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Votes

Amid Acrimony, Something Gets Done

Legislature passes clean air bill and new teacher pension plan; Montgomery County fares well in funding.

The Maryland General Assembly session that ended April 10 came down to the final hour and even the final minutes.

The frenzied final dash marked the end of the legislators’ four-year electoral term and what they described as a bitterly partisan session. Lawmakers left concerns abut utility rate hikes and fallible voting machines unresolved but ushered through several other bills and an overhaul of the state’s teacher pension system.

“You’re putting bills through at 20-of-12 on the last day, last hour. … You could just scream,” said Del. Jean Cryor (R-15). “Why do we go the other 88 days? I don’t know. I don’t have any idea.”

Cryor herself had a bill giving retired military personnel in Maryland a $5,000 tax deduction that came through in the final 10 minutes of the session.

That bill was almost stymied by a legislative aide who refused to deliver it promptly to be photocopied — an oddly frequent complaint during a session in which few political tactics were considered off the table.

“This was a banner year for [partisanship],” said Sen. Brian Frosh (D-16). “It was an election year and it’s always worse in election years. The General Assembly has become significantly more polarized in the past four years. From my perspective the Republicans have been increasingly partisan. I’m sure from their perspective it’s the Democrats who have been increasingly partisan.”

Republican senators staged a walk-out March 30 to protest Democrats’ efforts to push through several controversial measures with enough time to later override a gubernatorial veto if necessary.

“They missed between 110 and 120 roll-call votes,” said Frosh of the Republican senators. “Whatever you say about their frustration they’re there to represent their constituents. It was theater.”

STILL, legislators said that the session ran against conventional wisdom that little gets accomplished in election-year sessions. They also said that Montgomery County fared far better in the budget than in recent years.

The state pledged $40 million to Montgomery County for school construction compared to $30 million last year and $9 million two years ago, as well as more money for school operations and more dollars for local initiatives in Program Open Space, a state environmental preservation program.

“From Montgomery County’s perspective we actually had a very, very good year,” Garagiola said.

The county gained assembly seats in changes made before the 2002 elections. The larger delegation has drawn together and freshman delegates and senators have become more effective over the course of their first terms, Garagiola said.

“I think it’s starting to pay off,” he said. “We’re really starting to flex our muscles as far as getting the dollars back.”

Local representatives secured $170,000 in bond funding for the Ivymount School in Potomac, which serves children with autism and those with multiple learning disabilities, and $700,000 to complete renovations at Glen Echo Park.

THE TEACHER pension legislation increased teachers’ retirement contributions but raised pensions from 38 percent of pre-retirement income — second-worst in the nation — to 54 percent, for a teacher who retires after 30 years. The bill makes the pension increase retroactive to 1998.

The state has seen an increasing number of teachers getting trained in Maryland and then taking their skills to neighboring states, particularly Pennsylvania, which has one of the most attractive teacher pension plans, legislators said. The average pension there was nearly twice the average pension in Maryland, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association

“We were starting to see a very high turnover within the first four or five years,” Garagiola said. “I know the teachers are very happy. … I think a lot of people didn’t think we would be able to accomplish something on that this year.”

“It’s a good bill. It’s not a great bill,” Cryor said.

Cryor sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, closely tied in to education and transportation funding. She said that fixing teacher pensions is only part of fixing a broken educational disbursement system — one that seriously disadvantages Montgomery County.

“The biggest thing we’re going to be looking at in the next legislature for Montgomery County, by far, is the change in the school formulas,” Cryor said, referring to a system where school funding varies inversely to income tax receipts.

Montgomery struggles to fund its largest-in-the-state system because of its relative wealth, even though one out of four county school children is poor.

UTILITY HIKE HYPE

Eclipsing almost everything else in the final weeks of the session was a political scuffle over looming increases in electricity rates.

Six years after the General Assembly voted to allow energy industry deregulation in Maryland, rate caps are coming off in several parts of the state, leading to an anticipated 72 percent rate hike in Baltimore City and a 39 percent increase in Montgomery County this summer.

Eleventh-hour legislation that would have slowed the increases failed, leaving the issue in the hands of Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. (R).

The increases were approved last month by the Maryland Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities and which has been at the center of the controversy after newspapers published e-mails between a commissioner and an energy industry lobbyist.

“It’s a disastrously failed institution,” Frosh said, adding that he regrets having voted to confirm most of the members.

"Nothing has been done to prepare for the caps coming off. There were a number of different opportunities for the [Public Service Commission] to address this issue before it became a crisis,” he said. “It wasn’t just that they weren’t minding the store. They knew it was coming and they didn’t do anything about it.”

THE GENERAL Assembly focused most of its efforts on the increases in Baltimore, in part because of the greater sticker shock and in part because Baltimore Gas and Electric is planning to merge with a Florida energy company and the merger request provides the state with greater leverage.

“Most of the attention was placed on the whole [Baltimore Gas and Electric] situation,” said Del. Brian Feldman (D-15) because the legislature has less control with regard to Pepco, the electricity provider in Montgomery County. “We left on Monday with the status of the Pepco plan still unresolved.”

Pepco’s rate caps came off in 2004 and it has attributed this year’s rate increases to worldwide energy market forces.

“It does all relate back to 1999 when we deregulated this whole field. This I guess at the time seemed like a good idea,” Feldman said, but “the promise of competition in this area did not happen.”

But Frosh said that there are ways to address the Pepco increases.

“One of the things to do is to look at re-regulating at whole or in part,” he said. Another is to allow counties to “aggregate” the power needs of their citizens and buy power in bulk, giving them greater negotiating power.

That practice was specifically ruled out by the deregulation rules that took effect in 2000 and it was stripped in the final hours from this year’s legislation.

