Howard legislators field questions on 2014 priorities

As of Wednesday at noon, Maryland's General Assembly is back in session for the new year.

On Saturday, Howard County voters got a chance to ask their questions about the 2014 session at a legislative luncheon hosted by the county's chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Just four members of Howard County's state delegation made it to the annual event, held Jan. 4 at Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City.

Sens. Ed Kasemeyer and Allan Kittleman and Dels. Liz Bobo and Frank Turner shared their priorities for the session, which spanned the predictable big-ticket items – balancing the budget, considering a minimum-wage increase and revisiting a controversial stormwater management fee – as well as less buzzed-about issues like transportation, government transparency and the estate tax.

The League's two top priorities this session are reforming the redistricting process and focusing on the environment, clean energy and planning for climate change, according to co-president Lillie Gallant.

Here's what Howard's legislators had to say.

Budget: Kasemeyer, who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation committee, said unanticipated costs had turned a projected budget surplus into a deficit.

"We were thinking we could do some imaginative, positive, good things this year," he said. Now, "I don't know to what degree we'll be able to do that."

Legislators have said they don't want to raise taxes or create additional revenue streams this session, which will make balancing the budget an exercise in trimming down existing spending.

Minimum wage: Legislators said a potential minimum wage hike would likely get top billing this session. Kasemeyer, Turner and Bobo were all supportive of a raise, but said it would likely have to be adopted slowly.

Kittleman was cautious. "I think that we have to be careful about some of the unintended consequences," he said, noting that many minimum-wage earners are young people getting job experience.

Redistricting: A politically charged issue, redistricting reform wasn't high on the list of priorities for an election-year session.

"It's more of a political issue than the fact that we need to have compact geographical areas," Turner told the audience. "It's one that we should do but that we have to have the political will to do, which makes it very different."

Decriminalization of marijuana: Kittleman advocated decriminalization of marijuana, which he supported in the Senate last year.

"A lot of young people deal with big consequences because they get stopped with a small amount of marijuana," he said.

Government transparency: Bobo and Kittleman both supported measures to increase government transparency and facilitate the referendum process.

Kittleman proposed adding voting sessions to a rule that requires all testimony in Senate committee meetings to be recorded.

Bobo called the referendum process "a fundamental right" and said state elected officials should take a look at requiring approval for referendum language before citizens begin distributing petitions.

Transportation: Several questions from the audience involved expanding transportation options in Howard County. Kasemeyer said Metro trains weren't likely to make their way into Howard County any time soon. "It's just a matter of being able to afford it, which we can't right now," he said.

Turner and Bobo said the county could plan for better public transportation in other ways.

"I think our focus has to be on mass transit, because that's the only way you're going to move people on this area – you can't move them on roads," Turner added.

Seniors: The delegation said they would try to look at the estate tax and pension exemptions in an effort to make retirement in Maryland more desirable for the state's seniors.

Kasemeyer said legislators were "trying to up [the upper limit for an estate tax exemption, currently $1 million] over a period of time to increase the exemption before you'd be subject to it."

He also suggested a gradual increase in tax exemptions for pensions. The plan is to "start out slowly and then increase," he said.

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