Unruly Assembly a success locally

Approval of impact fee, defeat of snack tax noted as key achievements

April 18, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Looking back, Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the Harford County legislative delegation, declares that this year's General Assembly session was the most rancorous he has ever experienced.

Despite the ill will and malice - much of it centered on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s push for slot machines as a revenue producer - Glassman said, "We [the delegation] were able to avoid much of the fighting. We are able to fly below the radar and get most of our bills through.

"There were some scary moments," he admits, as some bills were hung up for long periods by the battle over slots, "but between keeping the snack tax out and getting the impact fee passed, we did pretty good."

County Executive James M. Harkins expressed a slightly different perspective on the 90-day session that ended Monday night. He said there were "some bright spots and some weak spots," but warned that the lawmakers' failure to pass slots or some other new revenue source could have a serious impact on the county's budget next year.

"We are in line to take a nearly $18 million hit," Harkins said of the governor's plan to pass the cost of retirement benefits for teachers and library workers from the state to the counties next year.

"We know that freight train is coming, and we need to start preparing for it," he said of what he calls the biggest challenge of his six years in office.

Asked whether being forced to finance such a large sum would force the county to lay off workers or raise taxes, Harkins said that raising taxes was not a consideration. But a short time later he said, "At this point, I can't rule out anything."

He said it was too soon to say what steps might be taken, including the possibility of layoffs.

Harkins compared the looming financial crisis to "Mars striking Venus" and said "it would be a tough time in the town tonight" for council members running for re-election or for another political office.

Glassman called gaining approval of a bill that would empower the County Council to impose an impact fee on new homes to help pay for school construction and school renovation one of the delegation's major achievements.

"Although the council discounts it, this was a big step. Historically, the county has never had this before," he said.

Glassman said he and other members of the delegation were nervous as the impact fee, a school-funding bill, got caught up in the slots debate and lingered in committee.

The bill eventually made it to the floor and was passed two days before the session ended.

Another bill related to education didn't fare as well.

Legislation to add a student and faculty member to Harford Community College's board of trustees "got hung up in the House Ways and Means Committee," said Glassman. "It got tangled up with slots."

The bill was a result of unrest on the campus and complaints to lawmakers about the management style of the college president and the independence of the school's oversight panel.

While the delegation devoted much of its time to getting bills passed, it worked to kill a provision of the Senate budget bill that would have had an adverse economic impact on Harford County.

That was the snack-food tax.

The tax, which was expected to raise about $16 million a year, was added to the Senate budget bill at the last minute without a hearing.

Harford County was the only county likely to suffer from the tax, because it threatened the possible expansion of the Frito-Lay Inc. plant in Aberdeen.

Frito-Lay is the county's largest manufacturing employer. It has 418 workers.

"It was a team approach," Glassman said of the rapidly organized opposition to the proposed tax. The governor voiced his opposition to the bill, calling it anti-business. During a short hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee, Harkins testified against the bill, as did his economic development director, J. Thomas Sadowski.

The company pointed out that Maryland would have been the only state in the nation to have a snack-food tax.

A much smaller county business, Fiore Winery near Pylesville, won the right to add port, which has a higher alcohol content than other wines, to its list of offerings.

The General Assembly passed a second liquor bill that would allow wine retailers in the county to purchase a 30-day, six-month or full-year license that would allow them to hold wine tastings in their stores to help promote sales.

The horse racing industry came up short this year. Lawmakers rejected a $400,000 bond bill that would have helped finance a $1.2 million horse racing museum, equine retirement center and horse park near Havre de Grace that would have highlighted the town's glory days of horse racing.

The industry benefited, however, from a bill sponsored by Glassman and state Sen. J. Robert Hooper that awarded about $500,000 from a racetrack improvement bond fund to the Maryland Million, a race run each year featuring only state-bred horses.

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