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Howard County lawmakers' agenda for 2019 session includes plastic bags, schools issues and Ellicott City

Howard County lawmakers' agenda for 2019 session includes plastic bags, schools issues and Ellicott City
The Maryland State House in Annapolis (Gabriella Demczuk / Baltimore Sun)

When the Maryland General Assembly convenes for its 2019 session next week, Howard County’s delegation will tackle an agenda that’s been forming for the past several months.

Lawmakers representing the county — including a handful of freshman legislators — will press for local initiatives covering topics from fees on plastic bags to the voting process for school board members, and from tax relief for retirees to flood control for Ellicott City.

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Local bills are often decided among the members of the county delegation. If approved there, they advance to various committees and subcommittees, then to the House and Senate floor. Legislators often grant “local courtesy” to bills that affect only the county where they are proposed, but some can nevertheless run into opposition — particularly if they might set a precedent that other jurisdictions would be compelled to follow.

Last year, the county’s 12-member delegation offered 24 bills for consideration. Seventeen passed through the delegation but only 12 ultimately became law.

Here’s a look at some of the local legislation that has already been discussed for the new session:

Got plastic?

One of the more closely watched proposals comes from Del. Terri Hill, a Democrat who chairs the county’s House delegation and represents portions of Baltimore and Howard counties in District 12. Hill has proposed a bill that would allow Howard County to consider placing a fee of up to 5 cents per bag on plastic bags that are given to customers at retail stores.

The bill is enabling legislation — meaning it wouldn’t impose the fee, but it would authorize the county to do so if the County County and county executive make that decision. County Executive Calvin Ball has said previously he doesn’t plan to introduce legislation on the issue.

Hill introduced the bill on behalf of the advocacy group, Less Plastic Please. Howard County’s Chamber of Commerce has voiced opposition to the bill.

Hill’s legislation would apply only to Howard County, and would not authorize a fee for plastic bags used for certain items — among them bulk vegetables or produce, dry cleaning, newspapers or prescription drugs.

Campaign donations

Del. Warren Miller, a Republican who represents portions of Howard County in District 9A, is proposing a bill that would place new stipulations on developer donations to local political campaigns.

The bill targets members of the County Council, who also sit as the county’s Zoning Board — the body that approves or rejects requests to change or modify zoning and other land-use matters. Miller’s proposal would bar council members from voting on decisions affecting properties when the applicants or their representatives have given the council member a campaign donation.

“I think it's time to take a close look on how that might influence zoning decisions,” Miller said of such contributions.

Miller expressed hope the bill might help address school overcrowding and road congestion — issues that are often blamed on new development. He said he inherited the bill from former delegate Robert Flanagan, a Republican who represented Ellicott City until he lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Courtney Watson, who previously served on the County Council.

Miller said political contributions aren’t the only factor in county development decisions that spur overcrowding — but he believes his measure could help.

“It’s something we need to get a handle on this [issue],” Miller said. “Hopefully it will make a difference.”

School fees, elections

Also related to schools, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary is sponsoring bills that focus on school funding and the election of school board members.

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Atterbeary, a Democrat who represents the District 13, is proposing another piece of enabling legislation — one that would allow the County Council to increase the amount of money being charged to developers when they build new residential developments.

The county’s existing impact fee for school construction is $1 per square foot. Atterbeary’s bill would allow it to go as high as $4 per square foot, though she said she’s willing to go higher.

“I personally… am willing to go beyond the $4,” she said. “We have severely crowded schools and this will certainly help.”

The school system has identified “three essential projects” it wants to complete over the next several years: a replacement building for Talbott Springs Elementary School, slated to open in September 2022; and two other projects targeted for completion in August 2023 — building the county’s 13th high school in Jessup and a renovation and additional of Hammond High School. The school system also has a long-term plan for capital projects that include other new schools, renovations and upgrades.

Atterbeary’s bill would also enable the County Council to make annual adjustments to the impact fee rate under certain circumstances.

A second bill proposed by Atterbeary would allow for five of the seven members of the county’s Board of Education to the elected by councilmanic districts — and elected only by voters from those districts.

