Sine D’oh

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As many of you know, Sine Die – which traditionally marks the end of the Maryland General Assembly’s annual session – occurred this past Monday at midnight. As the 90 day session came to a close, most of Maryland (and by extension, Baltimore) found itself with more regulations and taxes (and for some, the possibility of medical marijuana). Sadly, legislation geared towards protecting pitbulls – a hot button issue for Baltimore – remained unresolved. The criminal population must have also breathed a sigh of relief as the Death Penalty was repealed and citizens had their access to guns limited, but that’s another topic.

In the interest of keeping everyone informed, I thought i’d note a few bills that caught my attention and add some commentary. If you heard recent podcasts, some of this will sound familiar but I thought it was worth repeating.

Bill: HB0184 – giving tax credits for bushels of oyster shells


Impact: This bill will give a $1 credit for every bushel of oyster shells given to DNR (Department of Natural Resources) in order to plant spat (read: baby oysters) into the Bay. The credit is capped at $750 per year. The language of the bill also indicates that the tax credit cannot be carried over to later years, so those who earn credit will have to use it the same year. The credit will expire in 2018.

It’s not a bad idea. We all know the bay is running insanely low on oysters and this does address the problem in part. The problem is that the juice may not be worth the squeeze – or in this case, the oyster may not be worth the shuck (god I’m clever). for a credit capped at $750. To properly recycle shells the oyster house would need to set up a process to harvest leftover shells as well as transport them to a DNR location (or alternatively, coordinate with other people doing the same). This doesn’t factor in the high volume of shells needed to create a bushel. Unless the location is an environmentally minded one I don’t know how many businesses would do it for such a low amount of money.

If I wanted to give this program muscle, I would offer an unlimited credit and allow the option to carry over the credit for longer amounts of time (since the credit expires in 2018, why not wait until then?). It may even be more effective for DNR to hire someone to retrieve all shells from local oyster houses who opt in to the service. I would even consider authorizing DNR to buy oyster shells from consumers at a rate of the same rate of $1 per bushel. This would keep the state’s purchasing costs below the current market rates (The state currently pays up to $1.50 per bushel of shells) and offer people an incentive to work with businesses.

Hell, you could permit kids to take the shells from oyster houses and sell them to DNR so they learn the value of a dollar and the environment! THINK OF THE CHILDREN, GENERAL ASSEMBLY.

Bill: HB0196, authorizes special elections via direct mail


Impact: This bill allows ballots to be submitted by mail in the case of the special elections that occur within a jurisdiction. This isn’t anything new; in fact, 17 different states use mailings to conduct their special election (Source). From a monetary standpoint it makes very good sense: Why open election centers and possibly close schools for the sake of a handful of voters?

The problem is Baltimore’s citizens will never get to make use of the law. In the case of a position vacancy, the City Charter places responsibility in elected officials to make the replacement. Although the Mayor is automatically replaced with the Council President (As the Sheila Dixon kerfuffle showed), the Council President, Comptroller, and Council members are all selected by the City Council. So in essence, citizens have no say in this process. As the debacle that led to the appointment of William “Pistol Pete” Welch showed, there will likely be no chance of this changing either.

This is not the first instance where Baltimore is so different from the remainder of the state. As many of you recall, Baltimore City was on an odd numbered year election cycle (almost the entire state is on an even numbered election cycle) until the last legislative session. When the city had the chance to align its election with the gubernatorial cycle, it opted to align with the presidential cycle instead. The end result is council members and general assembly members can freely run for different positions in Maryland without a significant risk to their own political offices.

It would be a far better city if citizens had more opportunities to engage in the political process through voting and elections, but it is clear that City Hall begs to differ.

Bill: HB0335, authorizes the city to use PILOTs everywhere

Impact: If you’ve listened to the podcast, you may have heard Evan and I rant about crony capitalism in Baltimore. One commonly used reward is a PILOT, or Payment In Lieu Of Taxes. Used by developers and many non profits here, PILOTs reduce the annual property taxes that a location needs to pay Baltimore by a significant margin.

To date, PILOTs have been used in only a handful of places that have since flourished (Such as Harbor East and Downtown). However, this bill will open the floodgates and allow PILOTs to be used in any part of Baltimore.

After the initial reading I was worried that I misread the law, so I asked Delegate Keiffer Mitchell (the bill’s lead sponsor who, for all my disagreements with him, is always willing to have a discussion – yes, that’s a compliment). Here’s what transpired:

I completely understand what Keiffer’s saying. I’ve lived in Baltimore for more than 30 years and get that the city needs development. But if we know that low taxes spur growth here, why focus on tax credit programs so heavily while slowly reducing property taxes for citizens (and simultaneously increasing everything else)? Why not work to lower taxes in a meaningful way, period? Instead, the city continually creates these deals for tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars that are unsustainable in the long term. To place our hope in these agreements is short sighted and disrespectful to the citizens who are repeatedly asked to give a little more for Baltimore while those promising jobs and development get everything.

To make matters worse, although we know the taxes are too high here, the city continues to authorize paltry tax reductions for citizens while giving the farm to folks who promise to develop. The most recent act of crony capitalism just occurred this week. The Baltimore Brew covers it here.

I believe Baltimore will continue to suffer with population issues until City Hall recognizes that the best commodity to have is a property owning citizenry, not a well connected developer.

Bills: HB0226 and HB1515 Gas and Wind Tax

Impact: I’m choosing to lump the Gas tax and Wind farm bill in the same group. We already know the basics: The gas tax is increasing 87%, and consumers will see their power bills go up $1.50 monthly. The money will go towards mass transit, restoring highways and to develop offshore wind farming. These are two key projects that Governor O’Malley has lobbied for for a long time and he’s finally got them both.

I mentioned this on the podcast, but I don’t have an issue with the Red Line. It may end up being a useful tool in spurring development. And I’m sure the Purple Line could be useful down in Montgomery County. But I take serious issue with the path we’ve taken to getting the revenue. Especially since the state has the money needed to contribute. The state budget has grown since O’Malley became Governor. Not a little, but a lot. And, we know that the transportation trust fund revenue has historically been depleted while O’Malley has been in office (which, in fairness, did not start with him but certainly continued).

So instead of constantly pumping us for new taxes – wait, I’m sorry, citizen investment opportunities – why not acknowledge the money’s been poorly spent to date and redirect more of the state budget towards fixing those bad practices? Since Maryland’s not spending as well as it could, let’s make sure money is used properly before asking the citizens to pony up more.

Instead, what we’ve gotten (and will continue to get) from this state are requests for higher taxes that seem to occur every single year. First a sales tax, then a cigarette tax, then an alcohol tax, then an income tax for some of us. Now a gas tax, and the possibility of an internet sales tax. With a hell of a lot of fees in between. And yes, a fee is a tax. Don’t believe me? Ask Martin O’Malley’s campaign when he runs for governor:

In my opinion, you can measure how much your politicians respect you by how much they infringe on your life and your wallet. Considering the past five years I feel like Rodney Dangerfield. (ETM: Is O’Malley your nagging ex wife?)

I could continue my rants but I think the best bet is to see the bills for yourself. You can review all of the legislation passed this session here. If you dislike the legislation, contact the people who sponsored and voted for it to let them know…

And let them know if you like it, too! See? Fair and balanced.

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