Winners and Losers of the 2011 Session

Now that the 2011 Session has ended everyone will opine about who the “winners” and who “losers” were.  Who was successful in getting their legislation passed and who was left in the dust.  We are taking the opportunity again this year to put in our two cents. 

Winners

Criminals…whether you are a convicted felon serving a life term or an illegal immigrant flagrantly violating federal law, the Maryland General Assembly had nothing but love and compassion for you this year.  House Bill 302 – Inmates – Life Imprisonment – Parole Approval grants automatic release for those serving life sentences if they have to wait more than 180 days for the Governor to approve their parole.  We wouldn’t want hardened criminals to be inconvenienced now would we?  Senate Bill 167 allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition.  Proponents of this bill will tell you that these students have done nothing wrong this will allow them to go to college and become contributing members of society, completely ignoring the fact that once they graduate it will be a violation of federal law to actually employ them.

Labor Unions…a consistent winner in Maryland, labor unions did well again this year.  The Democratic majority along with O’Malley Administration let the unions expand their strangle-hold on the state by unionizing independent home care providers.  As they did with daycare providers several years ago, independent home care providers will now be subject to collective bargaining.  Those who choose not to join the union will be charged a “service fee”.  Unions also secured themselves a victory in the eyes of their membership with the $750 bonus for state employees.  The truth about that “bonus” is that the bulk of it will go to pay the service fee that non-union employees will have to pay starting July 1.  So the unions get to pocket most of the money they’re also taking a tremendous amount of credit for.  Good work if you can get it.

Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore City…after strong “negotiations” (or vote trading) these “big three” jurisdictions are walking away with the lion’s share of the revenues from the Alcohol Tax increase.  While the whole state will pay this bill and suffer the impacts like the closure of small businesses, it is these jurisdictions that will reap most of the benefit.

Losers

Taxpayers…Maryland’s taxpayers have made the loser’s list once again. Last year, they escaped a direct tax increase, but this year they were not as fortunate.   The budget included a number of tax and fee increases…doubling the Vehicle Titling Tax, the Vanity Plate Fee, Land Recording fees, Birth Certificate fees.  Even our sweet little silver-haired grandmothers will be paying the 38% increase in the Nursing Home Tax.  The sales tax on Alcohol was increased by 50%.  Does this menu of tax increases mean that Maryland has finally ended its ongoing budget crisis?  Sadly, no.  In fact, spending increased over 10% from last year to this year and there is talk of more tax increases as early as this fall.  With the increase of the sales tax on alcohol, Maryland’s Tax Freedom Day be pushed to April 18th, meaning the taxpayers will have to work an extra day before they have paid all their taxes for the year.

Vulnerable populations…we all heard the radio commercials, saw the rallies, and read the letters from members of the Maryland’s most vulnerable populations – the disabled and mentally ill.  They were advocating an increase in the Alcohol Tax and dedicating that money to their chronically underfunded programs…a dime a drink with a link they called it.  Maryland’s most vulnerable populations were exploited by the Democratic majority who used them to bring the bill forward but then dedicated the bulk of the money to the “big three” jurisdictions, including Montgomery County – one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

Governor Martin O’Malley…one would think after a landslide win just a few months ago, Governor O’Malley would have the political capital to put his agenda on  a glide path through the General Assembly.  This proved not to be the case.  His Wind Energy Proposal deflated and his Septic Bill was flushed.  The Governor didn’t even stay in town during the critical final days of session…he headed to New Jersey to pick a fight with  Chris Christie, a Governor that is actually doing something.

Tick tock tick tock…

While the 2011 Session is winding down, the General Assembly’s actions are ramping up.  We wanted to take a break to update you on the status of some of the major issues that have moved this week.
 
 
Spend, Tax, Repeat
 
Again this week, the General Assembly displayed how little self control they have when spending the taxpayer’s money. 
 
As we told you earlier this week, the Capital Budget came to the floor on Tuesday.  The bill is packed full of projects across the state and borrows money to pay for them – money that Maryland will not be able to pay back without increasing in the property tax in the near future.  Republican members offered a series of amendments to reduce the amount of borrowing by 5%, 3%, and 1%.  There was no will among the majority to reduce spending – not even by 1% – and they rejected these amendments.    The bill passed the House 98-41 and the Senate 41-6.
 
In addition to the Capital Budget, final approval was also given to the state’s $34 billion Operating Budget.  In its final form, the Operating Budget leaves a mere $50 million in unspent funds.  The lowest fund balance since 2004 and very little cushion against unforeseen needs or sudden economic problems.  This tiny fund balance was due in large part to the Governor’s submittal of a $62 million supplemental budget – more spending that was submitted to the General Assembly last week.
 