Atterbeary’s bill also have two members of the school board serving at-large — they would represent the entire county, and would be elected by all county voters.

She sponsored a similar bill in 2016, though it failed to clear the legislature. This year the measure has already gathered support from Cindy Vaillancourt, the former school board chairwoman, as well as teachers union president Colleen Morris.

Atterbeary has one other bill she’s sponsoring: a measure to alter the qualifications for being elected to a seat on the county’s Orphan's Court. Currently neither a law degree nor legal experience is needed for the job. Atterbeary is proposing for the three judges to have been admitted to practice law in the state of Maryland and be in good standing of the Maryland Bar.

“It makes the the Orphan's Court in my opinion more legitimate [and] more professional,” Atterbeary said. “Better than someone with no experience who just wakes up and decides to run.

“People don’t realize these people aren’t judges,” Atterbeary said. “They assume they have a legal background and experience.”

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Orphan’s Court is primarily responsible for presiding over estates and trusts.

Ellicott City

Though Flanagan was defeated in November, a bill he proposed regarding flood mitigation efforts in Ellicott City — the site of two deadly floods since 2016 — is nonetheless expected to be heard by the delegation.

The measure would impose new design standards and regulations for new structures in historic Ellicott City. It would require the state Department of the Environment to adopt additional regulation for developments and redevelopment in areas affecting the town. Provisions of the bill call for building standards that can withstand certain levels of flooding. The rules would be mandated by the state and incorporated into county regulations — if the county executive and County Council agree.

Watson, the successor to Flanagan in District 9B, has also discussed two proposals for the session regarding Ellicott City.

Last month she said she will seek funding for the state’s Comprehensive Flood Management Grant Program — which hasn’t been funded since 2003 — to provide long-term help for flood mitigation in the historic district. Watson says grants could be used to acquire flood-prone properties and help finance flood-control projects and alarm systems.

She said she will also submit legislation to make stormwater management projects eligible to receive money from the state’s Bay Restoration Fund. The fund, partially financed through fees collected from residents who use sewers, was created in 2004 to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities. The fund on average collects $100 million annually from residents, according to the Department of the Environment.

Retiree tax credit

Incoming freshman Sen. Katie Fry Hester, a Democrat representing District 9, is sponsoring a bill that would provide a tax break for retired people who have been paying property taxes in the same county for more than 40 years. The county currently allows a partial credit to those older than 65 who live in a home for more than 40 years. This bill would change that to say they simply have to live in the same county for that period — though not necessarily in the same house.

The bill was introduced at the behest of Howard County’s Commission on Aging and would authorize the County Executive or the County Council to consider providing tax cuts, she said. Fry Hester said she is researching the bills potential impact on the county’s revenue.

Outgoing Republican Sen. Gail Bates introduced a similar bill last session that unanimously passed in the Senate, but failed to make it out of a House committee. The fiscal note said the proposal could decrease the county’s revenue.

Fry Hester said she introduced the bill with the same language to “give community members an opportunity to testify on it.”

New faces

In addition to Fry Hester and Watson, Howard County’s delegation will have several new members this year.

With the retirement of senator Ed Kasemeyer and delegate Frank Turner, as well as other moves within the ranks, the delegation with have five new faces, and one familiar face in a new role — Democrat Clarence Lam moved from the House to the Senate to fill the seat formerly held by Kasemeyer.

Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who most recently served on the County Council, was elected to fill the District 13 seat vacated by Turner. And newcomer Jessica Feldmark, also a Democrat, was elected to fill the seat was had been held by Lam before to moved to the senate.

Not everyone will be filling seats in the assembly chamber for the first time, however.

Returning members of the county delegation to Annapolis include Miller, Hill and Atterbeary, as well as Sen. Guy Guzzone, a District 13 Democrat and chairman of the Senate Delegation; Republican Del. Trent Kittleman of District 9A; Democrat Eric Ebersole of District 12 and Democrat Shane Pendergrass, representing District 13.

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