Counties bristle as Assembly proposals seek to expand state power

As the General Assembly session rushes to a close, many conservative lawmakers and local officials are battling to halt a series of bills, large and small, that they say would shift decision-making power from counties to the red brick buildings of Annapolis.

One measure would force counties to require sprinkler systems in all new housing. Another would make local governments levy a new fee on their citizens. Even the ethics forms of county officials would be controlled by the state under proposed legislation.

At the same time, Annapolis is leaning harder on county governments for money, with both chambers signaling they will shift tens of millions of dollars in pension costs to localities.

"The scope of the issues in this session is bigger than I've ever seen," said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, a group that advocates for the state's 23 counties and Baltimore. "I don't think that the state is giving up on its counties, but you look at the legislation this year and I see how somebody could reach that conclusion."

One local official said the trend is enough to make him take up another line of work. "If the state is just going to run the show, I don't want to be a county commissioner any more," said Ronald H. Fithian, president of the Kent County Commissioners.

A bill to let the state seize local tax dollars if counties don't spend enough on their school systems has already won General Assembly approval, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign it into law. It's unclear whether the other measures will pass before the session ends April 9.

Maryland's Republican caucus objects to most of the moves — and has accused O'Malley of waging a "war on rural Maryland." They say the Democratic-controlled State House increasingly distrusts county governments, which are becoming more Republican.

Others say the state mandates are fueled by a simpler motivation: Bold new programs are next to impossible to create in these dreary financial times, but pushing new regulations doesn't affect the state budget and still counts as a legislative achievement.

O'Malley says the state is not seizing power.

"I don't see it so much as a matter of control as a matter of re-balancing," he said. "Re-balancing our shared efforts where public education is concerned, a more proper balancing of our efforts where pensions are concerned, a balancing of the way we live in harmony with this very fragile eco-system of the Chesapeake Bay."

Former Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, says that a struggle for power between the state and counties is an inevitable tension of governing. "Local government will always complain about not having enough authority," he said.

But local officials say that state mandates put them in a lose-lose situation — they are blamed by constituents for policies over which they have no control.

Frederick County officials point to a bill that would require counties to create a storm water utility fee. The money would be used to satisfy a federal clean water requirement to prevent pollutants in rainwater from flowing into rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

"They have found a way to tax rainwater," said Blaine Young, president of the Frederick County Commissioners. He called the fee mandate, which has passed in the House of Delegates but not the Senate, "the biggest, gutless move in the history of the General Assembly."

Young, a Republican, calculated that the commissioners would have to raise $180 million a year in new revenue to satisfy the storm water mandate.

He has a simple solution: "We ain't gonna do it." Should the bill pass, Young says he plans to sue the state and does not intend to pass the expense on to residents.

Other localities have been more receptive to the idea. Baltimore City supports it. And western counties are relieved that the proposal was scaled back in a House committee. (Initially every county was going to have to create a fee — now the House-passed version applies only to 10 large jurisdictions.)

Del. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who pushed the bill in the House, stressed some positive points for locals. "They get to go ahead with the fee and blame the state," Hucker said. He reminded skeptics that the revenue from the fee would stay in local hands — so counties could dole out the jobs associated with the required water restoration projects.

The most significant example of state assertion of power is a landmark education law that will force counties to continue funding schools at levels established by the state. Should a county fail to meet targets, the state can take that county's share of income tax revenues and send the money directly to the schools.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, has called the legislation "an unwarranted intrusion" on local governments. Opponents complain that the arrangement forces counties that are facing tough budget decisions to prioritize education over other services such as mental health, police or fire.

State officials say it is the only way to protect the billions of dollars the state is sending to local governments for education. There's no point in increasing state funds for schools, they say, if the counties cut their share.

The theme of state mandates has trickled down to smaller items, too. A bill to require that all 188 state lawmakers post their ethics forms online in the wake of an Annapolis-centric scandal involving Sen. Ulysses Currie was amended to add local reach: The Senate-passed measure now applies to members of county councils and county executives.

"If we have to do it, they should have to do it," said Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who pushed for the change.

And an unexpectedly fiery debate came on a bill that would force county building codes to require sprinklers in new homes. Sixteen counties sent a letter in opposition of the bill, including six that already require sprinkler systems in new homes.

Del. Mike McDermott, an Eastern Shore Republican, explained the opposition with two words. "Local sovereignty."

The change is one that the state fire marshal has pushed for years. New dwellings, he says, are constructed out of composite materials that are far more flammable than traditional building materials.

"This is a firefighter safety issue," said William E. Barnard, the state fire marshal. Versions of the bill have passed in both chambers — but the measure still needs final approval.

Counties successfully fought back against state control in one high-profile issue. O'Malley's plan to curb development in rural areas initially included a provision that would have allowed the state — not the counties — to determine what land is off-limits to development dependent on septic systems.

Conservative Democrats and Republicans joined forces in the Senate to block the provision. A weakened bill passed that keeps zoning decisions in local hands, but under state guidelines.

O'Malley declared victory, saying that he feels good about the bill. The Maryland Association of Counties withdrew its opposition to the measure, a more subtle sign of the outcome.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

http://www.twitter.com/annielinskey

An earlier version of this article misstated Anne Arundel County's position on a storm water fee being considered in the General Assembly. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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