Members of Howard County's legislative delegation to Annapolis predict tough spending decisions, election-year grandstanding and progress on hot-button statewide issues with local implications when the General Assembly's session starts next week.
Maryland's House and Senate convene annually for a 90-day session that runs from January to April, during which they make state-level budget and policy decisions. This year, session will begin on Wednesday, Jan. 8.
Top issues for 2014 include addressing a budget shortfall of more than $400 million, revisiting the state's controversial stormwater fee and looking at a possible minimum-wage increase.
Locally, the Howard County delegation also has a roster of 10 county bills to consider.
Six are bond bills to help fund county and nonprofit projects, including an expansion of the Head Start program, a permanent facility for the Howard County food bank and renovations to Elkridge's historic Belmont manor.
Four other bills deal with policy issues, which this year include proposals to raise Board of Education member salaries, put a cap on liquor licenses and permit events such as a Maryland beer festival and casino-style fundraising nights for volunteer fire departments and veterans organizations.
District 13 Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat, said the local bills this year were "not all that controversial."
Historically, the governor has allocated about $15 million per session for bond bills to split among the counties, Guzzone, who is a member of the House's appropriations committee, said. Barring a major change, he thought Howard would see at least some of its projects funded.
"Every county gets something, and those that have projects that seem to have more merit tend to do better," he said.
At a statewide level, legislators will have to focus on balancing the budget without raising revenue, which legislators said Democratic leadership wants to avoid. Maryland will have a budget gap of $189 million going into session and an additional $391 million shortfall once fiscal year 2015 begins on July 1, if current spending formulas stay the same. The state is required by its constitution to balance the budget.
District 9 Sen. Allan Kittleman said budget repercussions "could be the biggest issue facing Howard County" this session.
"In the past, the government has put together budgets where they've reduced local funding," he noted.
Guzzone said years of spending cuts have put legislators in a tough spot when deciding where to trim the budget next.
"The biggest troubling factor in all of this is we've been doing this for the last six years, and every year we have been whittling down… unfortunately, because of a number of factors including sequestration and the government shutdown, those factors impacted our bottom line," he said. "We've gone through long ago the so-called 'easy cuts.' "
Legislators will also face tough decisions on other issues with a financial impact, including whether to raise the minimum wage and what to do about a controversial stormwater remediation fee.
At a legislative breakfast with the Chamber of Commerce in November, members of the Howard delegation predicted the assembly would raise the minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour, as part of a package with tax cuts, to make the deal more palatable to business owners.
And the Howard delegation's Republican members — Kittleman, Gail Bates and Warren Miller — have pre-filed bills in the House and Senate to repeal the watershed protection and restoration program, which requires Maryland's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to collect a fee from residents to help reduce polluted stormwater runoff.
Howard County residents were charged the fee for the first time in December.
"If [the counties] want to do it, it should be up to them and the state shouldn't be telling them what to do," Kittleman said of the program.
District 12B Del. Liz Bobo, a Democrat who sits on the House's environmental matters committee, said legislators made "some poor judgments" on the stormwater bill in an effort to get it passed in 2012.
"I think what we did in committee is we tried to please everyone, and it just doesn't work that way," she said.
Bobo said she hoped to make the stormwater legislation stronger and more equitable the second time around.
"I think it would be a big mistake if we were to succumb to pressure and do away with the bill altogether," she said.
Kittleman and Bobo also said they were looking into legislation dealing with the referendum process in the state. A petition from a group of Howard County citizens seeking a referendum of multiple comprehensive zoning decisions recently was denied by the county's Board of Elections for what officials said were clarity issues in the petition's language.
"If their language is not sufficient, the Board of Elections should have told them that from the beginning," Kittleman said of the decision.
Citizen referendums "can be kind of a hard thing [for legislators] to accept sometimes" after working hard on a bill, Bobo said. "But it's really important to remember that this is a crucial link in the balance of power in our system of government."
And, with a gubernatorial election approaching in November and an earlier-than-usual primary on June 24, legislators predicted lots of political posturing, frequent trips back to their home districts — and likely some cautiousness, too.
"As far as I'm concerned, too many people play it safe all the time, and yes, we will see more of it in an election year," Bobo said.
"You're going to hear maybe a few more speeches than we normally hear, and that's always expected," Guzzone said.