Bills OK'd on work release, insurance

Howard County's legislators voted yesterday to give school board members health insurance and to allow more prisoners on work release.

But the debate over bills to raise taxes for school construction funding was delayed until next week.


"I think it would be a good idea to have a work session, to get a clearer understanding of what each [bill] does," suggested Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat.

Bobo said she expects any proposal to raise more money for school construction to be a combination of elements included in the six tax bills under consideration -- including an idea Bobo offered yesterday to raise $500,000 a year by increasing taxes on undeveloped land in Columbia.


"We probably need a work session and to do a lot of straw voting," added Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican who heads the three-member county Senate delegation. "There could be a whole lot of combinations."

Kittleman said later that he remains opposed to County Executive James N. Robey's proposal to increase the real estate transfer tax and use the revenue to borrow more to create a $215 million dedicated fund over eight years -- and then pay off the bonds.

The western county legislator said he strongly objects to creating a separate fund by selling bonds outside of normal county procedures. "There should be one stack of bonds," he said of county borrowing.

Last spring, Howard County authorized borrowing a record $70 million for school construction by selling bonds.

Robey has argued that even with higher local income taxes, he needs a new source of school construction funding to keep up with the county's overall capital needs. The school board has requested $115 million next fiscal year -- about double what the county approved for this fiscal year.

"We'll take them up collectively next week," said the House delegation chairman, Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat.

Robey, who attended the meeting in the House of Delegates office building in Annapolis, said he is optimistic that a new source of revenue will be approved by the county's 11-member General Assembly delegation.

"I think something's going to happen. Getting more information is a good sign," he said, referring to Bobo's request for refined financial estimates for what each bill would produce in revenue. "I think that most of them [legislators] understand the need."


Lawmakers approved a bill, though not without debate, that would allow school board members to qualify for public health insurance. Republican Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller voted against the measure, even though as part-time officials they are covered by state health insurance.

"Our school board employees are the third-highest paid in the state," Bates said, arguing that granting access to public health insurance would "blur the lines" between the board members and the employees they oversee. Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican, had another worry, asking, "Can we afford it?"

The benefit would cost $5,000 to $6,000 a year for each board member, said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, who attended the meeting. The delegation amended the bill -- with Bates, Miller and Democratic Del. Neil F. Quinter opposed -- so board members would pay 10 percent of the cost, as do other officials, instead of paying the entire premium. The original bill would have had board members foot the full cost.

The board sought insurance to help widen the pool of potential board candidates to include those who might not run because of that concern.

The delegation approved a bill that would allow more county jail inmates to participate in work-release programs. Jail officials sought the change because they say current law bars inmates facing minor traffic or child-support charges in other jurisdictions from working.

The legislators accepted a Robey administration amendment limiting the expansion to those charged with nonviolent crimes.


The lawmakers also voted to ask the state for $500,000 to help restore Blandair mansion in Columbia.

Votes on bills that would expand the county school board from five to seven members and require board vacancies to be filled through election were postponed.

Del. James E. Malone Jr., an Elkridge Democrat, asked for the delay on the board-expansion bill because he wants to amend the bill to have five members elected from County Council districts and two countywide to ensure his district has a board representative.