As session closes, additional state funding for Howard schools uncertain

And that's a wrap: here are Howard County's takeaways from the 2015 General Assembly session

The 435th General Assembly legislative session came to a close April 13 with the usual down-to-the-wire whirlwind of negotiations and voting.

Legislators passed a $40 billion budget, avoiding the possibility of a 10-day session extension, and restored $200 million in cuts to education funding, state employee pay raises and support for health care programs.

With partisan tension evident between the Democrat-dominated assembly and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, it remained unclear April 14 exactly how much money Howard County would see from the state next fiscal year.

While Democratic legislators want Hogan to spend more on the priorities they outlined, Hogan might not spend that $200 million at all, he told reporters as the session wound down the night of April 13.

In a statement released after the budget passed, Hogan said he was "concerned that the budget passed by the legislature does not provide the fiscal discipline that Maryland taxpayers expect and deserve."

"There is still a lot of uncertainty at this point," said Howard Budget Director Holly Sun. "We'll have to wait... until we can see what's going to be put in the budget."

In Howard, the school system stands to receive about $2.5 million more if Hogan decides to spend the fenced-off funds. In February, County Executive Allan Kittleman wrote to Hogan asking him to restore $6.6 million in direct state aid to the county.

Some of the county's Democratic legislators expressed disappointment in the state of limbo.

If Hogan chooses not to spend the money, "he's basically saying to all those individuals who would benefit from those varied things that I'm just going to sit on this money," said Sen. Guy Guzzone, of Columbia.

"It wasn't exactly the budget that I think that many of the legislators were looking for; I'm sure it wasn't the budget the governor wanted either," said Howard County delegation chair Frank Turner, also a Democrat from Columbia. "It's kind of early to figure out what exactly he's going to do, but I hope that he will see the light and understand the legislature's top priority, which is funding education."

Sen. Gail Bates, a Republican from western Howard County, lauded the governor's fiscal restraint.

"It didn't make a lot of people happy because it's never easy," said Bates, an accountant. "I like the fact that he was reining [the budget] in. We were spending more than we were collecting."

Local bills

The county is guaranteed to see some money in the form of state bond bills, however.

The Howard County Conservancy will receive $250,000 to renovate its environmental education center in Woodstock. In Ellicott City, the Howard County Historical Society will receive a $35,000 grant to repair the aging roof of its headquarters. The Community Action Council will get $290,000 to help build a new food bank.

Merriweather Post Pavilion will also receive a $2 million state arts grant to go toward ongoing renovations.

Other successful Howard County bills include:

• Legislation to allow the County Council to set compensation amounts for Howard's appointed liquor board. Currently, members receive $50 a meeting, with a cap of $1,200 annually, while the chair receives $55 a meeting and a $1,300 cap.

• A clarification to the county's room rental tax that would ensure online services such as Expedia and Orbitz would be taxed on the fees they charge.

• Legislation to allow the county's Board of License Commissioners to issue permits for beer, wine and liquor tasting events.

• Legislation to allow veterans' groups and volunteer fire departments to hold casino-style fundraising events.

A bond bill requesting $300,000 for restoration of the historic Clover Hill Farm House in Elkridge did not pass.

Tubman Center

Another bond bill, which asked for $500,000 to help turn Columbia's Harriet Tubman school – the county's only all-black high school before desegregation – into a cultural center, hit a roadblock early on. Howard County's Public School System, the owner of the building, said it couldn't afford to give up the property, which is currently used as office space for the public school system's maintenance staff, without a replacement.

In response, Turner wrote a letter to the School Board this week urging them to find a solution in time for the next budget cycle.

"There's two ways of looking at it: You can look at reasons why you can't do it, or you can look at ways you could fix it," Turner said April 14. "I think the right thing to do is to come back with a solution about how to move forward."

Referendum reform

Referendum reform, a hot topic during last year's election, saw some success this session.

Del. Bob Flanagan, a Republican from Ellicott City, partnered with eight other members of the Howard delegation to pass a bipartisan bill that requires the election director of a local board of elections to decide whether the language of a petition for referendum is acceptable before the petition is circulated.

The bill is a response to the difficulty faced by a local group of residents opposed to a handful of zoning changes in the county. Determined to take the changes to referendum, the group was successful in gathering more than enough signatures to place their question on the ballot, but was later rebuffed by the local Board of Elections, which argued the summary of zoning law on the petitions the residents passed out had been "insufficient."

Stormwater repeal

The legislature also passed a bipartisan bill repealing the stormwater fee, a decision certain to have local implications in the future. Currently, Howard County collects a tiered fee from residents to help fund stormwater management projects mandated by the federal government, but with the passage of the repeal, the fee is no longer required.

Maryland's nine largest counties and Baltimore City do still have to demonstrate to the state how they are tackling runoff problems, per the bill. Kittleman decided not to repeal Howard's stormwater fee this year, although he said during his campaign that he would like to see it gone.

Freshmen reflect

This session was the first (or the first in a while) for half of Howard County's delegation: Delegates Trent Kittleman, Eric Ebersole, Clarence Lam, Terri Hill and Vanessa Atterbeary were all elected for the first time in November, and Flanagan, who served in the House from 1987 to 2003, returned to Annapolis this year after a decade-long hiatus.

Hill, a Democrat from Columbia, said she benefited from the support of her colleagues in the assembly.

"Because of the support from the veteran legislators... I feel that I... got up to speed pretty quickly," she said. "It's been a good experience where our input and contributions were encouraged and supported."

Del. Trent Kittleman, a Republican from West Friendship, said she was energized by some of the debates she witnessed on the House floor, which, she added, usually focused on logic over rhetoric.

"Very seldom did debate become as bitter bipartisan as you think of in Congress," Kittleman said. "The freshman class is just a very, very talented class and – Republicans and Democrats – there are a lot of things we think alike on."

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