Pepco has offered to allow customers to spread out the rate increases. Residents would see a 21 percent increase in June and pay the deferred balance, with interest, over 15 months.

“You either pay now or you pay later but it doesn’t shake out to be materially different,” Feldman said.

ROCKING THE VOTE

The Maryland House passed a bill that would require the state to lease optical scan voting machines — which provide a verifiable paper trail — for the upcoming 2006 elections, but it failed in the Senate.

Maryland scrambled to buy electronic voting machines following the 2000 presidential elections but studies have shown the machines may be vulnerable to manipulation or memory failure. Citizen groups have called for machines that preserve countable receipts.

“Here we will have these new election laws and no paper trail,” Cryor said. “If we have close elections — I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Cryor has made the same complaint about state election officials that Frosh made about the Public Service Commission — that they have known for years about a problem and refused to deal with it until it was too late.

“The proximity of the elections [has] ultimately doomed that proposal,” Frosh said.

“I’m concerned and a lot of members of the General Assembly were concerned,” Feldman said. “We understand we spent a lot of money on these Diebold [electronic voting] machines but at the core of any democracy is citizen confidence in voting.”

A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

The General Assembly passed, and Ehrlich signed into law, the Healthy Air Act, which will require power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent by 2018 and to reduce emissions of three other pollutants by as much as 90 percent over the next 10 years.

He had previously opposed the measures but yielded to the bill’s bipartisan support.

Feldman sits on the House Economic Matters Committee, which heard the bill.

“It’s a pretty ambitious bit of legislation,” he said. “We have a lot of coal fired power plants, including one in Dickerson, which is in District 15.”

The bill calls for a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2010, an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions by 2015 and a 90 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions by 2015.

It also compels Maryland to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a coalition of nine mid-Atlantic states that have taken on voluntary emissions reduction measures. Garagiola had pushed for Maryland to join.

SEN. ROB GARAGIOLA (D-15)

Session highlights:

* Securing $1.5 million in funding for his solar energy grant program, a more than tenfold increase over last year. The program gives homeowners tax credits when they install solar water heaters or photovoltaic arrays for electricity.

* Patching a July 2005 sunset on the cabinet-level Office of Children Youth and Families. Garagiola chairs the Joint Coalition on Children Youth and Families, which deals with foster care, at-risk youth, children’s health care, family law and other issues.

In summary: “Montgomery County did very well compared to other jurisdictions. … Inevitably there’s going to be some amount of partisanship at any level of government [but] there was a lot of legislation where there was strong bipartisan support.”

Plans for 2006: Garagiola expects to run for reelection. He said he will make a formal announcement within one month.

SEN. BRIAN FROSH (D-16)

Session highlights:

* Sponsoring a successful bill to provide legal protections to people with developmental disabilities when they are at risk of losing their homes from condominium conversions. Such protections already exist for people with physical disabilities.

* Closing a legal loophole where unlicensed drivers could not be arrested or prosecuted in court. Such drivers cause a large number of deadly accidents but typically get away merely by paying fines, Frosh said.

* Passing a bill that fixes problems in dealing with criminal defendants who are deemed incompetent to stand trial. Such defendants sometimes end up imprisoned in mental institutions for far longer than they would have been jailed if convicted of their offense. Frosh pointed to a man who spent more than six years in the state mental institution in Spring Grove for stealing a pair of shoelaces and a video cassette.

“He got caught in this Kafkaesque situation,” Frosh said. “It turns out the charges had been dropped four years before he was released.”

The reform bill will prevent such occurrences, he said.

In summary: “The General Assembly has become significantly more polarized in the past four years.”

Plans for 2006: Frosh said that a run for Maryland Attorney General is “not off the table” but that he will only consider running if the incumbent, Joseph Curran, decides not to seek reelection. Otherwise, Frosh will seek a fourth Senate term.

DEL. BRIAN FELDMAN (D-15)

Session highlights:

* Securing funding for the Biotechnology Investment Incentive Act program, which Feldman created last year. The program provides tax incentives for venture capital companies that invest in small to medium-sized biotechnology companies in Maryland.

* Feldman was the House sponsor of the condominium conversion bill Frosh filed in the Senate.

* Passing a bill that makes it possible to prosecute corporate officers who knowingly allow their companies to operate without taking out worker’s compensation insurance. Not doing so is currently a crime but there has been little prosecution and the state and law-abiding companies end up subsidizing the violators’ claims.

* Passing a bill that increases accountability in corporate accounting by directing all state CPA licensing fees to the State Board of Accounting, which oversees the profession. That money currently goes into the general fund.

In summary: “I think overall for Montgomery County it was a good session. … Conventional wisdom is not a lot happens in election years, but a lot was on the table. The fact is most of our time down there for most of the legislators is working on our own individual bills and our own agendas, not sitting with [House] Speaker [Michael] Busch and [Senate] President [Michael] Miller and the governor.”

Plans for 2006: Feldman plans to run for a second term in the House.

DEL. JEAN CRYOR (R-15)

Session highlights:

* Helping pass preliminary reductions of estate taxes in Maryland.

* Securing over $1 million in bond funding for local projects in District 15.

* Leading funding advocacy for Montgomery County Public Schools and county transportation projects in her position on the House Ways and Means Committee.

In summary: “It was a great session in a lot of ways, because when it finally ended at midnight, Montgomery County transportation and education had gotten a lot of attention. But it was a very tough session. There’s no two ways about it.”

Plans for 2006: Cryor’s name frequently comes up in speculation about candidates for statewide office and for the Maryland Senate. But she said that she is happy with her position in the House, where she will be a fourth-term member if she is reelected.