Tough times change look of local bills
Budget constraints could lead to less legislation in 2010, lawmakers say
When lawmakers return to Annapolis next month, the state's fiscal outlook could hamstring more than just the budget.
Local legislation, the bills on which lawmakers work with county and municipal officials on issues specific to their jurisdiction and that some use to score points in an election season, is also being curtailed by budget woes.
"Like anything else, when there's money to be sought, every county, every legislator would try to bring money home to make them look more attractive, more electable," said LeRoy E. Myers Jr., chairman of the Washington County House delegation.
The coming election year will be different, Myers said.
"It'll be up to the legislators, the local delegation just to maintain," he said.
Bills being considered by county delegations range from a restriction on fast-food restaurants in Prince George's County to a measure to allow nonprofit organizations to operate slot machines in Worcester County.
A projected $2 billion fiscal 2011 budget gap is tempering expectations among lawmakers of what they can bring back to their home counties and districts in the form of local legislation and bond money for capital projects.
Democrats said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis told a caucus meeting this week that any bills with price tags above $100,000 will have to be approved by legislative leaders and the House Appropriations Committee.
"Nothing's going to pass that doesn't pay for itself," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier. "That's pretty much the word from on high."
Even with the edict, the election year will prove too much of a temptation to ignore for some, he said.
"I expect there'll be more legislation introduced with an eye to politics, to the campaign," Niemann said. "People can say I'm doing this, this and this, even if it doesn't have much of a chance."
He is sponsoring local bills that would create a fee on divorce filings that would go to fund the county's shelter for battered women and that would require the county school system to adopt a recycling program.
Sen. David C. Harrington is pushing a bill that would prohibit Prince George's County from issuing a license to open a new fast-food restaurant in an area of the county where the Maryland Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities identifies health disparities in 60 percent or more of the population.
Disparities are significant differences between populations in rates of health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
"We're seeing in Prince George's County, particularly in low-income communities that have high clusters of chain, fast-food restaurants, high incidences of health disparities," said Harrington (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly. "What I'm trying to do here is say, look, let's put at least some limits to this and have grocery stores to create healthy choices here."
Legislators often use local bills as a way to gain a foothold for an issue that might get lost in the legislative shuffle were it to be introduced statewide.
"It's certainly difficult to pass broad-based policy," said Harrington, a former county councilman.
The local fast-food bill is an attempt to get feedback from colleagues in the county and state. If it is warmly received, "it could go elsewhere," he said.
Local legislation is often mundane, and delegations' lists of bills are often dominated by measures related to alcohol sales, which are governed by state laws specific to each jurisdiction.
Howard County House delegation Chairman Guy Guzzone and Del. Warren E. Miller (R-Dist. 9A) of Woodbine are teaming up on a bill that would limit alcohol licenses for beer, wine or liquor stores to one per every 2,600 people. Lawmakers in St. Mary's County also are considering limiting the number of liquor stores there.
"It's an issue that comes up over and over again," said Guzzone, a former county councilman. Indeed, local bill sponsors often cite experiences in county or municipal government as reasons for introducing legislation on local issues.
The Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association has cited concerns about new stores crowding out existing alcohol license holders, said Guzzone (D-Dist. 13) of Columbia.
More important are implications for enforcing underage drinking laws, he said. A high concentration of stores raises the potential for teenagers to get their hands on alcohol.
"They might get carded [at one store], but they might go to another one and another one," he said.
Across the Bay, in Worcester County, lawmakers are again pushing a bill that would allow nonprofit fraternal, religious and war veterans' organizations to own and operate up to five slot machines. At least half of the proceeds from the machines would go to charity, with the remainder going to the nonprofit.
"These clubs are driven by volunteers and they really are the ones asking for this," said Del. James N. Mathias Jr., the Worcester County House Delegation chairman.
Mathias (D-Dist. 38B) of Ocean City plans to reintroduce the bill along with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway (D-Dist. 38B) of Salisbury. The two sponsored the bill earlier this year.
While the measure was not adopted by the county delegation in 2009, it would apply only to Worcester County and would put the county among the eight others on the Eastern Shore, all of which allow nonprofits to operate slots.
In Washington County, which has a Board of Commissioners, the delegation's legislative priorities are colored by the fact that the General Assembly holds the power to enact county legislation.
"You have to go back to the legislature for anything," said Myers (R-Dist. 1C) of Clear Spring.
The county's 2010 priorities include bills to continue a salary commission study of compensation for Washington County elected officials, including the Board of County Commissioners and school board, and to give the county increased purchasing power in the procurement of professional and technical services.
In Montgomery County, legislators are pursuing bills to redistribute speed camera revenue to municipalities, to give the student school board member increased voting rights and to allow wine sales at farmers markets.
St. Mary's County Commissioners have asked state lawmakers to consider a bill granting tax credits to homeowners using alternative energy sources and a bill to defund the use of Medicaid dollars for abortions.
Sponsors are not yet signed on to particular bills, said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., chairman of the St. Mary's County House delegation.
"I think we're going to be very light in terms of what we introduce," said Bohanan (D-Dist. 29B) of California. "I think in general it will be slower than normal in terms of what we'll be doing because of the financial situation."
The Frederick County delegation will hold a public hearing on Saturday on a legislative package presented last month by county commissioners.
The package includes mandated countywide recycling and increases to medical and dental fees paid by inmates at the county's detention center.