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Education, the environment and election laws were the most popular concerns among Howard County residents who came to share their thoughts on state bills with the county's Annapolis delegation Wednesday night.

About two dozen people showed up at the delegation's second public hearing of the session. Among them was Renee Foose, Howard County public schools superintendent, who was asked to speak about the impact state budget cuts proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan would have on the school system.

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Under the proposal, Howard County would receive $5.7 million less than expected in state aid for fiscal year 2016. At a time when the county is gearing up for a record enrollment increase of more than 1,600 students -- many of whom, Foose said, are English-language learners, special needs students or children from low-income families -- funding cuts could make the school system's goal of closing achievement gaps much more difficult.

"Without more teachers, support staff and school leaders we can't build on the progress we've made to meet these increased needs," she said.

In a letter to Hogan sent yesterday, County Executive Allan Kittleman said that proposed state budget cuts "would severely hamper Howard County's ability to provide the outstanding student experience that is expected by our residents.

"While I support the notion that we must collectively share in correcting the deficits we face, I am concerned about the current proposed budget's impact on state aid for Howard County, particularly for education funding," Kittleman wrote. "Howard County is known and sought after for its exceptional school system, libraries and community college. It would be disappointing to not be able to maintain some of our crowning achievements."

Seventy percent of the school system's operating budget is funded by the county; although Kittleman has not yet released his own budget proposals, Foose recently told Board of Education members that she had been informed full funding of the school system's budget request, which includes $11.5 million above the maintenance-of-effort threshold, is "not at all likely."

A maintenance-of-effort budget could mean "something as drastic as furlough days," Foose told delegation members.

Burden of proof

Several parents of children in the county's public school system came to testify on a different education-related topic: ensuring that the educational needs of children with individualized education programs, or IEPs, are met.

Currently, if a parent feels the school is not fulfilling their obligations to a student, as specified in that student's education plan, state law puts the burden on them to prove it.

But, in testimony that often became emotional, parents said they had had great difficulty arguing successfully against the school system.

"Parents do not have equal access to school and classroom environment, and therefore do not have equal opportunity to collect the data" about their child's education, said Barbara Murphy.

Erin Welch, whose son has autism, said she's spent "tens of thousands of dollars trying to have the school implement what they are legally required to implement. There is no accountability because the burden of proof is on me.

"I am out of money, out of emotional resources, but daily I feel I must continue to advocate for my son," she said. "When my son is 30 or 40 years old, the burden is still placed on me for the school's failure to educate my son and assist him to be as independent as possible."

Several members of Howard County's delegation -- senators Gail Bates and Guy Guzzone, as well as delegates Eric Ebersole, Trent Kittleman and Warren Miller, have already signed on in support of a state bill that would shift the burden of proof onto the school system for IEP disputes.

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In her comments, Foose also addressed burden of proof legislation, telling lawmakers that "Howard County schools provide an array of outstanding services to special education students and do much to enable parents to participate fully in decisions about their children's education without needing to resort to litigation."

Environmental concerns

The topic of fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from shale formations in western Maryland, is again at the top of the list for environmentalists who are concerned about the practice's potential impacts on water supply, natural tourism and public health. A state commission tasked with studying the issue gave the green light to fracking in December after several years of review, and former Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed a set of regulations in order to obtain permits to drill for natural gas before leaving office.

But several Howard residents said they support extending the moratorium on fracking. The General Assembly will consider legislation this session that would postpone fracking for another eight years so health and environmental officials could further study its effects.

"Let's not experiment in Maryland," Elisabeth Hoffman, of Clarksville, told the delegation. "The big trouble with fracking is the industry won't show on its balance sheet the costs to pay" for potential health problems and hits to the tourism industry.

Betsy Singer, who chairs the environmental committee for the county's League of Women Voters, said she supported delaying drilling permits until 2023.

"Proceeding with fracking is really irresponsible," Singer said. "Enforcement of regulations that may be developed also may be impossible."

Singer and several others also testifed in support of expanding the state's clean energy portfolio.

Referendum reform

Following last year's legal battle over a comprehensive zoning referendum petition that was denied by the county's Board of Elections after gathering more than 6,000 signatures, a bipartisan group of Howard legislators has teamed up to sponsor a bill for referendum reform.

The bill would require a "chief election official" to certify the language of a petition within 10 business days of receiving a request, and would also require them to provide an explanation if the language is rejected.

Lisa Markovitz, a leader of the zoning referendum group, praised lawmwakers for taking up the issue but said she'd prefer to see petition language certified by the office of the attorney general. "The courts would have to make a far more twisted pretzel to throw out the attorney general's opinion," Markovitz said, referencing a Maryland Court of Special Appeals decision last summer to deny her group's petition.

She also requested that the response time be shortened to five business days and that petitioners be allowed to make edits to a petition for accuracy before collecting signatures.

Others focused on broader election issues.

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Archana Leon-Guerrero came to support a bill that seeks to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution restoring "free and fair elections in America.

"I believe that there's an overarching cause that we all need to really look at. We each have our own things we want to talk to you about, but overall none of them are going to succeed if we don't look at our democratic process," Leon-Guerrero said. "Big money is influencing and corrupting politics in this country and we the people are not really able to get our voices heard. We need you to be able to listen… and make your decisions on an objective basis."

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