- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Southern Maryland legislators react to survey results
By MEGHAN RUSSELLStaff writer
Most Southern Marylanders support fewer taxes and fewer restrictions on development, which comes as no surprise to their legislators.
Since 2008, College of Southern Maryland students have polled residents living throughout the region on certain timely topics, through a survey known as the Pulse of Southern Maryland. The latest survey, called “Taxes,” asked for individuals’ opinions regarding issues like the gas tax, land use and Chesapeake Bay cleanup, which were addressed this spring during the 2012 legislative session in Annapolis. While the Maryland General Assembly entered a special session last week to finish work on the fiscal 2013 budget, representatives of Southern Maryland also took some time to reflect on the Pulse survey results and issues that were discussed this spring.
According to a survey summary, student volunteers from the College of Southern Maryland made 456 successful calls to randomly selected residencies — 29 percent from Calvert County, 31 percent from St. Mary’s and 40 percent from Charles, reflecting the proportion of each county’s population in Southern Maryland.
Most respondents, or 78 percent, said they do not support an increase in the gasoline tax — a measure proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) that died early in this year’s session — even if it meant better roads in Southern Maryland. Of those who did not support it, 46 percent said it was because they cannot afford it.
“It’s consistent with what I’ve understood, which is that people don’t want their taxes raised,” House Minority Leader Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) said, adding that the gas tax probably would not come up during the special session last week, but that “anything is possible.”
Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) laughed when he heard the results of the gas tax poll.
“The gas tax is dead as a doornail,” he said. “No surprise there. Everybody pretty much agreed to take it off the table. Anybody has the right to bring it up; it doesn’t mean it’s going to pass. It’s not a good idea.”
When asked about land use issues, 57 percent of survey respondents said they believe population growth should not be limited in Southern Maryland, and 70 percent said they believe business growth should not be limited either — a topic discussed across the state in recent months as a result of O’Malley’s approving PlanMaryland, the state’s first comprehensive land use policy. The General Assembly passed legislation this spring limiting the state’s ability to create mandates or financial requirements through the plan.
“A lot of people say population growth should not be limited, but these are the same people complaining about congestion on our roads,” Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said. “The majority of people who moved to this area did so because of the out-of-the-way location.”
Moreover, Wilson said as long as he continues to see foreclosures for sale, he will not support much new development.
“There should be a plan not to prevent growth but to regulate it and be more forward thinking,” he said. “You create more suburbs and take away farmland. That’s a choice we in Southern Maryland have to make; are we going to be urban or are we going to be rural?”
Survey respondents also were asked whether they support development restrictions on septic systems. Nearly evenly divided, 47 percent said yes and 53 percent said no.
Lawmakers agreed the recently passed “septic bill,” or Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, mostly affects new home development in that it limits the number of developments that can occur where there is septic, thereby directing growth into areas where water and sewer already exist.
Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said he supported a modification to the bill, which passed, to ensure the state government could not usurp local planning authority. Counties are still required to create land use tiers, however.
“It just says how you can grow in the future,” Middleton said. “When you try to divert growth, you actually reduce the cost of government because you don’t have to build more roads.”
In Charles, the top transportation priority remains extending light rail. Focusing population density around the intended light rail location is the best way to build ridership, he added.
Regarding bay cleanup, 77 percent said they support restrictions on agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, while the same percentage also said they did not support “flush” taxes, or fees paid to upgrade septics and wastewater treatment plants. The legislature voted this year to double the flush tax from $30 to $60 a month.
“I supported the flush tax because that’s one of the few fees the state collects where every cent of it goes back to clean up the bay,” Middleton said, calling it one of the most cost-effective methods counties can use to carry out the federally mandated Watershed Implementation Plan.
“When most people consider that as a way to clean up the bay, they understand,” Bohanan said.
Bohanan said he also supports efforts to restrict more environmentally harmful fertilizers.
“A lot of places want perfectly manicured lawns and that ends up becoming a big contributor to pollution in the bay when it runs off,” he said.
O’Donnell said past legislation has “greatly curtailed and restricted” fertilizer use. “That’s something that’s continuously being looked at.”
Farmers also curtail fertilizer use willingly because it is so costly, Middleton said. He supported a bill that died this year, which would have helped farmers get access to new technology that calculates the exact amount of fertilizer they need. He plans to bring the bill back next year.
The Pulse survey also asked respondents whether they felt ratepayers should help pay for increased costs of energy. Fifty-six percent said no, while 44 percent said yes.
Middleton said the philosophical question is relevant to state discussions over renewable sources of energy. This is a good time to start investing in solar, thermal and wind, he said, since “we can’t be dependent on one source. We have to have a mixed toolbox for how we derive our energy,” and since the prices of solar and wind have dropped significantly.
“I’m very cautious about what additional costs we’re putting on the backs of consumers,” he said, but added that attitudes are changing and, while it died this year, O’Malley’s offshore wind bill may come up again in 2013. “I personally support it.”
Addressing the Pulse survey in general, the lawmakers said they weren’t surprised by the responses, but Wilson said he was “disappointed” that it didn’t poll people on social issues like same-sex marriage, which passed this year and is likely to be added to the November ballot through referendum, and bills discussed this year to give more rights to criminals.
“Social issues are important, too,” he said. “They’re not all over the nation.”
Survey infoThe survey was conducted March 20, 21, 22 and 26 by telephone by 48 student volunteers at the College of Southern Maryland. The phone numbers were randomly selected using pages from the telephone book. The volunteers obtained 456 completed surveys, which yield a margin of error of 4.6 percent on the region’s population.
The proportion of calls from Calvert County residents (29 percent), Charles County residents (40 percent) and St. Mary’s County residents (31 percent) reflected the proportion of those county populations to the Southern Maryland regional population. Calvert’s population totals 26 percent of the total Southern Maryland population, Charles totals 43 percent and St. Mary’s totals 31 percent.
Survey results were segmented by county, age, gender and income level. When viewed by these segments, the margins of error increase. The 4.6 percent margine of error for the region increased to 8.6 percent when examining Calvert results exclusively and to 7.2 percent and 8.3 percent for Charles and St. Mary’s, respectively.
The responses to the survey by county of residence tended to mirror the responses of the region as a whole, however, one observation noted among the three counties was that respondents from St. Mary’s had the highest percentage, or 71.4 percent, stating that they did not believe population growth should be limited in Southern Maryland, as compared to 54.3 and 48.4 in Calvert and Charles, respectively.
Also of note, although responses broken down by age, gender and income level tended to be consistent within the segments, those in the 25 to 29 age group who said they would not support an increase in the gas tax had the lowest percentage (13.3) state that it was because they could not afford it.