ANNAPOLIS – Montgomery lawmakers leave the General Assembly this week with the hard-won trophies of increased education aid, more legislative seats and tougher safety laws and less-heralded accomplishments, including a tax credit for Discovery Communications’ relocation costs.
The achievements, which still need Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s signature, come at the close of the annual 90-day state legislative session and were celebrated Tuesday by Montgomery lawmakers in the bright-gold Calvert Room at the State House.
A blue chart displayed Montgomery’s biggest achievement – a projected 371 percent increase in state education funding for the county from fiscal year 1995 to 2008.
The victory came after intense efforts by county lawmakers to change the funding formulas of a school reform plan, also known as the Thornton Commission Report.
The five-year plan rewrites state funding formulas for grade school by giving more money to districts with less wealth.
As one of the richest counties, the original measure left Montgomery schools with the lowest funding.
Lawmakers lobbied hard to tack minimum state funding levels onto the wealth formulas.
“We held back support (of the measure) until we got needed help,” said House Delegation Chairman Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery.
The 32-member combined House and Senate delegation was able to force compromise since the bill’s passage was jeopardized without their support and without a funding source.
Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Montgomery, won funding for the plan by allowing his tobacco tax legislation to be amended to the bill. The 34-cent-per-pack cigarette tax hike now pays for the first two years of the plan’s bills.
“We delivered a tremendous victory on Thornton,” said Senate Delegation Chairwoman Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery.
The change earns Montgomery $85 million more in state aid than the original formulas provided.
Some have called the county greedy, but lawmakers defended the move to ensure funding for the county’s changing needs and growing enrollment of disadvantaged children.
“We got what we needed,” Ruben said.
The changes “benefit not just us but every child in the state of Maryland,” said County Executive Doug Duncan, who worked with state lawmakers in their legislative efforts.
Such clout will only grow in the future.
Two more delegates and a senator will join the county’s delegation with the state’s decennial redistricting process.
The new seats will help protect Montgomery’s interests in the future, Barve said.
Other achievements of the county included numerous public safety laws. Several delegation members sponsored bills to strengthen pedestrian and traffic safety – a concern of Montgomery residents, Duncan said.
A bill to prohibit open alcohol containers in cars won General Assembly passage and an additional $7 million in federal aid for the state’s highway construction. The measure was sponsored by Delegate Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery.
Three measures proposed by Delegate William Bronrott, D- Montgomery, won state approval – a law to require booster seats for 4 and 5-year-olds, a bill to make leaving the scene of a hit-and- run accident a felony, and a measure to increase state funding for sidewalk and bike path construction in areas where there are safety risks and insufficient municipal funds to build the paths.
Although lawmakers listed many other accomplishments in areas from mental health to ICC and Purple Line study approvals, one effort that wasn’t highlighted was passage of a tax credit that benefited Discovery Communications.
The county had used an enhanced tax credit program to lure the company into relocating in Silver Spring. The program offered tax credits to businesses that brought 1,250 new jobs to a county.
When Discovery was forced to shed jobs during the recession, it lost qualifications for the credit. But lawmakers wanted to remain faithful to their side of the bargain, Barve said.
Montgomery lawmakers sponsored legislation to change the qualifications for the credit, substituting capital investments for high job-creation requirements.
Not all delegation members backed the plan.
It is “another great treasury raid by big business,” said Delegate Leon Billings, D-Montgomery, during House debate.
The law change doubled Discovery’s tax break, giving them $15.6 million in local and state funds instead of the $7.8 million they would receive without the changes.
Yet most House and Senate delegation members supported the move, claiming the overall investment brought a net gain in revenues to the state and county.
Montgomery House leadership pressured passage in the House under local courtesy – a state lawmaker practice to defer to a delegation’s judgment when proposed laws only affect the sponsoring county.
“I expect this bill to pass out of courtesy,” Barve said during the bill’s final reading.