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Harford legislators to focus on transportation, deficit

Harford legislators to focus on transportation, deficit
Money for road improvements, such as Route 22 in Aberdeen, above, is a priority among Harford County legislators and local officials as the 2015 Maryland General Assembly session approaches. (MATT BUTTON AEGIS FILE PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Road repair and maintenance money, Hatem Bridge tolls and concerns about rising tuition are on the agenda of Harford County's legislators as they prepare for the 2015 session.

Delegation chairman Del. Rick Impallaria, R-District 7, said it's his job to guide the legislators' agenda in the upcoming session. One of the biggest issues facing the county, Impallaria said, is trying to reduce tolls along the Hatem Bridge. It is $4 each way so people traveling to or from the county along the bridge for business or pleasure end up paying $8 each way, he said.

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"It is a 20 minute ride to avoid the toll," Impallaria said.

Impallaria also said he hopes the delegation can work with others to bring Highway User Funds back to the county. Local governments previously received 30 percent of both the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, but that was cut to 10 percent in 2010 to help the state recover from the recession, The Baltimore Sun reported.

"The biggest thing in Harford County is to hold on to as much funding as we can and try to get the Highway User Revenues back," Impallaria said.

Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-District 7, said the transportation funding that has been stretched thin, along with the state's $1.2 billion structural deficit, means the delegation needs to focus its transportation projects. Jennings hopes to submit smaller projects that might catch the attention of state funding.

"Instead of widening the whole roadway, why not just widen it near the traffic lights," Jennings said.

While Jennings and Impallaria are hoping to expand funding, they both understand the state is undergoing a change with Gov.-elect Larry Hogan coming into office. Hogan is promising change to Maryland's spending to tackle the $1.2 billion structural deficit, which could mean decreases in local funding.

Local education funding cuts could lead to less money for Harford County Community College. Del. Pat McDonough, R-District 7, wants to initiate an independent audit of the college to discover why it has raised tuition five years in a row. McDonough said it could have been caused by decreased state funding, but he said he also has concerns about increasing administrative costs.

"It would tell us where the deficits are occurring in a report that would be easily understood by the public," McDonough said.

Meeting with Aberdeen city officials last Monday, three-term Del. Susan McComas, R-District 34-B, said Hogan has "got his work cut out for him" with the budget difficulties facing the state in the coming year.

"I think everyone's going to go in with the attitude that we're going to the very best we can for the citizens of Maryland and of our district," said McComas, who was joined by District 34 Sen.-elect Robert Cassilly, Del. Glen Glass, R-District 34-A, and Del.-elect Mary Ann Lisanti, D-District 34A.

"We're all going to work together for Aberdeen," Glass said. "We're all going to work together to fight for municipal government."

Lisanti noted she has been appointed to the House Economic Matters Committee.

"I really felt that was a message to our county, that they recognize that jobs, jobs, jobs are very important to our county," she said.

Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett and City Manager Doug Miller stressed the need for the state to find money to help the city cover the cost of their contribution to two major state transportation projects, including the relocation of water and sewer lines for the widening of Route 22 between the I-95 interchange and Aberdeen Proving Ground's Route 22 gate, plus the relocation of a "force main" for the widening of Route 715.

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Bennett and Miller also stressed the need to fully fund Highway User Revenues, which consist mainly of state fuel taxes, based on the formula established by the state for distributing street maintenance funds to 156 municipalities.

Miller said the highway user funds are not grants and are not discretionary funding.

"This is money that's been taken from us from a pre-established formula," he said.

Bennett, who is the legislative chair for the Maryland Municipal League and has frequent interaction with state officials, said Hogan recently met with members of the MML and Maryland Association of Counties.

"Needless to say, [Highway User Revenues] are at the top of our list for municipalities," Bennett said.

He explained that $2 million has been transferred from the city's fund balance during the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years to augment existing Highway User Revenue funding for street maintenance.

"I can't continue to put that kind of money into road maintenance every year," Bennett said.

Cassilly and Lisanti aren't the only new legislators from Harford. In District 35-A, Del.-elect Teresa Reilly and Del.-elect Andrew Cassilly, Bob Cassilly's younger brother, were elected to the House in November; both are Republicans. District 35 Sen.-elect Wayne Norman, also a Republican, is moving to the Senate from the House. The remaining member of the Harford delegation, Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-District 7, is beginning her second term.

Maryland's 2015 General Assembly Session begins Jan. 14 when new delegates and senators are sworn in. Hogan is inaugurated a week later, Jan. 21, and must present a budget on Jan. 23.

While legislators are working on drafting bills, they have not been filed. During election years, bills cannot be filed early and will be filed when the session begins.

Impallaria said there is a lot of transition in the air, and while the county wants to expand transportation funding, waiting to see how things go could be the best strategy.

"I want to sit back and get a feel for the new legislators," he said. "I don't want to throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks."

Aegis staff member David Anderson contributed to this article.

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