Howard's legislators talk tax reduction at Chamber of Commerce breakfast

Just two weeks have passed since Election Day, but Howard County's delegation members are already looking ahead to the start of session in January.

A majority of the delegation met Tuesday morning at the Hilton DoubleTree hotel in Columbia to offer a business-centric legislative forecast to members of Howard County's Chamber of Commerce.


Many of the questions posed to the delegation were the same as they were at last November's legislative breakfast, although this time legislators answered with a marked awareness of the message Maryland voters sent when they chose Larry Hogan, a Republican who ran a campaign focused on trimming the state's deficit and cutting taxes and fees, as Maryland's next governor.

State Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, the delegation's longest-serving legislator and chair of the Senate's powerful budget and taxation committee since 2011, struck a conciliatory tone when asked about working with Hogan to roll back taxes.

The Democrat said he and other colleagues view Hogan's election "as a very positive thing.

"We are looking forward to working together, realizing that the people of Maryland have made a statement... and we look forward to a cordial relationship – one that's going to take a lot of compromise of his ideals and ours," he said.

Kasemeyer said he didn't foresee the relationship between Hogan and the General Assembly's Democrats, who still control both chambers in Annapolis, turning sour as it did during the administration of former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, also a Republican.

"We realize that the people of Maryland want us to get stuff done," he said.

But Kasemeyer predicted that reducing taxes would likely take a back seat to reining in the state's spending.

"Over the last 5 years, we all assumed this recession would end and we would come back like gangbusters," he said. With weaker growth than legislators had expected, he said, the question is now, "Is this the new reality?"

"I think the reduction of taxes, whatever they may be, might be a plan that the governor and [legislators] can agree on," he added. "But I think the first plan is reducing the spending of our government."

Gail Bates, an incumbent Republican delegate recently elected to succeed county executive-elect Allan Kittleman in the Senate, was more optimistic.

"One advantage I think we have is we have a governor who is committed to controlling spending and that makes a difference, because the... operating budget is initiated by the governor," she said.

Bates said the assembly should take a look not only at reducing new spending, but also at cutting funds allocated to existing programs that are outdated or ineffective.

"I think there's a time and a place to look back at the things we're doing as a state and say does this make sense anymore?" Bates said. "I think [money] should be used for what it was targeted for, and if it is no longer needed, get rid of that fee."

Del. Warren Miller, a Republican who was elected for a fourth term, said a big issue for the state was jobs.


This campaign season, he said, was the first time that "every other door" he knocked on, voters told him that they were moving out of state or planning to move soon.

"Taxation has a large role to play in that," Miller said of the reasons constituents gave for leaving, and said they were the same as the reasons Maryland businesses gave for moving their operations to neighboring states.

"We want businesses coming, not going," Miller said. "We have to look at our tax policy and make it competitive with the states our businesses are going to."

Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat and this year's chair of the Howard delegation, said economic struggles were not unique to Maryland.

"It's a regional problem, and has to be a regional approach," he said. "The tax thing is kind of a shell game. Yes, we pay 6 percent in sales tax... But [other states] pay a sales tax on food and medicine [as well as] a personal property tax on vehicles... There are a lot of advantages Maryland has that other states don't."

The discussion also touched on two environmental issues that are tied to the state's economy: fracking and the stormwater fee.

Though Hogan and other Republicans ran on a platform that called for a rollback of the state's stormwater fee, called the rain tax by critics, Kasemeyer said he didn't think opponents of the fee had enough votes to repeal it.

However, he said, "I still hope we can correct what I think are some inconsistencies."

Turner said he hoped the state would study the fee "for at least a year and figure ot where we're going," but Miller disagreed.

"Stormwater remediation fees place a disproportionate burden on Howard County businesses," he said. "There has to be a fairness, a level playing field with the tax."

The issue of fracking split the delegation down party lines, with the Democrats saying they'd need to be assured the state wouldn't face adverse environmental impacts from the controversial natural gas extraction process, while the Republicans urged moving forward, arguing that allowing fracking would create jobs in western Maryland, where the economy has especially struggled.

Though the county's incumbents offered the most insight into what to expect when session starts in January, four new delegates – Trent Kittleman, Clarence Lam, Terri Hill and Vanessa Atterbeary – all said that they looked forward to building relationships and becoming familiar with life in the State House. They join more than 50 new delegates starting terms this year.

"I think the key is you've got... new folks coming to serve in the House," said Atterbeary, a newly elected Democratic delegate. "We've got a strong learning curve."

The 2015 General Assembly session begins Jan. 14.