Cardin Annapolis Report Week 8 - Focusing on Fiscal Issues

Now that the marriage equality bill has been signed into law and is en route to a likely statewide referendum in November, our attention in Annapolis turns almost entirely to the many important fiscal matters we are tasked with addressing.  Yet, some legislation addressing more nuanced issues is also attracting our attention.  As we near the cut-off date for bills to be presented for voting in the House, it is not uncommon to see legislators walking the halls working to convince colleagues of the merit of their proposals.  With hundreds of bills on the table, you have to fight for your proposals in order to catch the ear of a committee chair and keep your bill from being overlooked.

As I survey the progress of my Election Law Subcommittee, I expect a number of bills to be voted out of the Ways and Means Committee and brought to the House floor in the coming weeks.  One such bill is my own to authorize voting by mail in special elections (to save money and increase voter participation).  My subcommittee had the foresight to amend the bill by adding additional safeguards against voter fraud and make sure local jurisdictions interested in adopting the proposal are content with the bill.  Additionally, the Voter Protection Act, Delegate Rosenberg’s bill that I co-sponsored, will likely pass the House again as in previous years.  I’d like to praise my colleague Delegate Olszewski for his thoughtful bill to limit the amount of “lump-sum” contributions by requiring the disclosure of campaign contributions after the first $25,000 in any term.  While the threshold is still too high in my opinion, it is a step in the right direction.  This bill promotes open government by shining a light on campaign funding and increasing the amount of information available to the public on campaign finance reports.  The bill passed by a vote of 129-3.  It now awaits Senate action after the crossover date later this month.

I have reservations about two controversial pieces of legislation: HB 1051 and HB 1208.  First, HB 1051, a bill to expand the 6% sales tax to certain services, has again been introduced as another revenue-raising option for the General Assembly to consider.  Of course, any revenue proposal must be carefully scrutinized in light of its intended and potential unintended consequences.  I am inherently skeptical of any legislation which seems to arbitrarily pick “winners and losers.”  Moreover, this bill singles out some industries which frankly should be promoted, not hindered.  For instance, the bill includes gym memberships in a laundry list of taxable services.  (Adding insult to injury, it is on the same line item as tanning and massages.)  Unlike my bill to provide incentives for employees to participate in physical fitness programs and consequently decrease healthcare costs, this bill hinders thoughtful efforts to promote health and wellness and stimulate Maryland’s economy.

Second, HB 1208, introduced at the request of the County Executive, would impact the pensions of some Baltimore County employees by reducing benefits for those who transfer retirement credits from noncontributory pension systems to the Baltimore County Employees’ Retirement System (BCERS).  This bill is problematic for two main reasons.  First, the bill takes effect July 1, 2012, and applies retroactively to July 1, 2007.  As such, the bill affects employees with existing public pensions and, thus, existing pension rights.  The Maryland Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from retroactively changing laws which affect citizens’ “vested” property rights.  Pensions have already been earned, thus these entitlements are vested property rights.  The constitutionality of the bill is questionable, at best.  Second, the bill affects pending litigation.  A group of Baltimore County employees has sued the County claiming the County has wrongly calculated the pension benefits to which they are entitled.  For good reason, the General Assembly has a tradition of respecting the separation of powers and not enacting legislation which may affect pending legal proceedings.  The tradition is to instead wait until the Maryland Courts have rendered a final decision and then step in if deemed necessary.  I believe HB 1208 will receive much attention and close scrutiny.  For further discussion, check out the Baltimore Sun’s recent editorial.

Jon S. Cardin