It’s not the Ides of March, but rather the Ides of January that have had business owners somewhat unsettled this year. And who can blame them for being jittery, particularly during an interval bookended by the start of Maryland’s 2017 legislative session and the inauguration of a new president who’s very hard to read, let alone to cozy up to?
In any case, many attendees couldn’t help but marvel at the seam-bursting capacity crowd that turned out for the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce (AAACCC)’s 18th Annual Legislative Breakfast at the Annapolis Crowne Plaza on Jan. 19. The event gave county business leaders an audience with state and local elected officials, as well as a preview of key budget, tax, transportation, land use, economic development, education, workforce and regulatory issues on this year’s legislative agenda.
Summing up the biggest concerns of the attendees, Severn Savings Bank Chairman Alan Hyatt said county business owners were “looking for responsiveness, efficiency and certainty that rules are being followed, and that they are receiving evenhanded, fair treatment. And maybe every once in a while they’d like some recognition of private property rights.”
AAACCC Legislative Committee Chair Linda Schuett said the chamber is asking the General Assembly to develop criteria to analyze and focus on the fiscal impact of particular initiatives and their potential return for citizens and businesses, as well as to ensure their alignment with priorities and the recommendations of the Augustine Commission.
“A process like this will help increase the taxpayer’s confidence,” she said.
New High Schools
Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh acknowledged that the state’s business atmosphere is becoming friendlier, but could still use some tweaking.
“We’ve implemented the largest tax cut and the largest fee cut in county history,” he said, adding that education and transportation infrastructure improvements weren’t being left out.
Noting that the county hasn’t built an incrementally new high school since 1982, “we now have three incrementally new high schools in our 10-year plan, in Crofton, Old Mill and West County,” Schuh said. “We’re reforming county departments, and we’ve launched the largest highway improvement [schedule] in county history, with 300 projects all over the county, totaling $250 million.”
Anne Arundel County does face some significant challenges, chief among them an opioid epidemic that is hitting the jurisdiction worse than nearly any other jurisdiction in Maryland.
Overdoses and fatalities have doubled since his administration began two years ago, Schuh said, despite implementing “every imaginable program and best practice.”
The county is also contemplating legislation to modify the state’s payment in lieu of taxes (or PILOT) law to help finance construction of a convention center at the Maryland Live casino, something that could help many high schools avoid the need to hold graduation ceremonies at larger venues outside the county.
Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides said one of the city’s current primary focuses is on returning vacant properties and surplus city land to the tax rolls.
“The old Fawcett Building sat vacant for a decade,” he said. “There’s now going to be a great maritime use in there, along with some restaurants and other things.”
The city also has plans to build a renewable energy park with 50,000 solar panels on a vacant landfill. “It’s going to create $5 million for the city and hundreds of green jobs,” Pantelides said.
Mathew Palmer, deputy legislative officer for the governor’s office, said Gov. Larry Hogan’s top priority going into the legislative session is to repeal the so-called Road Kill Bill, which changes the way the state Department of Transportation prioritizes transportation projects for funding.
“The system that was in place for 34 years was transparent and effective,” Palmer said. “This bill was a solution in search of a problem.”
In Schuh’s estimation, the bill is heavily tilted toward mass transit, which isn’t as much of a priority in the more rural jurisdictions like Anne Arundel or Garrett County as it is in Baltimore City or Montgomery County.
However, that’s not how the bill’s sponsor, Del. Pam Beidle, sees things. “Our objective … is to provide a method to score bills, so we know we’re trying to bring to the top bills that are most important to this county,” she said. “I represent BWI, Northrop Grumman, NSA, Fort Meade, the National Business Park, Maryland Live! and Arundel Mills. I have 24-hour-a-day jobs and no [public] transportation to get to these jobs.”
Also on the governor’s agenda is his proposed 2017 Maryland Jobs Initiative, a comprehensive legislative package that would strategically invest $5 million in education and workforce development, with the aim of creating thousands of jobs.
“Another issue is to expand paid sick leave [in a way] that will cover nearly all Marylanders, but at the same time protect job creators,” Palmer said. “We believe there is a way to work out a common sense bipartisan issue to get this fixed.”
The Great Unknown
According to Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, business owners face two great unknowns in regard to the state’s rainy day fund and the recent inauguration of President Donald Trump.
“We don’t know what’s going to take place with the new president and what impact [his policies] will have on the environment and the health care system,” Busch said.
And while the last legislative session ended with $800 million in the rainy day fund, revenue projections for the coming year fell short by nearly the same amount. “We’ve got to make up the difference,” Busch said. “We have challenges at the federal level and the state level with the budget; it will eventually affect the county governments.”
According to Maryland House Minority Leader Nick Kipke, state agencies have spent many years dealing with unknowns as the result of a “haphazard” budget process, under which reconciliations and follow-on slash-and-burn measures seem to be the expected norm.
“As a result, an agency is never truly able to understand what resources are going to be available, and many of those things are serious issues like caring for the disabled and social services,” he said, voicing his support for a system proposed by the governor that would automatically adjust state spending requirements in years when revenue targets aren’t met.
Beidle said she hopes to sponsor the PILOT for the county’s new conference center and is also looking to shorten the foreclosure process, particularly for homes that are vacant. “There’s no reason for it to take 500 days to go through the foreclosure process,” she said.
Additionally, she said she supports the initiative to change the selection process for Anne Arundel County School Board members.
“We are going to have at least three elected school board bills in our delegation this year,” Beidle said. “I think between the three we can come up with a process to have an elected school board.”