Do not saddle counties with any additional state costs [Editorial]

As the General Assembly convenes in Annapolis for the 2013 session on Jan. 9, officials of Maryland's counties are keeping a sharp eye out for any attempt by the governor or legislature to push more of the state's fiscal burden onto the counties.

This year, local Annapolis delegations should push back against any attempt to saddle counties with additional budgetary burdens.

Anticipating such an attempt, "enough is enough" was the rallying cry when the Maryland Association of Counties met in the first week of January.

The message is thoroughly understandable. A big hit came last session when Gov. Martin O'Malley shifted half of teacher pension costs, previously paid entirely by the state, onto counties. This shift is being phased in over five years, so the full effect is not even felt yet.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in highway user revenues have been redirected into the state's general fund for uses other than paying for much-needed infrastructure repair and maintenance.

This comes at a time when counties face burdensome mandates to fund education, control stormwater management and reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

Ellen Kobler, deputy director of communications for Baltimore County, said county officials there are concerned that the fiscal pressures being placed by the federal government on the state will result in a new attempt to offload costs to the counties.

She said the county's delegation to Annapolis is being urged to seek an increase in school construction funding for the county. "That's a priority," she said.

Howard County's director of communications, David Nitkin, said "the well is completely dry" when it comes to the county shouldering new cost burdens shed by the state.

He said the loss of highway user revenues has resulted in "an incredible amount of deferred maintenance" in Howard County. He wants the leadership in Annapolis to press for a return to the traditional split of this revenue, 70 percent to the state and 30 percent to the county, instead of huge cuts in the county's share.

With the tax base for both state and counties relatively stagnant, a possible raise in the gas or sales tax to boost revenue is the elephant in the room few lawmakers want to acknowledge for fear of being branded as a "tax and spend" liberal.

Gov. Martin O'Malley no doubt would like to present himself to voters, both in Maryland and possibly nationwide, as the governor who did not raise taxes.

If so, he needs to find fiscal solutions within the state budget, not on the backs of Maryland's counties.

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