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Lawmakers face difficult decisions in making new budget

We're in the final two weeks of this year's Maryland General Assembly meeting and so far it's been one of the quietest 90-day sessions of recent years.

By next week, lawmakers must agree on a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

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There will be plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiating between Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and House and Senate budget leaders.

Many of Hogan's budget cuts to education, Medicare and state worker pay have been restored by lawmakers.

To win back some of these reductions, the governor will have to agree to support legislators on a host of issues, which could include the Red Line subway, extra aid for schools in larger, higher-cost jurisdictions like Baltimore County and Baltimore City, and pay raises for developmental disability workers.

The good news for taxpayers is that this legislative session isn't likely to take more money out of their pockets.

Some fees may be reduced, such as the levy that pays for stormwater remediation, commonly referred to by the erroneous name of the "rain tax."

The Kamenetz administration already is on course to lower this levy by one-third. The County Council approved this plan in early March over the opposition of two conservative Republicans, Councilmen Todd Crandell of Dundalk and Wade Kach of Cockeysville.

They wanted to slash the fee to a ridiculous one-cent per county resident or business.

That would have placed a $22 million added burden on the county's budget to pay for these environmental programs aimed at stopping polluted stormwater from reaching the Chesapeake Bay.

Councilman Julian Jones of Randallstown noted that had the penny-per- resident tax been approved, it could have meant less county investment in schools and public workers in order to pay for stream restoration projects required by the federal government.

In Annapolis, meanwhile, a largely symbolic tug of war is being waged between Hogan and Democrats over the rain tax.

The Senate has passed a bill drawn up by Senate President Mike Miller that would make the stormwater remediation fee optional for the 10 jurisdictions whose streams and rivers pollute the Chesapeake.

But there's a catch: Those counties would have to produce plans each year detailing their remediation plan — and how they intend to pay for it.

Federal agreements require that the counties clean up their tributaries and cut down on pollution from stormwater.

The remediation fee was designed to offset much of that expense. The only alternative is to take the money from the county's annual budget, which would require cuts in other local programs.

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So one way or another, Baltimore County must continue its stream restoration activity and street sweeping to stop pollutants from reaching the bay.

Action in Annapolis — House of Delegates approval of Miller's bill remains up in the air — won't change the county's obligation to reduce stormwater runoff.

With or without the rain tax, Baltimore County must find at least $22 million a year to do its part to help restore the bay to good health.

The county executive's approved plan cuts the remediation fee from $39 to $26 for single-family residences, from $21 to $14 for townhouses, from $32 to $22 for condos and from $69 per 2,000 square feet of permeable surface — roofs and parking lots — to $46 for commercial businesses.

The reduced rates will cost the county $8 million in lost revenue. That amount now will have to come out of the county's general funds, which will lead to cuts in other program areas in the county executive's next budget.

Barry Rascovar of Reisterstown writes a blog, http://www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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