Talking the Talk

County Lawmakers Say They Will Seek a Cooperative Spirit in This Years Legislative Session in Annapolis. But Will it Last?

By Katherine Heerbrandt | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 01.18.16 – Feature, People & Places

Agreeing to disagree is so much more agreeable— and more productive—according to state Sen. Michael Hough. “We’ve been a good example of bipartisanship … [we] don’t always agree on the issues, but we’ve been able to disagree without being disagreeable,” Hough said in December.

“In fact, last year was the first time in many years that we actually passed all of our Frederick County legislation, our local bills that the delegation handles,” the Republican said at a Frederick County legislative delegation public hearing.

The two senators and five delegates representing the county appear poised to continue that spirit of cooperation into the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly that runs from Jan. 13 to April 11. Legislators say they anticipate few partisan divides, at least among themselves this year. After all, it’s not an election year.

But, as all sitting politicians know, all bets are off when jobs are up for grabs. Sen. Ron Young knows his seat will be a target for Republicans in the 2018 election. “We are one of the purple areas, and I’ve already been told that my seat and a seat on the Eastern Shore and one in Baltimore County will be the three they are going after,” he said.

For now, Senators Young and Hough, along with the rest of the delegation, will continue to try and squeeze the state for funding for Frederick’s planned Downtown hotel and conference center; Del. Kathy Afzali and Del. Karen Lewis Young will cooperate on legislation affecting Lyme disease victims, and everyone will work together on moving the local bills forward.

Money Talks

Last year, 860 bills came forward, and about 95 percent were nonpartisan, said Lewis Young. “When someone has a good bill, an important issue or a constituent has a need, you can’t let politics get in the way,” she said.

Any antagonism for fellow elected officials, at least on the surface, appears reserved for a higher authority. Democrats Young and Lewis Young were unimpressed with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s handling of the education budget last year, and the perceived snubbing by the governor of Democratic lawmakers.

Young references public education funds withheld by Hogan in 2015. Those funds were never released, despite a hue and cry from some state and local legislators and other groups.  “It’s obvious the governor is trying to cut certain programs,” Young said. “We tried to get him to release the funds, but … he can let them go into a surplus fund, which we think he will use to cut taxes to help him get reelected.”

Lewis Young said she couldn’t get five minutes with Hogan when he visited Frederick last year, and that she is hearing from other Dems that they can’t get the communication or accessibility they want, either.

As a newly elected delegate, the former Frederick City alderwoman recalls standing in the snow last year, listening to the governor’s speech about working together, and wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt. A few days later, she said Republicans got up en masse and left a meeting she was attending. The next day, she, along with her fellow Democrats, read about the governor’s budget in the newspaper, a budget that Republicans were privy to the day before.

“We got it later that afternoon. [Hogan] had called all the Republicans in, giving them the budget, and released it to the press,” Lewis Young said. “We called him on it, but I haven’t had any experience that would change that impression.”

The only minor controversy surfacing, for now, among local delegation is the source of mushrooming school construction costs. While legislators, and the Frederick County Council, can agree that the price tag for new schools is a potential budget buster, they disagree on the reasons why.

Some Republicans, like delegation chair Afzali, are intent on making the issue about paying a state-mandated wage to those who work on projects that are funded with state money. Others, like County Executive Jan Gardner, with the support of most of the county council members, are more expansive, citing not only prevailing wage, but storm water management requirements and energy efficiency standards.

“While all of these regulations serve a public purpose or goal, they have added costs to these projects,” Gardner said in an email. She has proposed a bill requiring the state to pay the costs associated with new state laws and mandates.

School construction costs are up on average of 20 percent, she told the delegation.

Sen. Young told Gardner at a meeting last fall that getting additional cash from the state for new school construction or renovations this year is nil.

He, along with Lewis Young, back a proposal by Democratic Del. Carol Krimm for a comprehensive study on school construction costs statewide. Krimm’s recommendation calls for a task force that includes experts in construction and design. Krimm is adamant about the process being “open and transparent.”

Krimm said Frederick High School’s initial estimate of $80 million rose to $97 million, then $114 million. “My concern is that this is now the most expensive school in the state,” she said. “We need to look at the county level and put a cost review committee in place, so we are assured that tax dollars are most efficiently used.”

