Thursday, May 06, 2010

District 16’s Town Hall, Part Two: The Update Continues

By Marc Korman.

In Part Two we will take a look at Delegate Frick and Senator Frosh’s comments about the 2010 legislative session at the District 16 town hall.

Delegate Bill Frick

Delegate Frick discussed the work of his committee, Ways and Means, during the session. Ways and Means primary area of jurisdiction is taxes and with those essentially off the table in 2010, Delegate Frick said he expected a somewhat quiet session in committee. Despite his expectations, the Committee was very busy.

The effort to increase the state’s alcohol taxes, HB 832, to dedicate funds to substance abuse and developmental disabilities received a big push in 2010. Delegate Bronrott has long championed the bill but will not be in the legislature to see it passed. Frick supported the legislation and will push it again in the future.

Ways and Means was also busy with several education related bills. The Safe Schools Act was an initiative of the Speaker’s to encourage better information sharing to promote intervention into the lives of students heading into gangs, as opposed to just penalizing those already involved. The Education Reform Act is part of an almost nationwide effort to position states to compete for the “Race to the Top” education grant program. Although the Washington Post has given this bill a hard time, it makes several meaningful reforms including rewarding teachers for taking on tougher tasks, adding a year before teachers can earn tenure status, and replicating Montgomery County’s heralded mentoring program for struggling teachers around the state. Montgomery County also received a one year maintenance of effort waiver, basically undoing a penalty assessed by the state Board of Education, but longer term reform did not pass.

Frick then shifted to some of his own bills from the session. HB 1206 put in stiff disclosure requirements for Tax Refund Anticipation Loans. These are loans provided to individuals expecting a tax refund that fronts them the cash. The loans are troubling because IRS refunds come relatively quickly so they are somewhat unnecessary and there is zero risk to the lender, so the interest rate/payment structure should be much lower than it is. HB 1325 would have steered the state government’s banking and financial services business towards local banks, as opposed to those based on Wall Street. This is a great idea I am surprised is not already law. Surprisingly, the local banks were not comfortable with the change so more work will need to be done before this can become law.

One of the questioners asked was about Northrop Grumman and Maryland’s failure to attract the company. Frick said the details of the package Maryland offered were kept confidential, so competitors did not know the details, but he was assured it was an aggressive offer. We will probably never know for sure. Frick also personally lobbied a Northrop Grumman board member who confided that the company wanted to be close to where their jets parked. By that the board member meant being close to Dulles Airport where private aircraft can land. My own view is that Northrop Grumman was always going to relocate to be next to their biggest customer, the Pentagon, and we never had a chance. That’s not to say we should not work harder to attract businesses.

Senator Brian Frosh

At these town halls, Senator Frosh plays the emcee in introducing his colleagues and fielding most of the questions, so his comments tend to be a little shorter. He focused on the Judicial Proceedings Committee he chairs and the environment.

The Judicial Proceedings Committee passed several good and important bills this year. When the financial crisis began, Maryland had some of the worst foreclosure laws in the country. A major action in 2009 was extending the length of foreclosures so parties would have more time to work them out and, failing that, find alternative housing. HB 472 promotes one method of working out a foreclosure, mediation. The General Assembly also passed a medical False Claims Act, which I highlighted previously. Senator Frosh reminded me that the federal government actually promoted passage of state False Claims Acts by offering an increased award for any Medicaid fraud a state law uncovers, making what was already a great bill even better.

The General Assembly also passed sex offender laws which have gotten substantial media coverage. These bills increase penalties and extend the length of supervision and/or registration. Senator Frosh explained these bills in a bit more detail when he was questioned on them, explaining that he preferred the supervision/registry bills to just passing tougher mandatory minimum sentences because, surprisingly, no prosecutor has asked for the toughest sentence already allowed on the books, let alone one higher. Legislation was also passed to increase the child support guidelines, which affect 500,000 Maryland children who are current beneficiaries. The current numbers, not pegged to inflation, date from 1989. Finally, Frosh was praised by a member of the audience from the Fraternal Order of Police for helping to pass legislation on collective bargaining and arbitration for law enforcement.

On the environment, Frosh successfully steered through a ban on BPA in children’s bottles and cups, which I also previously discussed. Frosh also spent a good deal of time on legislation to improve the health of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. The state pays for oyster sanctuaries to try and rebuild the oyster population, while allowing watermen to harvest from non-sanctuary areas if they are licensed and follow all the catch limits. Unfortunately, some have been caught harvesting from sanctuaries and received only a slap on the wrist. Frosh proposed that violators have their licenses permanently revoked instead. The legislation made some progress before an amendment was added limiting the state’s ability to add more oyster sanctuaries.

Next time, we will look at some of the other people in the room besides the sitting legislators.