Maryland's 90-day legislative session ended with a flourish of activity Monday night, with lawmakers passing eight Howard County bills, including the creation of a property tax credit for natural disaster damage and a student loan assistance program for county teachers.
In reviewing a record 3,100 bills, lawmakers set aside election-year politics to pass gun-control legislation, stave off the potential collapse of the state's Obamacare market, deliver targeted tax relief and become the first state to regulate political ads on Facebook.
Twelve county projects or organizations received funding in the state's capital budget, including $8 million for improvements at Merriweather Post Pavilion and $500,000 for the long-awaited Harriet Tubman Community Center and Museum, a project championed by Howard County Democratic Delegate Frank Turner, who is retiring after 24 years in Annapolis.
While Turner said it's still not enough to finish the transformation of the county's last all-black high school into a multicultural center and museum, he said it's "a good start" to bring his dream of the center much closer to reality. The school closed in 1965.
During his final session, Turner also had success with other projects, including legislation to help students that have earned at least 45 credit hours at a community college or 90 credit hours at a four year institution complete their programs. His bill to increase the fine for texting while driving to $500 died in the final minutes of the session.
"Overall it was a very good year for my last year, I can't say I'm not pleased. In Annapolis you don't get everything you want, so you're happy with those successes that you do have," Turner said. "It was really an honor to travel that journey for the last 24 years. You're always going to be nostalgic towards the end, but at the same time you want to go out, and I think I did go out, with a roar."
Howard County also is losing a second long-time legislator, Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, who is retiring after more than 30 years of service. The influential Democrat is known for his expertise on the state's budget, a process he steered nine times as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.
Kasemeyer, who represents parts of Columbia and Elkridge as well as the Arbutus-Halethorpe-Lansdowne area in Baltimore County, saw nine of the bills on which he was the lead sponsor pass including a bill to increase individual taxpayers' maximum standard deductions, and also secured funding for organizations including $100,000 for the Howard County Youth Program, dedicated to bringing baseball, softball and basketball to kids.
In his final session, Kasemeyer said he was pleased to pass legislation protecting Marylanders amid changes in federal tax laws. Despite his final success, he said it's bittersweet to see his time in office end.
"I just felt it was the appropriate time, everybody reaches that stage where even though it's probably the right thing, that doesn't make it easy," Kasemeyer said. "It's kind of a melancholy feeling when after over 30 years doing something, all the sudden you realize there'll never be another session. You have mixed feelings about it."
Republican Del. Robert Flanagan was the only county representative whose bills failed in votes by the county's 12-member delegation. The bills included a proposal to increase bowhunting zones in the county and a bill to increase the amount of the county's transfer tax that goes to the School Site Acquisition and Construction Fund, designed to provide the county more money to build schools.
Flanagan, one of the delegation's four Republicans in a largely Democratic county, said that while he still wants to see more money go toward county school construction, he was pleased that additional construction funding was passed at the state level. He said he plans to revisit the issue next session.
The Ellicott City representative said he also remains committed to finding a solution for the county's deer overpopulation problem. Howard County has 50 deer per square mile, while experts say the ideal population is 15 per square mile. Deer are involved in more than 1,000 vehicle accidents in the county each year.
"I consider this a serious health hazard, and plan to spend a lot of time and energy working on solutions," Flanagan said. "The solution that I proposed was a managed hunt under the supervision of county officials; I think that's a viable option and I'm going to look at all possible alternatives as well."
Democratic Delegate Terri Hill was another representative who saw one of her major bills fail. In March, the House Ways and Means Committee killed her proposal to ban tackling in football and heading in soccer by youths playing on public fields. Hill, a surgeon, said she plans to continue conversations with state coaches and youth sports leagues over the summer.
"The issue of injuries to developing brains and what inadvertent damage we may be doing to youth is not an issue that's dying," Hill said. "And I think the science is continuing to evolve. So it will continue to be an interest of mine and I will be following the studies and data as it's presented over the next few months. The issue will stay, whether or not I'll be introducing the same bill will depend on the interim and conversations and data."
In addition to the Tubman and Merriweather, Sheppard Pratt at Elkridge, a psychiatric hospital, received $4 million for capital improvements to its facilities, changes that are "more than needed," said Senate delegation chairman Guy Guzzone, a Democrat.
A $350,000 funding request for the Gateway Innovation Center in Columbia, a county-owned building that houses the Economic Development Authority and is an anchor of the developing Gateway Innovation District, was shut out of the capital budget.
"There's only so much money, there wasn't a reason other than that," Guzzone said about Gateway's lack of funding. "I was hoping to get at least something this year. I haven't talked to the EDA yet, but I fully support the project, and as far as I'm concerned it'll be on list next year."
Two local bills left unfinished dealt with the school superintendent and developers.
A delegation-sponsored proposal to give the county's Board of Education the power to decide the length of the superintendent's term, not to exceed four years, did not receive a vote. The bill was one of three in the General Assembly on terminating a superintendent's contract. Currently, only the Maryland state superintendent may fire a county superintendent.
Howard County Republican Del. Warren Miller introduced a bill to place a cap on the amount a superintendent may be paid if their contract is terminated early, and Howard County Democratic Del. Vanessa Atterbeary introduced a bill to give county school boards the power to fire a superintendent.
Last year, the county school board was in a public battle with former superintendent Renee Foose and eventually paid a $1.65 million retirement package.
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The legislature decided to appoint a commission to study hiring and employment practices for superintendents and make recommendations by year's end.
"Everybody agrees some changes need to be made but we just need an omnibus on them," said House delegation chairman Eric Ebersole, a Democrat.
Also unsettled was a billing establishing surcharge fees for developers that want to build in crowded areas of the county. As proposed, the bill would have doubled developers' fees in areas where schools are between 110 and 115 percent of their capacity, and increase the fees by 200 percent in areas where schools are between 115 and 120 percent of capacity. Payment of fees allows developers to bypass a mandated four-year waiting period to build in crowded neighborhoods.
The County Council would need state permission to impose higher fees on developers. The bill is the final piece of legislation related to the county's update earlier this year to its adequate public facilities ordinance, meant to ensure schools and roads keep pace with development.
Guzzone said the delegation will continue to deal with the matter next session, and wants to have conversations about development with elected county officials, school advocacy groups and developers.
"This one was a smaller part of that big discussion; my expectation is we will be coming back next year and talking about that bill. This is not over by any stretch of the imagination," Guzzone said. "Everyone has a role and responsibility in trying to get these issues right because they are so important and so big."
--With reporting from The Baltimore Sun