Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides spent the evening after the first day of the 90-day session on Wednesday wooing lawmakers at a meet-and-greet at the Governor Calvert House. He said his wish list for state lawmakers includes securing funding for projects in the city for pedestrian safety and to improve the police station's firing range, which has been condemned. Annapolis police officers have to conduct weapons training at the Naval Academy, Pantelides said.
"There's a laundry list we're going to ask for," he said.
Pantelides had previously said he hoped to increase an annual payment that the state government makes to the city in lieu of taxes. Even though that idea has been shot down by General Assembly leaders, Pantelides said he is hopeful to increase money flowing from the state to the city in other ways, saying, "There's more than one way to go about it."
The mayor also hopes to restart the Maryland State Commission on the Capital City. The commission, currently dormant, brings together city, county, state and Naval Academy leaders to discuss issues of importance to Annapolis.
Pantelides said he's excited to have the state's 188 lawmakers and countless lobbyists and advocates back in town for the session— in part because they provide a financial boost to restaurants, hotels and shops. At his opening night reception, Pantelides encouraged the 90-day visitors to explore Annapolis when they have down time.
Pantelides said he told lawmakers: "Do one thing for me: Make it a point to do something new in Annapolis you've never done. I guarantee you there's a restaurant or an art gallery or something you've never done before."