Howard County residents will soon be able to elect school board members by district, claim tax credits on flood-damaged commercial property and drink more beer, wine and liquor samples during local alcohol tastings.
The three initiatives are among the measures that passed the General Assembly this legislative session, which ended Monday at midnight.
The session was the busiest in recent memory for local legislation, with more than a dozen bills filed and seven passed before the last gavel fell on Sine Die.
After two years of debate, lawmakers passed a proposal that ties five Board of Education members to a councilmanic district beginning in 2020.
While voters countywide will still elect all seven school board members, each of those five seats will be filled by someone who lives within the councilmanic district it represents. The two remaining at-large seats can be represented by any county resident. For years, all seven seats have been at-large.
Delegation Chair Vanessa Atterbeary, a Maple Lawn Democrat who sponsored the school board bill, said it's "the first step in fixing how we elect our school board members."
Legislators were prompted to link the seats to districts after hearing from parents who wanted more accountability for members of the board, which has faced charges of not being transparent about issues such as mold in schools and special education.
Atterbeary's original proposal would have limited voting on district-specific seats to voters within that district, but it could not garner enough support within the delegation. She said the bill that passed still represents progress.
"You don't get everything you want, right away, all the time — it takes incremental baby steps," Atterbeary said. "In my opinion, [the bill] fixes the problem of trying to get people who are more connected to schools and live in those areas" that each district represents.
A credit for Howard businesses that experience flood damage was one of two tax-relief measures to pass in response to last summer's devastating flood in Ellicott City, which killed two people and shut down the town's Main Street for more than two months.
The other is a tax exemption on personal property owned or leased by businesses in one of the county's historic districts, which include Ellicott City, Savage Mill, Lawyers Hill in Elkridge and Daniels Mill. The credit could be offered until July 2022.
Hogan signed both measures into law on Tuesday as part of his first post-session bill signing. They'll have to be approved by the County Council before they can be claimed.
Also signed into law Tuesday was a bill raising the thresholds for alcohol samples at county businesses with tasting licenses.
The measure doubles the amount of beer, wine and liquor that can be offered as samples — up to 16 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of wine and 2 ounces of liquor per day under the new law.
This year's session brought grant money, but also new regulations, for Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The iconic concert venue in Columbia will receive $8 million for improvements under the state capital budget approved by Hogan and the legislature, so long as the county comes up with $4 million of its own for renovations.
Merriweather will also be subject to new restrictions on noise in response to complaints from residents who say sound from the pavilion has become louder and traveled farther in recent years.
Under the regulations, all noise levels will now be measured in relation to the venue's main stage, rather than from satellite stages that could be closer to the property line. Noise will be limited to 85 decibels within a quarter-mile radius of the main stage between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. and 72.5 decibels between a quarter-mile and three-quarters of a mile of the stage. For properties three-quarters of a mile or more from the pavilion, noise levels will be capped at 65 decibels.
Another successful bill will allow fire investigators to carry a gun and make arrests in the course of their duties. Legislators also passed a bill that will exempt some county police, firefighters and first responders from the transfer tax.
County organizations will also see millions of dollars in state funding, including:
•$150,000 for the Chrysalis pavilion in Symphony Woods
•$300,000 for a Harriet Tubman Community Center and Museum
•$50,000 for the ManneqART Museum and Maryland Fashion Institute
•$25,000 for the Tau Pi Mentoring Program
•$125,000 for the restoration of Carrollton Hall
•$250,000 to replace the ARC of Howard County's HVAC system
•$9.5 million for a science and nursing pavilion at Howard Community College