Stormy with a Chance of Lawmaking
By Christina L. Lyons
Forecasting what Frederick County citizens can expect to blow in from Annapolis during the upcoming legislative session
Septic systems, manure, synthetic marijuana and even that pest of a stink bug will be just a few of the issues for Frederick County that will be in the air wafting up from Annapolis when the Maryland General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9, 2013, for its 433rd session. But what else is blowing in the political wind that could hit us here like a legislative hurricane Sandy? Here’s a forecast of what Frederick citizens can expect from the State House.
Among the top issues impacting Frederick County are Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) PlanMaryland and efforts to meet Clean Water Act mandates — more specifically, new regulations on stormwater pollution runoff and septic systems. Local lawmakers, developers and farmers want to battle new mandates and fees, while conservationists want to bar any rollback of regulations and convince opponents the costs are worth it.
Frederick’s all-Republican board of county commissioners is hoping for an exemption from a new mandate requiring jurisdictions to levy a stormwater remediation fee. County commissioners and developers find the fee potentially divisive among the construction industry. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation lauds it as a “smart investment” to enable better management of stormwater runoff that the organization says accounts for about 20 percent of pollution in the bay; Del. Galen Clagett (D-District 3A) also defends the purpose of the measure.
And the commissioners want to reiterate opposition to the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act passed in the last session, which limits where residential septic systems can be installed. The law requires counties to create a four-tier system for septic use, essentially restricting the potential locations for residential subdivisions. State Sen. David Brinkley (R-District 4) strongly opposed the “septic bill” during the 2012 session, stating that it could take away property rights and “be devastating to farm communities [and] to forest communities.”
Local lawmakers aren’t too happy either about new regulations the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) began drafting in early 2012 that call for the installation of nitrogen-removal technology for all septic systems serving new construction. The aim, says the MDE and other environmental groups, is to reduce the amount of nitrogen released into the ground. Brinkley, who was a member of the Maryland Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal last year and was a minority voice in opposing such a requirement, says the MDE’s purview in this area is not clearly stated in legislation. He tried unsuccessfully to bar the MDE proposal by amending a budget bill, and he may return to this environmental issue.
“PlanMaryland, the septic bill and the stormwater regulations,” asserts county commissioners president Blaine Young, ticking off his list of objectionable laws, “we’re seeing the largest assault on local land use decisions that we have ever seen on the state level.” He helped form the Maryland Rural Counties Coalition (which at last count included nine jurisdictions) to continue fighting against such regulations.
“We’re hoping the legislature will wake up and realize these regulations are not needed,” says Young, who has launched a bid for governor in 2014. “I call it ‘O’Mallycare,’ like ‘Obamacare.’ It’s a usurpation of local land use authority, which in my opinion is not needed.”
Janice Wiles, executive director of the nonprofit citizens’ action group Friends of Frederick, believes these are quality of life issues. “It is so important that we push for strong rural economies, healthier communities, a stronger tax base and clean water — and recognize that the groups opposed to these policies are really failing citizens by trying to deny them the quality of life that citizens and taxpayers deserve.”
John Brognard Sr., vice president of conservation for the Mid-Atlantic Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, understands the “stormwater remediation fee is basically another tax and no one wants more taxes,” he says. “But this fee will be used to improve the way stormwater is moved into our streams and reduce pollutants going into our streams … [and] reduce the amount of sediment and pollution that Frederick County contributes to our Chesapeake Bay.”
Spreading Manure and More
Some farmers say the new septic regulations could limit the development value of their land. And they balk at efforts to limit the spreading of manure on fields during the winter months. Lawmakers dropped legislation last session but could bring it up again, even while the MDE considers new regulations.
Ray Ediger, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau, says legislation like that proposed last year by a Prince George’s County representative barring farmers from applying manure or sludge to farmland between Nov. 1 and March 1 would force them to store manure for long periods. That’s a costly endeavor, he says.
In an open letter to the state Department of Agriculture, Maryland Horse Council President Steuart Pittman warns that such a requirement would not only be costly, but storing manure for long periods could also pose a threat to waterways when heavy spring rains arrive.
Yet many environmental groups contend that such regulations come at a critical time in efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Brognard says farms may be “getting smaller in Maryland, but the farms still raise the same number of livestock.” Nevertheless, he concedes the farmers’ points about the potential effects of heavy rain as well as the problems of both the storage and application of larger amounts of manure in the spring. “Maybe the effort should be to not allow spreading when the ground is frozen and let the farmers determine when it is safe to spread,” he suggests. “After all, they’re also concerned about water issues.”
Additionally, farmers are on the lookout for any proposed fee on water use to fund water resource research by the agency — an issue that is being studied by an MDE workgroup but could still be raised by legislators. “It’s just another layer of regulation that impacts agriculture,” says Ediger, who represents the concerns of the farm bureau’s 2,500 members. “There’s not a single farmer I know that’s not really concerned about the bay and their conservation practices. But these layers and layers of regulation … I think it’s going to discourage agriculture in our area, and young people are moving to other states where regulations are not as intense.”
Local farm crops continue to be ravaged by those pesky brown marmorated stink bugs and farmers want help to solve the crisis. One possible answer is a state version of the farm bill languishing in the U.S. Congress that would provide further funds to research weapons to combat the pest. For now, it seems efforts are being left at the federal level.
