Mixed feelings after '03 session

Failure of slots measure bothered local legislators

April 09, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Carroll legislators left Annapolis yesterday with mixed feelings about a 2003 session during which they pushed through many of their bills but watched helplessly as Democrats blocked Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plans for balancing the state budget.

Few bills offered by the county's all-Republican delegation generated contention. A bill that would allow Carroll voters to decide next fall whether the county Board of Commissioners should be expanded from three to five members passed easily. The highest-profile bill that failed was one that would have exempted the county from a state requirement that public schools offer all-day kindergarten by 2007.

Members of the county delegation entered the session jubilantly, knowing that they would be working with a governor from their party for the first time in decades. Three months later, they said they remain pleased with Ehrlich's willingness to address their concerns but acknowledged that as long as Democrats hold a majority in the General Assembly, the legislative process will remain frustrating.

"It was a refreshing environment for us because we had daily access to the governor's office," said Sen. Larry E. Haines of Westminster, who leads the delegation. "But it was also a challenging session because of the very difficult budget process."

The state faces a long-term gap between revenues and spending, but the House of Delegates defeated Ehrlich's proposal to add slot machines to racetracks, a plan the governor had hoped would ease the budget crunch. Because of the shortfall, Ehrlich is expected to spend the next several months making additional cuts, some of which are expected from public school funding and aid to local governments.

"The Democrats left us in a worse position than we were in at the beginning of the session," said Del. Susan Krebs, who this year began her first term representing the newly created district in South Carroll. "We have not solved anything. All we've done is put some of our problems off."

Carroll legislators said yesterday that they don't expect to be hurt as badly by the reductions as larger counties. They would rather absorb the cuts than see Ehrlich give in to demands for a tax increase, they added.

"In past years, we wouldn't have been asking any question but `What tax and how much?'" said Del. Carmen Amedori of Westminster. "It's a relief to know that we have the governor as a backstop this year."

Amedori said Carroll residents should feel good that they elected a governor who won't raise taxes and should understand that because of Ehrlich's stand, some county programs won't receive state money this year.

"We all like bringing money home, but in times of fiscal restraints, you have to show some kind of accountability," she said.

The county's hospice and Goodwill Industries programs, for example, will not receive state allocations in fiscal 2004 under the legislature's proposed spending plan. But many other projects, such as the new road interchange on Route 32 near the Warfield Complex in Sykesville, have remained in the budget, legislators noted.

County legislators said they expect Ehrlich to cut the budget by laying off droves of state employees and by trimming Thornton Commission money for public schools. Though Carroll would be hurt by cuts in the Thornton money, the county never had as much stake in that pool of funding as its larger neighbors in Montgomery County and Baltimore, legislators said.

"We were not set to receive a windfall so, no, we would not be hurt that badly," said Krebs, former president of the county's board of education.

Krebs said she was not surprised that her chief education proposal, the bill to exclude Carroll from all-day kindergarten, did not pass this year. The bill failed to pass committee, and several legislators said they would not approve a bill that would exempt only one county from the policy. Krebs said she would spend the rest of this year seeking support from other counties that want more flexibility designing their kindergarten programs.

"I think we at least got attention for the bill so that it will have a better chance next year," she said.

Carroll legislators experienced another disappointment when Ehrlich said he would not consider moving the state police crime lab from Pikesville to Sykesville, where a new facility once had been planned. Ehrlich said during his campaign last year that he would look at the move but told legislators he changed his mind after realizing how far along the $23 million project was in Pikesville.

One delegation-sponsored bill that would have given the commissioners greater power to demand compensation from developers who benefit from county-funded roads ran out of time. The bill faced delays in the House because delegates said it contained confusing language. The bill passed the House on Monday but failed to reach a vote in the Senate before the session ended, Haines said.

Among delegation bills that passed was a proposal to increase from $50 to $200 the fee for wineries that want to participate in the Maryland Wine Festival at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

Del. Donald B. Elliott's proposal to expand the Board of Commissioners also passed after languishing for several years.

The bill calls for a referendum on the issue during the presidential election next year. Under the legislation, the commissioners would be elected to staggered terms and by district. After the 2006 commissioner election, two of the five winners would serve two-year terms and would run again in 2008 for full four-year terms.

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