From state Sen. J.B. Jennings:
End of Session Wrap-up
The 2015 session of the Maryland General Assembly was gaveled to a close at midnight on Monday. I wanted to follow-up with you and let you know how many of the big issues this session were resolved.
Initially, the Maryland Senate unanimously approved, with significant amendments, Governor Hogan’s $40.5 billion budget. In conference committee the budget was significantly altered with clashes between the Governor and the Assembly over the budget priorities and spending. It wasn’t until the last day of session, the Assembly approved the budget and sent it to the Governor, who is unable to veto it. Since this bill was significantly altered from its original form when in the Senate, I voted against the bill. In the original version I supported, roughly 74% of the state’s structural deficit would be eliminated. The altered version causes the structural deficit to widen to $1.7 billion over the next 5 years.
By approving the budget without the Governor’s support, the General Assembly is rolling the dice and betting that he will release the needed money for their programs. This reflects two opposing philosophies – the General Assembly believes in spending more revenue than the state has and Governor Hogan believes in spending only what the state has to spend.
On the bright side, for the first time in 8 years, the approved budget is balanced without any tax or fee increases. Contrary to what some in the leadership believed, Governor Hogan proved it is possible to balance the budget without imposing a heavier tax and fee burden on Maryland citizens.
In 2011, the state agreed to contribute an additional $300 million annually in contribution to the pension system. In return, the state asked state employees to increase their paycheck contribution to the pension system from 5% to 7%. Last year, the state contributed only $150 million and this year it will drop to $75 million. In my opinion, it is unfair to have employees still paying the higher pension costs when the state can’t meet its obligation.
Not only was I not pleased to see the Governor’s budget cuts eliminated, but I was also extremely concerned that raiding the state’s annual supplemental contribution to the pension system is putting Maryland’s prized AAA bond rating in jeopardy which in turn will increase the long-term cost of the pension by over $2.5 billion.
Geographic Cost for Education Index
The Assembly approved a bill to make the Geographic Cost for Education, also known as the GCEI, funding 100% mandatory. This index has been a discretionary expenditure that the Governor has the option to fund. Governor O’Malley did not fund this until his second year in office and he only funded 30% of it that year. Governor Hogan funded it at 50% in the budget he introduced, however, the legislature wanted it to be funded at 100% ($136 million/annually).
This money goes to subdivisions where education is more costly because of larger populations or other unique area needs. This represents yet another mandatory expense which leaves the Governor even less room to cut spending. This money only goes to 11 of the counties. While Baltimore County will receive an additional $4.2 million, Harford County receives nothing.
Charter schools provide parents with more educational options for their children. Governor Hogan introduced legislation to expand charter schools in the State of Maryland. The Governor’s effort to add additional charter schools in Maryland was heavily amended to only minimally change the existing state law which is one of the most restrictive charter school laws in the country. The Governor wants to move forward by offering students and their parents more education choices. In short, the amended proposal, does not meet this goal.
The Rain Tax was repealed, although the counties are still required to raise the necessary revenue to pay for its stormwater projects, but they no longer have to impose a tax based on a resident’s square footage of impervious surface. However, residents must present their plan to the Maryland Department of the Environment for review and approval. I was a proud supporter of this legislation along with the majority of my colleagues in the Senate and House.
PMT – Phosphorus Management Tool
Governor Hogan worked out a compromise plan with the General Assembly democrats regarding regulation for limiting the amount of chicken manure farmers can use as fertilizer. Over the next seven years, an increasing number of farmers will have to carefully calculate how much manure they spread on their fields – and in most cases dramatically reduce its use.
Several measures recommended by an independent task force to enhance the state’s business climate were enacted. Some of the measures approved include: (1) an advisory council to assess the impact of new regulations on small business (2) require some agency employees to take customer service training (3) examine ways public universities might make money by selling findings of their researchers (4) restructure the state’s economic development efforts and (5) expand apprenticeship programs.
Several years ago the DEA tightened the rules for prescription painkillers. This was done due to the abusing of these prescriptions and the high number of deaths. As a result, people have turned to a cheaper, easier to acquire drug – Heroin. In response to the state’s heroin epidemic, the General Assembly adopted legislation to establish a Joint Committee Council made up of House and Senate Members. The Committee will review the recommendations made by the Governor’s Heroin Opioid Emergency Task Force to effectively address the crisis by December 2015. Heroin overdose deaths have soared to epidemic proportions, increasing 88% from 2011 to 2013, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Last year, possession of small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized and made a civil offense. In the same view, the Assembly approved to decriminalize possession of marijuana paraphernalia and make smoking marijuana in public a civil offense, punishable by up to a $500 fine. In addition, legislation was approved to expand eligibility for expungement of criminal records for individuals convicted of a previously considered criminal offense.
Ex-Felons Voting Rights
The Assembly approved a bill to restore voting rights to ex-felons as soon as they are released from prison. Current law requires them to complete their sentence including parole and probation time before their voting rights can be restored. Also approved, was a bill to establish by January 2016 a Pilot Program for Small Business Development, operated by ex-offenders, to encourage the establishment of small businesses by individuals exiting the prison system.
The General Assembly remains apprehensive about the potential damage to people and the environment caused by fracking. It gave its approval to a bill to a two-year moratorium on fracking. I continue to support fracking.
Speed Increase – 65 MPH to 70 MPH
The General Assembly approved legislation to authorize, but not require, the State Highway Administration to raise speed limits from 65 mph to 70 mph on some interstates and highways. Currently only two highways would qualify; Interstates 70 & 68 in Western Maryland.
Death with Dignity
The General Assembly and the sponsors of the legislation to provide Death with Dignity agreed to forego a vote on the measure this year and bring the issue back next year. The idea was to spare an emotional and lengthy debate in the waning days of the session. Senate and House leaders plan to convene a work group that will present another proposal in January 2016. Specifically, the measure provided that a terminally ill patient may request and receive aid in dying from his or her attending physician. The bill exempted from civil or criminal liability physicians who, in compliance with specified safeguards, dispense or prescribe a lethal dose of medication following a qualified patient’s request.
Please do not hesitate to contact me on these or any issue of concern to you. I value your input. I encourage it and welcome it.
Senator J.B. Jennings