The farm bureau and county commissioners also want to expand deer hunting as farmers complain about further damage to their crops. The commissioners propose legislation to repeal a regulation that bars hunting deer with a rifle in certain portions in the southern end of the county.
Taking Care of Business
Last September, dozens of business owners appeared at a forum coordinated by Del. Kelly Shulz (R-District 4A) and the Maryland Business for Responsible Government, distressed about taxes and regulations they say are cumbersome and drive businesses out of the state.
Francesca Contento heads up the Alliance of Small Business in Frederick, an organization that represents about 30 small businesses. She searches for ways to lessen the burden for small business owners in the areas of managing paperwork, securing loans and reducing health care costs. One solution to the latter issue would be for the state to permit the smallest of businesses to pay into a health insurance pool, Contento explains, noting that currently the state requires a company to have a minimum of three people on its payroll to qualify.
The Frederick County Chamber of Commerce continues to back efforts to build a downtown hotel in hopes of boosting area tourism and business. “The hotel’s completion would support small local businesses, in addition to attracting new investment into the county,” says Richard “Ric” Adams, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer. Clagett successfully moved a bill through the General Assembly that would provide a $250,000 state matching grant to Frederick city to help finance hotel planning design costs. He may renew a fight he lost last year for a bill to increase the hotel tax from 3 percent to 5 percent to help pay off the county’s visitor center and site acquisition for the hotel.
One tax hike that Contento doesn’t want to see is at the fuel pump. During the last session, lawmakers turned back the governor’s proposed 6 percent increase on the state gas tax. “Like everyone else, small businesses are alarmed by the exorbitant gas prices and the governor’s plan to raise the gas tax,” she states. “That would be a huge financial drain for small companies and farmers. But I’m sure it would be equally painful for those who commute every day to their jobs down the road.”
Bio-research firms could be facing some new regulations. State Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-District 3) plans to reintroduce a new version of a bill that failed to get through the Senate Finance Committee last session giving the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene oversight of biosafety containment labs. (See “Containment Lab Confidential” in the August/September 2012 issue of Frederick Gorilla.) Also, when Young’s bill died in committee, the department convened a working group to address state supervision of labs that handle hazardous pathogens, but it’s unclear whether its work — which is not expected to conclude until the spring — will result in any legislative proposals.
Schooled on Pensions
The Maryland State Education Association repeatedly fights legislation it believes is a “backdoor” way to provide vouchers for private education by providing an income tax credit to businesses that donate to “student assistance organizations.” That issue isn’t likely to go away.
And among the issues that left counties reeling at the end of the last session was legislation that shifted a portion of teacher pension costs to counties to balance the state’s budget. It is unclear whether anyone will try to alter this measure, but the concern remains on the issues list of the Maryland Association of Counties.
“We hope they look at the pension shift, or leave them alone” after two years of fiddling with them, says Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association. “We really don’t want to be fighting a pension battle this year.”
Instead, he says his organization wants to focus on current laws and policies related to student discipline and teacher evaluations, hoping to convince the legislators not to impose more regulations. “The state’s Department of Education keeps getting involved in rules that have to be applied locally… and are costly,” Brennan remarks.
One of the 15 items in the county commissioners’ 2013 legislative package that’s generated much local and statewide publicity is Young’s request for legislation to implement a county voter identification pilot program during the 2014 election. “We want to show it can be done and that there is no voter suppression,” the board president says of his proposal, which would require a voter to produce some sort of ID — driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, Social Security card, voter registration card — before casting a ballot, or allow voters to complete a provisional ballot until documentation can be produced. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland opposes the plan.
Another proposal on the “wish list” garnering some attention is a desire to stop the sale in the county of synthetic marijuana, commonly known as “spice” or “K2” (see “Designer Drugs Debacle” in the October/November 2012 issue of Frederick Gorilla). Frederick city and Thurmont recently responded to a public outcry and banned the substance, but the commissioners fear that would only push the problem to other areas of the county. Instead, they want the legislature to ensure they have the authority to make the market illegal countywide.
The elected county leaders also oppose any increase in the state gas tax, which O’Malley and transit groups advocate to boost state transportation funding.
And the commissioners want the state to grant an exemption from the federal Davis-Bacon Act and the state Minority Business Enterprise regulations. The former mandates minimum wages for contractors working on federal public works projects while the latter requires a minimum of procurement contracts be made with minority businesses with specification of a percentage of contract value for African-American and women-owned businesses. The exemption would apply for the construction of one school in the county, says county legislative services coordinator Ragen Cherney. The intent is to compare the costs of a project without such requirements.
Local charitable organizations hope the legislators win approval for the county to increase the number of raffles a group may hold and permit them to have video slot machines. Plus other items in the commissioners’ legislative package include repealing the scooter/moped helmet law, authorizing non-corporate owned stores to sell beer and wine in the county and permitting a tax rebate to all county property owners.
Of course, Frederick County residents will feel the effects of stormy debates predicted to occur over pending statewide issues like approving the budget, repealing the death penalty, fees on plastic shopping bags, pit bull regulations, developing wind power technology and hydraulic fracking (a method of extracting natural gas from underground). So far, those last two subjects have been of more concern to jurisdictions to the east and west of here, respectively, but they could become important negotiating points for local delegates as they lobby colleagues to support their own initiatives. It just depends on which way that old political wind is blowing.