Flurry of bills on their way to Annapolis

Many local measures deal with efforts to raise school construction funds

Public hearings next month

Robey to seek state OK on restoring Blandair, work release, transfer tax

Howard County

October 30, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County delegation to the 2004 General Assembly could borrow a line from the late comedian Jimmy Durante and use it as a motto: "Everybody wants to get into da act!"

With 14 "local" bills tentatively listed, several more coming and other Howard issues addressed in several statewide measures, the 90-day legislative session has the potential for orchestrating a rash of new laws.

"I don't think I've ever in my 10 years seen so many [bills] come in," said Del. Frank S. Turner, the delegation's House chairman. "It's the second year of a term, and people have time like they didn't have last year because of the election."

The volume of local bills - including five dealing with taxes to fund school construction - will require two nights of hearings Nov. 19 and 20 in the County Council chambers of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, Turner said. The first hearing will feature education and bond bills; the second will be reserved for the real estate transfer tax and related bills.

In addition, several legislators are co-sponsoring statewide bills dealing with recent issues in Howard - such as keeping methadone clinics away from schools, limiting Columbia Association lien fee increases to 10 percent a year and providing an easier way to reform the homeowner association's bylaws. Turner said he is co-sponsoring another statewide bill that would allow the use of state school construction money to pay for modular school additions, as well as for new bricks-and-mortar construction.

Because those measures would apply statewide, they will not be discussed at the hearings next month. The delegation will hold another public hearing during the session - probably in February - to take testimony on statewide bills.

Three delegation bills come from the administration of County Executive James N. Robey. One will again ask the state for $500,000 in matching funds to begin restoration of Blandair Mansion in Columbia. Another would allow more nonviolent county detention center inmates on work release. And the third is Robey's contentious plan to increase the transfer tax.

Two others deal with the school board - one that would expand the board from five to seven members, and one, yet undrafted, that would require school board members who are appointed to fill a vacancy to run for the seat in the next election.

The board itself has two bills - one allowing it to meet once in July and once in August rather than twice each of those months, and another making new board members eligible for health insurance benefits, beginning next year.

"Basically, what we're seeking is flexibility," said the board's chairwoman, Sandra H. French. Board member Courtney Watson said benefits might help attract more qualified candidates - including those who may lose them from a private employer if they have to cut back to part time to run for a seat.

Another school bill would require uniform safety and speed signs near schools, eliminating differences between state and county standards.

The largest group of local bills deals with taxes - mainly ways to raise more money for school construction - though Del. Gail H. Bates submitted a late entry to reduce Howard County property taxes for residents 60 and older to encourage them to stay in the county.

Bates argues that by cutting property taxes in half for seniors, the county will keep more residents who often require fewer services and reduce the turnover to younger families - especially those with multiple school-age children.

"We have empty-nesters who tend to move out of the county" because of high taxes, Bates said. "They need very little in the way of services."

But Turner suggested some might see the bill as having statewide implications, meaning it would be treated differently by the General Assembly from measures affecting only one county.

The other tax bills are sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Bobo and provide a smorgasbord of ways to raise more money for school construction.

One would impose a 12 percent impact fee on new houses. Another would raise the transfer tax on new, but not existing, home sales. A third would close a loophole that allows corporations to avoid the current transfer tax, and another would provide the county enabling authority to create impact fees.

Robey's bill would increase the transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, use the revenue to borrow $215 million over eight years and then pay off the debt. The proposal failed last year when the county's three senators killed it without a direct vote.

At least one bill is uncertain, and Turner complained that some delegates have delayed too long in submitting their requests. "I think people better hurry up. I'm at the point where I don't want to take any more bills," he said.

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