The House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the Senate’s Alcohol Tax on Friday morning.  At the beginning of session, talk about the alcohol tax was linked to increasing funding for the disabled populations.  As the bill came over from the Senate, the bulk of the tax is going to Prince George’s County and Baltimore City Schools.  As we draft this update, deals are being struck to spread the wealth to other jurisdictions to get this bill passed. It seems like a lot like “buying off” votes to us.  The bill could move as early as this afternoon.  We will update you as the bill moves forward.
 
 
Dream a little dream…
  
The bulk of Thursday’s 6 hour floor session centered around debate on Maryland’s “Dream Act” which would allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition.
 
The Republicans offered a variety of amendments to the bill in an effort to improve it somewhat, but none of them were adopted and the bill passed today without amendments.
 
Among the amendments offered were an amendment by Delegate Vitale which would require that the comptroller verify that federal and state tax returns were filed before in-state tuition is granted.  Since people who aren’t in this country legally aren’t able to pay taxes, this amendment would have rendered the bill fairly innocuous.  Minority Leader Delegate O’Donnell offered an amendment that would require an immigrant to have a certified application for permanent residency before being eligible to receive in-state tuition.  Delegate Kipke offered an amendment that would allow counties to opt-out of this program if they wish.  This amendment would have relieved already over strapped counties from the burden of funding in-state tuition for non taxpaying immigrants.
 
After hours of debate on Friday, and additional amendments from Republicans that would limit the amount of money that could be expended on giving slots to illegal immigrants, the bill passed the House 74-66.
 
O’Malley’s Wind Farm Blown Off 
 
Governor O’Malley’s offshore wind proposal HB 1054 was decided by the House and Senate to be studied for the rest of the year. In the final days of session O’Malley increased his “aggressive lobbying efforts from environmentalist and labor unions” but when a number of uncertainties about the bill became apparent, including whether or not the “wind farm would even be built off Maryland’s coast” since the legislation did not specify the location, thus creating the possibility that the site could be located hundreds of miles away, benefiting the local economy of another state. 
 
While the legislation was guaranteed to increase electric bills to Maryland ratepayers in the form of a surcharge, different amounts and totals were never confirmed by the Governor’s office, the Public Service Commission, and the Department of Legislative Services. Governor O’Malley was unable to address these concerns on both the cost of a subsidy and rate increases. While the legislation is being sent to a study over the summer, and is effectively dead for this year, it is likely to reappear in the next legislative session.
 
 
Lock your doors…
  
House Bill 302, sponsored by Delegate Curt Anderson (D, Baltimore City) passed the final hurdle today on its way to the Governor’s desk for signature. Currently, after the Maryland Parole Commission recommends parole for a particular individual, the Governor must approve that parole.  The Governor, in this capacity, acts as the final arbiter on which inmates are released back into the community before their sentences are fully completed.
 
This legislation alters the process to parole a criminal who was sentenced to life imprisonment, making it possible for the inmate to be released without affirmative action by the Governor. Under the new process, if a criminal sentenced to life in prison has served 25 years, and is recommended for parole by the Parole Commission, the Governor has 6 months to write a letter to the commission refusing parole for that inmate. If the Governor doesn’t act one way or the other, the prisoner is granted parole and released. This legislation removes the responsibility of the Governor to consciously and deliberately take action in order to release a potentially violent criminal back into the community.
 
House Republican Caucus members supported efforts to amend the Senate version of the bill in order to deny, rather than grant, parole should the Governor fail to act upon the recommendation of the Commission. This amendment was first approved, but following parliamentary maneuvering, it was ultimately rejected. As the legislative process was completed, the House version moved through the process and was sent to Governor O’Malley for signature or veto. Ironically enough, should the Governor fail to act upon this legislation, it will pass and become law. 
 
Who needs private enterprise when you have state government?
 
Concerns continue to surround the Governor’s Invest Maryland program. First and foremost the bill costs taxpayers $100 million in order to raise $70 million.  Taxpayers lose 30% of their investment before a single dollar is even invested.
 
Republican Delegates brought up a number of concerns on the House floor.   Concerns range from the Administrations authority and the Governor’s influence on appointing members to the authority that oversees the government fund. (Not that this governor would ever think of letting his friends benefit from state projects.)  Amendments were also proposed by Republican Delegates which would have removed government control and guarantee the state will receive 100% return of the original investment. However, these amendments were not taken into consideration and left the plan vulnerable for political influence to control this venture fund.   The bill passed the House 94-43.