State v. local government

There is a certain reliable pattern to each Maryland General Assembly session: The House and Senate will be at odds, 90 days worth of legislating will be condensed to about three weeks, and most bills of substance will be deferred or delayed. It's also predictable that at some point, local governments will groan and moan about how state government is usurping their authority.

Well, with less than a week left in the session, it's that time of year again. Local leaders from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore see Annapolis trampling local decision-making rights from land planning to government ethics, and they don't much like it.


At some level, it's understandable that county executives, commissioners and council members want to make their choices unencumbered by state and federal mandates. And whenever possible, that's the ideal. What's good for Rockville isn't necessarily what's best for Princess Anne on any number of issues, small and large.

But some of the most controversial choices being made in the State House this year — decisions construed by some as usurpation — are more than justified. In most cases, they are issues where the interests of the state as a whole need to be factored into the mix and where local governments need to be held more accountable, not less.


Take education funding, for instance. Legislation approved this year to strengthen Maryland's "maintenance of effort" law — requiring local governments to pay at least as much for public education (on a per-pupil basis) as they did before — and the General Assembly's plan to gradually require them to finance a share of teacher pensions may be the biggest beefs of all.

But history shows both are needed. A handful of counties have already failed to meet the MOE obligation in recent years, and the state can't continue to bear the full retirement cost of teachers. To ignore either would be to ignore the interests of Maryland taxpayers as a whole — and to risk the state's reputation for outstanding public schools.

Meanwhile, it's almost laughable that local governments would complain about Gov.Martin O'Malley's legislation to discourage large new developments that rely on septic systems — at least since the Senate got through with it. The measure is still needed — run-off from septic systems remains one of the more poorly-regulated sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries — but the Senate has watered it down to a thin gruel (Example: Any development plans submitted before October will be excused from regulations for years to come).

Jurisdictions like Frederick County may believe the only legitimate stakeholders in land and water use decisions within Frederick County are Frederick countians, but the reality is more complex. The day storm water run-off from the county stops draining into the Potomac River, perhaps the county commissioners can declare themselves apart from the rest of the state (or sue for such status, if they like), but until then, there's a broader public interest to be protected.

Bolstering minimum ethics standards and ensuring building codes are adequately protecting the health and safety of local residents can justify state intervention as well — if only because of the danger that local governments are not keeping pace with the times. That so many have failed to require sprinkler systems in new construction, for instance, demonstrates they aren't aware of just how flammable certain modern building materials have become. There is, likewise, no reason local government officials' financial disclosure statements should not be posted online.

That's not to suggest that those who legislate in the State House always know better than those who perform similar labors in county courthouses and government centers. Historically, there's no shortage of examples where state intervention has proven unwise. Sometimes, local governments are stricter regulators and more generous benefactors to schools.

But there's clearly a balance to be struck. Local governments must recognize when broader issues of public interest are at stake. That so many are howling so loudly this year may reflect more on the increasingly polarized nature of politics (highly conservative Republicans in the rural counties pitted against the more liberal-leaning views of urban Democrats) than any particularly abrupt change in policy. The lingering effects of the recession have also forced confrontations over spending issues that could be ignored in better times.

This is not a "war on rural Maryland," as some might claim, but a recognition that no county is an island. All are a part of the whole — just as Maryland is but one of 50 states and must adhere to federal mandates. Annapolis also makes a convenient scapegoat, but not every mandate is an unwarranted intrusion.