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Aberdeen / Havre De Grace

Room tax dies again, as Harford legislators play 'defense' on other legislation

As the 2013 Maryland General Assembly session winds down in Annapolis, Harford's lawmakers said they have been kept busy this year with prominent bills, including a repeal of the death penalty, stricter gun controls and higher taxes.

All of Harford's delegates who were present voted against the gasoline tax increase proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley that made it through the House of Delegates last week and is in the State Senate where it may face a tougher test. Gun control legislation passed the State Senate earlier in the session, opposed by all three Harford senators, and is being heavily debated in the House.

Meanwhile, on the more local front, the long-hoped-for hotel room tax, heavily pushed by county tourism officials, Aberdeen city officials and, this year, Center for the Arts Inc., has once again failed to make it to the House floor and officially died Monday.

Southern Harford Del. Glen Glass said in a news release Monday that despite much support for the measure, "it was sent back to the committee, where it is buried for another year."

"Because this is not a tax on the citizens of Harford County, but a way to support local development, I helped to get it out of committee by co-sponsoring the bill," Glass wrote.

'Tax-and-spend Democrats'

Harford's elected officials have mostly been "playing defense" on more prominent statewide issues, as Western Harford Del. Pat McDonough put it, with the Republican legislators facing off against a largely Democratic General Assembly. This year's session concludes at midnight on Monday, April 8.

"We are controlled by tax-and-spend Democrats," McDonough said late last week. "The best we can do is the Ray Lewis approach: We play hard defense."

Northern Harford Sen. Barry Glassman said he did manage to save Harford County Public Schools about $2.1 million in state aid that will be returned. The county's school system was set to get a $4.1 million cut in state funding.

"I was able to work with Carroll County and a couple other rural counties, and we got an amendment in the budget of what is known as a disparity grant," Glassman said. "We are still taking a cut, but we are getting half back."

"Hopefully the House will keep that funding in," he added.

McDonough, meanwhile, put his support behind a bill he said was based on the Baltimore City Criminal Gun Control Act, which would ban any early release from prison or plea bargains for anyone who commits a violent crime.

McDonough also was prepared to scuttle the room tax had it made it to the floor for a vote. "I'm opposed to the room tax and will vote against it," he said.

As with the death penalty repeal and assault weapons bills, McDonough has also came out strongly against the controversial gas tax, as did other Harford elected officials.

No local benefit

"Once again the taxpayers of Maryland are going to get hit with the most oppressive and onerous gas tax in the nation," McDonough said.

Although the gun control bill and gas tax bills are not strictly local, McDonough noted "there are probably a lot of firearms owners in Harford County. There are probably a lot of people who drive quite a bit."

"This is a commuter county. This is going to hit them hard," he said about the gas tax bill. Seven of eight Harford delegates voted against the gas tax increase, including Glass, McDonough, Mary-Dulany James, Susan McComas, H. Wayne Norman, Donna Stifler and Kathy Szeliga. Del. Rick Impallaria was absent and excused and did not vote.

Glassman said Harford's delegates and senators have been opposed to the gas tax increase, death penalty repeal and tougher gun controls. All three senators are Republicans, as are seven of the eight Harford delegates, with James being the only member of the legislature's Democratic majority.

"I think most of the county delegation followed the county's voting patterns," he said. "Most folks are against the governor's gun control bill."

About the death penalty, he said, "I thought even though the state hasn't used the penalty for eight years, it should be kept on the books."

The gas tax is "linked to the Baltimore City Schools bill, so as the usual practice is, a suburban county is really not going to get anything out of the gas tax," he said, noting about 80 percent of the revenue will go toward mass transit and to other counties, not to Harford.

'Bombarded' with opposition

Glassman said he has received more than 1,000 e-mails against the gun control bill, and "opposition to the gas tax is right up there."

"We have really been bombarded," he said, adding the number of e-mails for that issue will probably reach 1,200.

McDonough said he is focused on stopping the ill-advised bills that do come up.

"The role of a legislator is not just to introduce legislation a lot, it's to play defense, particularly when you are in the minority," he said. "It's very hard for a Republican minority to get a lot done in committee because it's so overwhelming [Democrat]...That is where a lot of the defensive posturing comes in."

"I am very active on the floor, more so than in my committee," McDonough said. "This is where I speak out, I ask questions about legislation, I introduce amendments."

"That is where a minority can be most effective," he added.

Swinging to the left

Impallaria expressed similar sentiments.

"It's been a tough session and the General Assembly is swinging wildly to the [left], an extreme left-wing agenda," he said.

Impallaria said the Harford delegates did not introduce many bills because "we had no real legislation from the county executive come through."

He did say two bills still moving included one that creates a bill of rights for correctional officers and another bill, HB-1394, that allows the commanding officer of a local fire company to request that up to 20 firefighters be designated as deputy sheriffs. The current maximum is 12 per company.

Impallaria added that Glass got a bill out of the House, HB-365, setting the archery safety zone for no hunting at 50 yards from an occupied dwelling, church, camp or other building. The firearms safety zone of 150 yards would not be affected.

"The delegation has been pretty much united on issues like the death penalty, on the gun bills. We are still united on that," Impallaria said.

No tax at the inn

The proposed tax of up to 6 percent on Harford County hotel/motel room rentals died yet again this session when it was referred back to the House Ways and Means Committee Monday after being questioned on the House floor.

Northern Harford Del. Wayne Norman, who asked the questions, has been blamed for killing the bill.

"I did not try to kill this bill," Norman said Tuesday afternoon. "I just wanted a couple of what seemed to me to be simple answers."

He questioned who amended the bill from a 10-page proposal into an 18-page one; whether the amendments were presented to the Harford County delegation; and who thought it was a good idea for a room tax to go from none to 6 percent, equal to the highest in the state, on the first passage.

When those questions couldn't be answered, it was sent back to committee.

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