Bills that would fund broadband expansion through riverboat slot machines and give the county commissioners line-item veto authority over agency budgets were among 35 legislative proposals introduced for consideration at a public hearing Sept. 10 in La Plata.
The proposals for legislation were introduced during last week’s marathon session, which was attended by the Board of Charles County Commissioners and most of the members of the county’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly. The hearing marks the first public step in the county’s process of identifying which bills the delegation will introduce during the 2020 General Assembly session, which convenes on Wednesday, Jan. 8. For the 2019 session the county commissioners received only nine bill proposals, of which the delegation introduced four.
The proposal to use slot machine proceeds to fund the construction of broadband infrastructure throughout the county was the suggestion of La Plata resident Michael Runfola, who said that the inspiration for the proposal was a January town hall meeting on the subject of broadband convened by Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D).
“I was stunned to learn that 40% of the people of Charles County do not have access to broadband and that it would cost approximately $20 million to extend the infrastructure needed for the entire county,” Runfola said.
Runfola noted that state legislators had previously proposed adding slot machines to the Riverboat on the Potomac restaurant in Colonial Beach, Va., and proposed renewing the effort in order to use the funds to pay for the broadband infrastructure. Because Maryland’s western boundary extends to the Virginia shore, the restaurant is in Maryland waters when cruising the Potomac. Runfola noted that the restaurant currently offers off-track betting for horse races.
“In 2012, the owner of the restaurant stated he could immediately install 600 slots and expand to another 900 slots within a short period,” Runfola said. At that time, the expected revenue from the slot machines had been estimated to be $5 million annually for Charles County.
Runfola suggested that the state funding offset by the slot revenue could be used instead to fund the hiker-biker lane proposed for the new Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge.
In January, county information technology chief Evelyn Jacobson and deputy county administrator Deborah Hall established a broadband task force to develop a strategic plan for rolling out broadband throughout the county. At the end of April, Hall told the county commissioners that the task force had received a $50,000 grant from the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband to hire a consulting firm to prepare the plan.
Dyotha Sweat, president of the Charles County branch of the NAACP, proposed the budget line-item veto authority bill out of concern that the commissioners are not able to remove proposed projects for which “there are concerns, questions, or the community is not on board with currently.”
Although Sweat did not expressly link the proposed legislation to a specific issue, earlier this year the Charles County NAACP opposed the decision by the Charles County Board of Education to include funding for its controversial Fresh Start Academy program in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget.
In June, a majority of the Charles County Board of Commissioners voted to take the unusual step of putting a hold on funding for the program until the school system could demonstrate that the controversial program is compliant with state law regarding the suspension of pre-kindergarten through second-grade students.
“We’re asking for this proposal to be added to the 2020 session to give the commissioners more power over the budget on how taxpayers’ money is spent,” Sweat said.
Another bill proposed by the NAACP was expressly in response to the Fresh Start Academy, however.
That proposal called for the establishment of an independent oversight committee that would inform the county commissioners about any suspensions or expulsions of pre-K through second grade students and the prevention of any alternative education programs in Charles County public schools that are not able to document their effectiveness.
State law prohibits the suspension or expulsion of pre-K through second grade students under most circumstances, but Fresh Start opponents argue that placement in the program is tantamount to a suspension. The board of education sought to get around that argument by making participation in the program voluntary.
“Would you consider children assigned to the Fresh Start Academy as being suspended?” Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) asked Sweat.
“Yes, I do,” Sweat responded.
NAACP branch first vice president William Braxton said that the oversight committee would also provide insight on “illegal suspension that goes under the radar, that no one knows about.” Braxton did not provide evidence to back his claim that the public school system suspends students illegally, nor was the claim challenged.
The first legislative proposal to come out of the recently formed Rural Planning and Zoning Task Force was also introduced Tuesday evening. Chairwoman Brianna Bowling proposed a bill that would amend the state’s public safety code to exempt Charles County property owners from some building code requirements for structures that are used for agritourism functions.
Currently, four counties waive the requirement that owners must obtain a building permit before converting part of an existing building to agritourism uses, provided that occupancy is capped at 200 people. As of Oct. 1, the number of counties that offer the exemption will rise to 10 due to changes adopted during the 2019 General Assembly session.
Several members had raised the issue during task force meetings, arguing that it was an impediment for encouraging the growth of agritourism in Charles County.
Several bills introduced Tuesday evening addressed concerns with existing alcoholic beverage laws, including a proposal by attorney David Martinez of the Jenkins Law Firm to allow holders of Class D beer and wine licenses to be exempt from the county’s cap on the number of such licenses if they want to acquire a different type of Class D license.
Martinez said that of the 60 Class D licenses active in the county, two do not have liquor provisions. Under the current law, liquor provisions are considered to be separate licenses rather than amendments to existing licenses.
And because the county’s quota of Class D licenses is currently full, the two license holders are unable to seek approval from the liquor board to add the provision to their licenses.
Bowling, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) also introduced several proposed bills during the public hearing. In the interest of time, Collins passed on discussing his two bills, but Bowling and Coates each introduced four.
One of Bowling’s bills proposes to increase the baseline funding of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland to $125,000 per county. Currently, state code mandates that Calvert County contribute $7,000 per year to the council, while Charles and St. Mary’s counties are required to pay $9,000.
Council executive director John Hartline testified that the funding levels had been codified when the organization was established in 1976 and had not been updated since. He encouraged the delegation to consider pegging the funding level to the consumer price index to ensure it keeps pace with inflation.
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) and Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) joined Bowling in praising the effectiveness of the Tri-County Council in advocating for the region’s interests at the state level over the past four decades.
“We are powerful as a group,” Wilson said. “I know that we are Charles County and ... we stand alone, but we’re kind of a small little thing when it comes to the state level. We get ignored a lot. It’s better when we can at least be called ‘Southern Maryland’ because that’s where we have a little more power and a little more influence.”
The county commissioners will review the legislative proposals during a work session on Tuesday, Sept. 24, and decide which ones to include in their 2020 state legislative package to be sent to the state delegation in October.