Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Tale of Five Sessions, Part One

By Marc Korman.

The recent District 16 town hall reminded me of the old Kurosawa film, Rashomon. The Japanese classic shows the same series of events from four different perspectives. Others may think of this as the Quentin Tarantino method. In Part One, we will look at what all four District 16 legislators had to say about the 2009 legislative session. In Part Two, we will examine the fifth perspective on the legislative session, that of the District 16 constituents who asked questions at the May 11th town hall.

Delegate Susan Lee

Delegate Lee’s primary focus was on education and her own legislative accomplishments and initiatives. Despite the financial crisis, Delegate Lee was proud that Maryland had maintained its education commitment, including funding for the Geographic Cost of Education Index for the first time. Delegate Lee linked the legislature’s commitment to education to Maryland’s recent ranking by Education Week as the top state for education. She also heralded the legislature for not shifting the cost of teacher’s pensions to the counties and keeping public university tuition frozen for a fourth straight year.

Shifting to her own agenda, Delegate Lee departed this year from her signature identity theft issue and focused on biotechnology and nanotechnology. She was happy to have helped champion the biotech investment tax credit, preserving it at a $6 million value. Governor O’Malley also signed Delegate Lee’s legislation, HB 1124. The legislation adds to the mission of the already existing nanobiotechnology program within the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, pushing investment in public private partnerships for nanobiotech. Nanobiotechnology is the specialized field of nanotechnology focused on the human body, essentially seeking improved medical treatments.

Delegate Lee also heavily pushed HB 1117 during the session. The legislation would expand the liability shield for the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs), protecting users from civil suits. There is already immunity for the use of the devices, but the legislation would have eliminated the requirement that assistance or aid be provided in a reasonable manner for immunity to apply. That vast expansion of immunity brought concerns from trial lawyers and the bill died in the Senate.

Delegate Bill Frick

Delegate Frick discussed the session from the angle of existing and potential conflicts among the counties. Maryland has twenty-three counties and the City of Baltimore, and each one is different. But they can also be divided into a few broad categories. For example, ten Maryland counties operate under a Charter form of government, meaning they have home rule and do not general require General Assembly approval of their local legislation. Some counties are also more reliant than others on the local income tax. Montgomery and Howard Counties have the highest tax rate, 3.2%. The lowest is Worchester County, with 1.25%. As Adam Pagnucco has explored on this blog, there are also differences in the size of the teacher pension obligation in each county.

Both teacher pensions and skimming the local income tax were considered by the General Assembly to balance the state budget, as required by the state Constitution. But Montgomery County’s legislators stayed united against both of those efforts and neither were used. The budget did rely on a one time use of a reserve fund available for local income tax refunds if the collected taxes are not sufficient to cover the refund needs. The now exhausted fund will need to be repaid in the future.

Delegate Frick also discussed the Senate Finance Committee’s defeat of his credit card legislation, chronicled on this blog. However, there may soon be federal action to address the issue, as discussed at a recent press event with Congressman Van Hollen and Delegate Frick.

Delegate Bill Bronrott

Delegate Bronrott reviewed the session primarily through the scope of transportation. Some type of cut was necessary in order to balance the budget and maintain the state’s AAA bond rating, which Delegate Bronrott said sounded like “pocket protector talk” but was extremely important. Local governments took a transportation funding hit, but according to Delegate Bronrott the county government told the legislature this was their performed form of pain compared to the pension shifting or income tax skimming discussed by Delegate Frick. But stimulus funding is helping to pay for some local transportation programs, such as new hybrid buses and road and bridge maintenance.

Delegate Bronrott also highlighted his work on highway safety, which is something he labors on each session. One of the new laws going into effect on the road safety issue is SB 265, raising the driving age by six months.

Senator Brian Frosh

Given his chairmanship of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, it is not surprising that Senator Frosh viewed the session from the perspective of that committee. After hearing his colleagues complain about legislation that died in the Senate, he started off with an old joke about a young member of the US House of Representatives who told his senior Democratic colleague ‘I can’t wait to debate the enemy, those darn Republicans.’ To which the senior Democrat responded ‘The Republicans are not the enemy, they are the loyal opposition. The Senate is the enemy.’

The highlight of the Senator’s session appears to have been overturning the Supreme Court. In 2007, the Supreme Court reversed years of precedent and decided that manufacturer imposed minimum prices on retailers no longer violated federal anti-trust law. State law in this regard usually mirrors federal law, but SB 239 divorces the two on this specific issue and makes minimum price requirements by manufacturers a violation of anti-trust. This will allow retailers to, if they choose, set lower prices which is good for consumers.

Senator Frosh was also happy to see the two domestic violence bills involving guns pass, as well as the legislature’s step in the right direction on the death penalty. All of these initiatives flowed through the Judicial Proceedings Committee.


Each legislator discussed the legislative session in a different light. Next time, we will look at what their constituents had to say.