At the December public hearing, Hough attributed half the cost of increase to the prevailing wage mandate, but that was disputed by other members of the delegation. Admitting that the dollar figures for Frederick High School were confusing to lawmakers and the public, Sen. Young said that the prevailing wage mandate makes up just 13 percent of the increased costs.

Del. Bill Folden said the increase at Frederick High went from $80 million to $97 million for construction costs. The $114 million figure was an initial estimate and was the budget for “outfitting” the school. “Whatever it is,” Folden said. “It’s still too much.”

County Concerns

Other bills put forth by Gardner, and supported by a majority of the County Council include changes to the highly contested Developer Rights and Responsibilities Agreement. The DRRA is a growth management tool that, in theory, is supposed to protect the rights of both developers and local governments as development projects grow or change.

Gardner and most of the council want to restore the ability to appeal a DRRA. The change, made in the previous county administration and carried out by the delegation, prohibits the appeal of DRRAs to the County Board of Appeals, forcing petitioners to go directly to Circuit Court. An unintended consequence, according to a recent court decision, is that Frederick County residents cannot appeal any Circuit Court decision.

“This seems likely to be an unintended consequence, but it denies Frederick County residents due process that is permitted in all other counties in the state,” Gardner said in an email. Gardner is also asking the delegation to revise a small business tax credit to establish the same criteria for new and existing businesses. “This will create a level playing field to offer support to expanding businesses and new small businesses.”

In response to residents’ concerns, Afzali asked the delegation to consider legislation that substantially increases fines for tractor trailer trucks getting stuck under the CSX bridge overpass on Md. 75 in Monrovia.

Brent Simmons of Monrovia told the delegation at the public hearing that Maryland has spent $300,000 on signage to warn truckers away from the bridge, but said the problem persists. About 50 trucks, headed to the Costco distribution center, which was built in 2009, have gotten stuck, snarling traffic and damaging the bridge.

The maximum fine now is $500. Simmons is suggesting a $30,000 fine. “I hope they never have to pay it, but they understand fines, they respect fines,” Simmons said.

Individual Priorities

Relative legislative newcomers are getting more comfortable in their roles, refocusing and trimming the number of bills they are proposing this year. Lewis Young, who sits on the Health and Government Operations Committee, said she is proposing bills germane to her committee this year.

But she will still be pushing for strengthening equal pay laws for women, calling it a family issue, which goes to the Economic Matters Committee. On the health front, she continues to work with Afzali on a few bills related to Lyme disease. Maryland has the sixth highest number of reported Lyme disease in the nation. The delegates want to expand treatment options for patients, and educate the public about the inaccuracy of Lyme testing.

Another proposal that Lewis Young anticipates pushback on from the medical community is to allow the families of those who die from overdose of opioids to sue the doctors who write the prescriptions.

A bill that should pass this year is resubmitted legislation from last year that mandates local law enforcement, emergency workers and the local health departments to know the location of bio-level 3 labs. Those labs operate under the radar now, and work with dangerous viruses.

Folden, a Frederick City police officer, will continue to focus on updating laws to afford better victim protection, specifically domestic violence victims. He has also drafted legislation making it easier for members of the military to terminate rental leases with no penalties when they are required to leave the area before their leases are up.

A member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee, Sen. Young hears many licensing and alcohol bills. He has a raft of liquor bills designed to close some loopholes, and give those residents in dry districts a referendum to allow liquor sales.

He generally proposes several bills, but has trimmed it to about 25 this year. Resurfacing will be a bill that divided members of the medical and religious communities last year. The “death with dignity” bill gives those with terminal illness a choice in when they want to die. Another controversial bill that is coming back this year allows expanding the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse from seven to 25 years.

A human trafficking bill will prohibit adoptive parents from giving away adopted children. Young said he and other legislators were shocked that the law currently allows this.

Bond Bills

Not included in the governor’s budget, bond bills are legislative initiatives that bring state dollars home to fund local projects. Hough and Del. David Vogt are requesting money for a veterans’ organization to refurbish a Brunswick antiques store; a nature preserve at the Catoctin Zoo in Thurmont, and a project to move the home of the late artist Helen Smith from Braddock Heights to an arts school in Middletown.

Young and Lewis Young want funding for establishing a dental clinic at Frederick Memorial Hospital, while Krimm is asking for matching funds for the Religious Coalition to refurbish a house for the homeless.

For more information and updates on the delegate legislation, visit the Maryland General Assembly website at mgaleg.md.gov. You can follow individual bills by bill number or sponsor.