Education, labor and transportation-related issues are at the top of the priority list for Towson-area delegates and senators as the 2017 session of the Maryland General Assembly convenes today.
Del. Steve Lafferty, a Democrat from District 42A, would like to establish protocols to test school drinking water statewide, while Del. Chris West, a Republican from District 42B, would like to leverage state education funding to get a new building for Dulaney High School, rather than the renovated school that county officials are planning.
Del. Sue Aumann, a Republican who represents District 42B, said one of her priorities for the session will be introducing legislation that mandates a study to look at whether it is more efficient for the state to use contractors for certain positions — or if in some cases it is better to allocate funds for new state employees to that department.
The study would look at a handful of departments, Aumann said. Although exactly which still need to be determined, Aumann said the Maryland Department of Transportation is likely to be one.
Sen. Jim Brochin, a Democrat from District 42, will introduce legislation mandating that when school systems replace a bus, the new vehicle must have seat belts installed.
Although County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has yet to release specifics of his wish list for the session, members of his government affairs team say securing funding for education and transportation will be a priority for the county government.
Members of Kamenetz's legislative team said they will request about $40 million in state money to fund the county's 10-year, $1.3 billion Schools for our Future plan, which is aimed at eliminating crowding in schools and provide students with modernized and air conditioned buildings by 2021. The state funds 35 percent of the costs of the program — about $455 million — while the county picks up the remainder.
The county typically averages about $30 million a year in funding from the state, but a higher amount is needed because projects have been forward-funded — paid in advance — by the county, according to Yolanda Winkler, director of the county's government affairs office.
"That would offset that cost and pretty much reimburse what we've paid out already," she said.
Lafferty, a Towson delegate who also chairs Baltimore County's House delegation, said he would like to establish guidelines under which schools would test for lead on a regular basis, spurred by concerns about the quality of drinking water in some schools, such as Dulaney High School, just outside of his district.
Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools, said Dulaney's drinking water was tested in October of 2015 due to concerns about the taste and color of the water, adding that the results found the water to be within the Environmental Protection Agency standards for drinking water.
Because of concerns about water quality, all county schools with water systems installed prior to 1990, which includes Dulaney, are provided with bottled water for students. The school system started a program in October that will test schools' drinking water annually for lead, iron and color, Dickerson added.
Concerns about Dulaney High School are also driving action from West, who, along with Aumann, represents Lutherville, Timonium, Glen Arm and much of north Baltimore County. Parents and students at Dulaney have raised concerns about the quality of the school building, citing problems such as undersized classrooms, settling foundations, cramped hallways and climate problems. Dulaney does not have comprehensive air conditioning, which would be added through a renovation that is planned for completion by August 2019.
Though a renovation has been planned for the school, some parents at Dulaney have been asking county officials to build a replacement building instead, arguing that the work required is too broad to be addressed through renovation alone.
The school has been used "enthusiastically" by generations since its construction in 1964, West said, and is now showing its age. West is also concerned about the projected enrollment at Dulaney — the school's current capacity is 1,984 students, and enrollment is projected to surpass that capacity in 2019, according to a county report.
"Rather than trying to put lipstick on a pig, it makes sense to bite the bullet and do what's best for the next five generations of Baltimore County school children in the Dulaney Valley region, which is to build a new school," West said.
The decision to build a new school or renovate the current school lies with Kamenetz and the county school board, which has moved ahead with designing the planned renovations despite protestations from some parents. However, West said because state funding is involved he believes that if the county delegation comes together as a group it could influence the outcome.
"I think we could be very influential," he sad.
Safety on the roads
West also hopes to introduce legislation to help resolve a traffic problem at Broadmead Retirement Community, in Cockeysville. Broadmead's entrance on York Road doesn't qualify for its own traffic signal under state standards, West said. Because people older than 80 who still drive have slower reaction time, a signal would help them exit the community onto York Road more safely, West said.
West said he will push the creation of a statute stating that any continuing care retirement community with more than 100 residents that fronts a state road and "that would like a traffic signal gets it."
The narrow language of the proposed action would only include Broadmead and one other retirement community in northern Montgomery County, he added.
Brochin, who represents Towson, Cockeysville, Lutherville, Timonium as well as North Baltimore County, said he also plans to take action this session to improve safety on the state's roads.
He plans to reintroduce a bill he put in last year mandating seat belts on public school buses. The initial bill never came to a vote, he said, but he has now amended it — instead of mandating seat belt installation on school buses his bill would now require jurisdictions to purchase buses with seat belts when it is time for a bus to be replaced.
The original bill would have cost school systems across the state $60.8 million between fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2022. The amended bill cuts that figure by 65 percent, Brochin said.
"Six states do this," he said. "We need to protect our kids. These buses, it's like a real rough ride and they're encased in metal and these kids are like flying objects."
Lafferty said he hopes to acquire state funding to help Towson High School get new bleachers, though the exact amount is uncertain at this point. Lafferty spoke to a group of community leaders in Towson in December asking them to inform him of any grants or other funding mechanisms they require matching funds for, so he could request to secure the matching amount in state dollars.
Decisions and discussions regarding state funding typically take place toward the end of the session, Lafferty added.
Aumann said she is motivated to pursue the study of workers because some agencies have workers who are under contract for as long as five years, but that those workers don't get state benefits, which she believes is unfair, she said. The goal of the study is to see if, in some cases, it makes more sense for the state to simply hire a new employee rather than engage in a long-term contract.
Aumann is also considering introducing legislation to provide a tax credit for Maryland residents who have retired from the military after more than 20 years of service.
Sen. Jim Brochin
• Member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, Special Committee on Substance Abuse, Executive Nomination Committee and Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
410-841-3648, Annapolis office
410-823-7087, Timonium office
Del. Steve Lafferty
• Deputy Majority Whip, Environment and Transportation Committee, Joint Audit Committee, Joint Committee on the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area, Regional Revitalization Work Group, Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission, Phosphorus Management Tool Transition Advisory Committee and Maryland Water Quality Trading Advisory Committee.
410-841-3487, Annapolis office
Del. Susan Aumann
• Assistant Minority Leader, Economic Matters Committee, Joint Audit Committee, Joint Committee of Legislative Ethics and Commission to Study the Impact of Immigrants in Maryland.
410-841-3258, Annapolis office
Del. Chris West
• Member Health and Government Operations Committee, Joint Committee on Federal Relations, Death with Dignity Work Group, Regional Revitalization Work Group, Commission to Modernize State Procurement and Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus.
410-841-3793, Annapolis office