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Senator Has Bright Ideas

State Sen. Rob Garagiola announces legislation to boost solar energy, reduce emissions in Maryland.

(This is the first in a series of articles previewing the 2006 Maryland legislative session with the senators and delegates who represent Potomac. Previews with other representatives will appear in the coming weeks.)

Conventional political wisdom is that the state legislative session preceding an election is a lame duck. Politicians shy away from legislation that might raise eyebrows except for a few measures that will make a political statement but have little hope of passing. Not much gets done.

But several of Potomac’s representatives in the General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 12 in Annapolis, have other plans.

“There’s going to be a lot of theater and a lot of rhetoric and I think that’s unfortunate actually because I don’t want to waste a year not getting things done,” said Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15), whose district includes most of Potomac and stretches north to Germantown. “I’m not here to make a statement. I’m here to get things done.”

Garagiola’s colleague Sen. Brian Frosh (D-16), whose district includes southern and eastern Potomac, reaching toward Bethesda, added that “the rule about nothing happens in an election year is partly myth. Everybody says that going in and then a lot of bills pass.”

LAST WEEK, Garagiola announced a package of seven planned bills addressing climate change, emissions, and the use of renewable energy.

The bills included a proposal to require that Maryland government buildings reduce their energy consumption by 10 percent by 2010; that the state establish two, month-long sales tax holidays on energy-efficient appliances; and that Maryland commit $1 million annually to a solar energy grant program Garagiola sponsored in 2002 and double the maximum value of individual grants.

Those proposals come as a number of states and municipalities voluntarily adopted limits on greenhouse gas emissions that mirror the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, the international emissions treaty that the Bush Administration rejected in 2001.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels spearheaded one such agreement beginning in March. At that time, 10 mayors representing 3 million citizens signed on. As of last week, nearly 200 mayors representing 40 million people had agreed to match Kyoto standards, an effort endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

A coalition of nine northeastern states have also adopted voluntary standards under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Maryland and Pennsylvania are the only two states in the Northeast that haven’t signed on.

Garagiola and several other legislators wrote a letter to Gov. Robert Ehrlich in September asking him to do so.

“I got a letter back from the Secretary of the Environment saying essentially, ‘No way, we’re not going to do that,’” Garagiola said.

If passed, one of the bills Garagiola announced last week would compel Maryland to join.

THE INITIATIVE calls for cutting back emissions by 10 percent over 15 years.

“Many environmentalists consider that a modest reduction,” Garagiola said. “We should be a member of this. We should be leading the effort.”

Garagiola said he would give Maryland’s energy policies a “C-, D+ at this point”

“We have thousands of people with respiratory illness throughout the state because of pollution … coming from power plants,” he said, along with harmful impacts on Maryland’s rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

And while emissions regulations are critical to addressing those problems, so are reducing energy consumption and relying more on alternative energy sources such as solar power.

“A lot of people think solar energy is a thing for the Southwest,” he said, but solar power accounts for as much as 30 percent of energy consumption in far less sun-baked places.

“Japan and Germany are the two leading countries using solar energy and they get less sunlight than we do here in Maryland,” he said.

Under Garagiola’s 2002 Solar Energy Grant Program, homeowners and business owners can receive a tax credit for up to 20 percent of the cost of installing a solar water heater or a photovoltaic array, up to caps ranging from $2,000-$5,000.

The new legislation would double the Maryland Energy Administration awards to cover 40 percent of installation costs up to $6,000 for homeowners and $10,000 for businesses.

Spurring more solar energy use will ease the strain on Maryland’s power grid, eventually reducing energy costs for everyone, Garagiola said, not just those who install solar panels.

GARAGIOLA, 33, is serving his first term, after edging out then-Sen. Jean Roesser (R) in 2002 by less than 1 percentage point.

He chairs the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families, which he said is closely investigating group home care following newspaper reports of abuse in group homes in the Baltimore area.

Garagiola is the first among 14 first-term senators to chair a standing committee. Although he hasn’t made a formal announcement, he said that he is planning to run for reelection next year.

He has three children and lives in Germantown.

2006 MARYLAND LEGISLATIVE SESSION

The Maryland General Assembly convenes Jan. 11 and lasts 90 days, ending April 10. The first month of the session is normally dominated by the introduction of bills, the second month by committee bill hearings and the third month by debate on the House and Senate floors.

The legislature will begin by considering overrides of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s (R) vetoes. He must present his budget to the legislature by Jan. 18 and following the session must sign or veto successful measures by May 30, the 50th day after the end of the session.

Bill text and information about bill status is updated throughout the session on the General Assembly’s Web site, http://mlis.state.md.us.

ISSUES TO WATCH IN ANNAPOLIS

* Veto overrides: On the first day of the 2005 session, the General Assembly will consider overrides for more than 20 bills vetoed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich following the 2005 session. The vetoed measures include an increase in the state minimum wage, bills calling for early voting and studying independent verification of voting, and the Fair Share Health Care Fund Act, also known as the Wal-Mart Bill, which would require companies have 10,000 or more employees to spend 6 percent of their payrolls on healthcare benefits.

* Teacher pensions: Maryland teachers are lobbying for better pension benefits. Retired educators now receive pensions equal to about 38 percent of their pre-retirement pay, one of the worst levels in the country. Teacher pensions in Pennsylvania are about 71 percent of pre-retirement pay. The Joint Committee on Pensions has responded cautiously, but legislators including Del. Jean Cryor (R-15) have promised to champion pension increases.

* Responding to Katrina: Climate change isn’t the only issue where states have been forced to adopt polices that address failures at the federal level, Garagiola said. Consider the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

“The federal government is devolving responsibility to the states,” Garagiola said, and while federal involvement is essential in responding to disasters like Katrina, states need to do as much as they can to be self-sufficient.

Legislation probably isn’t the answer, he said, but oversight is.

“Part of where the legislature can play a role is asking the questions of this [state] administration and the next administration what we’re doing. Do we have the communication capabilities, the interoperability between state police and local police [and] fire and rescue services? Are there drills being conducted? Is there a plan to bring the National Guard in if we need to?”

Frosh added that the aftermath of Katrina may give rise to legislation dealing with gasoline prices.