Washington County legislators said this year’s session likely will be dominated by gun-related bills in the aftermath of a shooting last month at an elementary school in Connecticut that left 26 people dead, including 20 schoolchildren.
Delegation members also said they will keep an eye on any possible effort to increase the gasoline tax and any other proposed tax increases.
They said they will try to ensure that Washington County receives money from the disparity grant, focus on getting state funding for downtown Hagerstown projects and try and protect rural landowners when it comes to a new law on septic systems. They said they also will continue to push for a more balanced budget.
County legislators said they will monitor any effort to raise the gas tax, which they said disproportionately affects residents in areas such as Washington County because residents here are more dependent on driving than other areas in the state that might have greater access to public transportation.
“We travel the most, we pay the most in the gas tax and we have the least amount of access to public transport,” said Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, chairman of the county’s legislative delegation.
A proposed increase in the gas tax, Serafini said, likely would pit rural Marylanders against those living in urban areas.
Locally, one of the top priorities for legislators will be the disparity grant, Serafini said.
The disparity grant is given annually to counties with per-capita income tax revenue of less than 75 percent of the state average. But the program was capped in 2010, and counties that were not eligible that year have not been part of the program since.
Washington County hasn’t been eligible for the grant since then. If the county was eligible for the grant in fiscal year 2013, it would have received $6.7 million, according to a report.
Gun-related legislation might keep the Maryland General Assembly busy.
“I think there will be a lot of time and legislation devoted to the gun-control issue,” Serafini said.
“You will see a lot of grandstanding on the issue,” said Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington. “I think we have very strict gun control in our state. The problem is ... criminals, they don’t have to follow the gun laws. We might just see some feel-good piece of legislation.”
Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said he was concerned about violent video games and how juveniles have access to them.
“We need to do a better job of what our children are watching,” Myers said. “I believe we need to do a better job of what is made available.”
Another area where there might be a lot of legislative activity is health care, said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington. That’s because the legislature will have to deal with how to implement the Health Care Reform Act.
“I obviously need to stay on top of the budget and ensure that Hagerstown-area entities such as the University (System) of Maryland continue to be funded properly,” Donoghue said.
Donoghue said he was contemplating introducing some bond bills and some other bills related to health care.
“It is a little early right now,” Donoghue said. “I will also have to ensure that requests from Washington County get proper attention.”
Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said transportation will be a dominant issue in the upcoming session, as well as the state’s infrastructure and how it decides to fund them.
Shank said he felt there will be a concerted effort this session to repeal the death penalty in Maryland.
“It has a place in our society for the most heinous of crimes,” he said, adding that the debate on death penalty was going to be divisive.
Septic system bill
Shank said the Washington County delegation is working with other counties to protect rural landowners when it comes to a new state law on septic systems.
The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act was passed last year in an effort to put stricter land controls in place to protect the Chesapeake Bay from pollution.
The Washington County Board of Commissioners has criticized the law, which, according to reports, is a four-tier system with different restrictions on sewer and septic use according to the type of land.
“There’s going to have to be some tweaks with those septic regulations and look at what we can do to protect our rural landowners and the equity they have in their land,” Shank said.
Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, said he would be keeping an eye on efforts to increase taxes.
“We still have a deficit ... new spending on top of this is going to be unsustainable,” Parrott said.
Parrott said he likely would introduce a bill that would seek to set up a nonpartisan redistricting commission for the state when it comes to U.S. congressional districts.
“It really is an embarrassment,” Parrott said, referring to recent redistricting in the state.
Hough said one bill he was interested in introducing would seek to make it easier to get home-improvement licenses.
“Right now, the barriers are too high,” Hough said. “I want to get rid of the red tape.”
Shank said he was likely to reintroduce a bill dealing with domestic violence and protective orders.
“We have tragically had some homicides in Washington County where the people who were slain were not able to get a protective order,” Shank said.
If a couple is in a dating relationship, one party can get a peace order, but not a protective order.
Shank said the protective order carries with it more law-enforcement scrutiny.
The senator said the legislation he wants would seek to change the law so that “as long as there is an ongoing intimate relationship, somebody would be eligible for the protective order.”
At every session, there are surprises, and this year likely will be no different, Shank said.
“Invariably, in a session, there is a sleeper issue that comes up that is not on anybody’s radar screen now,” he said.