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Political Notebook: Opposition to teacher pension shift grows in Howard

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is rounding up the troops to help fight against the governor's proposal to shift part of teacher pension costs to the counties.

At least 15 people from various county government and community groups — likely urged by Ulman or other vocal leaders involved in the "Stop the Shift" movement — came out to the Howard County Delegation's public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 21 to speak in opposition to the proposed teacher pension shift. No one spoke in favor of the proposal.

Gov.Martin O'Malley's budget includes a proposal to have local jurisdictions pay for half of the combined cost of teachers' social security and pension costs. Currently, counties only pay for the social security portion, which accounts for roughly one-third of the total cost.

O'Malley sees the shift as a way to eliminate $240 million from the state's projected $1 billion deficit. Ulman sees it as a $17 million crippling blow to the county's budget.

Howard County residents and groups are standing behind Ulman.

"This pension shift will ask us local governments to pay the bill for something we don't control," County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said. "We cannot absorb the cost of the pension shift without significantly impacting critical services that our residents need."

Sigaty explained that cuts cannot be made to the education part of the budget because of state-mandated maintenance of effort requirements.

"After we factory in non discretionary costs, like debt service, we are at a point where we only have 30 percent of our general fund budget left to absorb the cost," she said.

Representatives who receive funding under that 30 percent of the budget spoke against the shift.

One was Joel Goodman, chairman of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board, who said he fears the shift would result in cuts to the Department of Recreation and Parks' budget.

"More cuts will surely mean eliminating positions and programs that are basic to the core delivery service of the department," he said.

Jackie Eng, of the Association of Community Services, said she is worried about the potential impact on funding for nonprofit and critical community service organizations. She explained the 30 percent where cuts could be made as "the portion the budget that is already stretched to capacity to meet the human services and public safety needs."

Instead of spending her testimony repeating what others said about the potential impact of a pension shift, Liddy Garcia-Bunuel, executive director of Healthy Howard, offered the delegation other possibilities for raising revenue to chip away at the state's projected deficit, such as closing corporate tax loopholes or restoring the millionaires' tax.

"I think that the state obviously has a lot more opportunities to raise revenue as opposed to the county," she said.

Others who spoke against the shift included Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington, school board members Frank Aquino and Ellen Giles and Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle, among others.

Other issues discussed

The hot topic at last year's delegation hearing on statewide issues was same-sex marriage, which drew a crowd where proponents largely outnumbered opponents. This year only three people showed up to testify on the topic — one in support and two against.

The issue was likely tempered by the fact that the passing of same-sex marriage is pretty much a done deal in the legislature. The bill passed the House of Delegates last week and is expected to cruise through the Senate this week.

Surprisingly, only one or two of the roughly 40 people who attended the hearing spoke to O'Malley's proposal to apply the state's 6 percent sales tax to gasoline or his proposal to effectively raise income taxes on people earning $100,000 or more by capping deductions and phasing out exemptions.

Behind the coalition of people against the teacher pension shift, the second largest group to show up to the hearing were environmental advocates seeking support for O'Malley's offshore wind proposal.

"These wind generators once constructed will produce abundant energy at a stable cost," Clarksville resident Elisabeth Hoffman said, noting that unlike fossil fuel, wind energy would not harm the environment or the public's health.

The only person to speak against the offshore wind proposal was Columbia resident Julian Levy, who said it would raise the cost of energy.

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