County commissioners, delegation hear state bill pitches

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) speaks with a member of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office prior to public hearing in September to introduce legislative proposals for consideration in this year’s General Assembly.

As the 2020 General Assembly session commences today in Annapolis, Charles County’s elected representatives say they plan to advocate for projects that support the county directly while still focusing on big-picture statewide items like the discussion over education funding.

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) is returning for the second year of his first term in the Maryland Senate, and bringing with him 11 pre-filed bills for the body to consider. One of them — Senate Bill 105, focused on funding for the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit project — has a scheduled hearing Thursday at 2 p.m. before the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a budget that included $2.5 million for acquiring rights-of-way along the corridor the project would occupy, with the stipulation that Charles and Prince George’s counties match that amount. Ellis had requested $27 million in last year’s bill, but it did not get out of the Senate. The smaller amount was not received, however, after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) moved to withhold $245 million in funding for different projects across the state, the transit one among them.

The new bill is requesting the $27 million again, to be divvied up in sums of $12 and $15 million in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 if approved.

In a Monday phone interview, Ellis called the SMRT bill his “top priority.” Although last year’s attempt “went nowhere,” he said, he was heartened to see a hearing scheduled early in the session this year.

Another bill Ellis described as a priority item, SB107, would allow for homeowners’ association and condominium association fees to be paid as part of one’s monthly mortgage rather than billed as a separate item. In turn, Ellis said, the mortgage lender would remit the money for dues to the HOA.

Other items of Ellis’ include a bill that stipulates the inclusion of $235 million for state community development programs between fiscal years 2022 and 2031, income tax credits for commuters and property tax exemptions for disabled veterans.

Ellis also addressed briefly his hopes for the recommendations of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence, known as the Kirwan Commission. The recommendations of the education reform commission as they currently exist, he said, could help close “an achievement gap” that affects low-income students and students of color.

“Therefore, I will advocate for resources to go into the community to help these communities,” Ellis said. “My concern is ... helping to build up the communities so that these students can be more well-rounded when they come in the classroom. I’m still in favor of increased pay for teachers, 100% behind that.”

Charles County’s delegates, meanwhile, will head to Annapolis with 10 proposals they’d like to see enacted. Although the bills were pre-filed, Del. Edith Patterson (D-Charles) said Monday they had not yet received the bills back from being drafted.

One proposal would add Charles County to efforts to curb illegal dumping by allowing commissioners to adopt an ordinance that would impose a fine for those caught doing so. Another proposal would increase the mandated amount of funding to the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland from $9,000 to $125,000 for each county. A third bill would afford Charles County government employees the right to organize a union and enter into collective bargaining, while yet another focuses on “tightening up the law” surrounding homeowners associations covenants and enforcement, Patterson said.

One of the other proposals that is “akin to our progressive county,” Patterson said, would establish a Charles County special taxing district. Patterson said the tax revenue that would come from the district would go toward financing the construction and maintenance of a convention center within the county. Having a center in the growing county, Patterson said, would keep residents from having to travel to neighboring counties for large events that could be hosted in the county.

“In terms of how I see the session going, I think everyone is excited about the new leadership on both sides,” Patterson said. “I have comfort in the pleasure of knowing [newly-appointed Speaker Del. Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore)]. ... I think we’ll have a good session. I hope we’ll have a good session.”

For Patterson, on a personal level, this session comes with a new role within the assembly. She will continue on with the Ways and Means Committee as well as the Black Caucus and Women’s Caucus, she said, and will chair a subcommittee on gaming and racing.

“It’s one of the issues that will have a lot of discussion,” Patterson said. “I’m really looking forward to leading that subcommittee and moving issues forward so they become reality.”

Patterson also touched on school construction. One of the means being considered for funding projects, Patterson said, is using revenue from sports betting, which falls in her wheelhouse on the gaming committee.

However, she said, school construction is more of a pressing issue statewide, citing the example of schools in Baltimore City and Montgomery that in some cases can’t even offer students adequate heat and air conditioning. “I really think Charles County has been on track for a number of years,” Patterson said, noting that while some schools do need a bit more assistance, they aren’t hurting on the level of schools in other jurisdictions.

“I think the delegation is committed to continuing to work very hard to make sure Charles County citizens’ needs are being met,” Patterson said.

Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said he plans to continue focusing on reforming the statute of limitations for sex crimes in the state — a perennial cause he champions — but also plans to focus on increasing transparency for laws surrounding how procurement contracts are awarded to businesses and addressing how minority businesses receive those contracts.

On the subject of education funding, Wilson said he is “a huge fan of enticing the best of the best to come to Maryland to teach,” and said he supports raising teacher salaries as recommended in the Kirwan Commission report but is “a little concerned” about how the pre-kindergarten-for-all stipulation would affect overcrowding in schools and demands on faculty.

“My big worry is we don’t think about this until we’re two or three years down the road, and then what happens is since we’re already doing the construction and don’t have the money, we have to cut teacher salaries,” Wilson said. “I’m worried we’re going to try and do this all in one big chunk and it’s going to be a financial debacle. Why not fix the current system before we add another burden to that system?”

Unlike Patterson, Wilson is not sure what the leadership changes in Annapolis will mean for the county and the region. As chairman of the Southern Maryland delegation, Wilson also expressed some trepidation at what the session would hold, citing Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller’s (D-Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s) decision to step down as Senate president last year compounded with the loss of former Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton in the 2018 primary election.

“I don’t expect a lot of fiery stuff from this session,” Wilson said. “We are greatly bereft of leadership, as far as in high positions, for Southern Maryland, and so I think a lot of us are just holding our breaths so we can see how we can continue moving forward as a community. … I am bracing myself for a very difficult time. We have to fight for every scrap in Charles County and Southern Maryland, and we need every fighter we can get. I think we’re all on the same page on that.”

Melissa Bender, chief of staff for Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles), said that the delegate is sponsoring the house version of Sen. Ellis’ SMRT bill. That bill doesn’t yet have a number, she said, and there is no scheduled hearing as of press time. Currently, Bender said, they are “aggressively working on recruiting co-sponsors.”

In addition to that proposal, Bender said, Davis is “really looking forward” to the upcoming session. She, too, will be closely following the Kirwan recommendations, Bender said, and anticipates that the changes in leadership will be “really beneficial.”

Del. Susie Proctor (D-Charles, Prince George’s) said her “top priority is getting the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission” this session. She also cited increased funding for programs to support those struggling with mental health concerns and substance abuse.

“We have so many schools that are just beyond repair, and we’ve got to build new ones,” Proctor said. “Like so many of this, that’s my priority. And I know we’ve got to do what we can and fight for transportation. Of course, that has to be an issue too. ... We just have everything on this agenda.”

Twitter: @LindsayIndyNews

Twitter: @LindsayIndyNews