Cecil County, State Delegation Hold GOP Lovefest, Optimistic on New Hogan Administration

December 10, 2014

When Cecil County elected officials and members of the state delegation representing the county in Annapolis—all Republicans– met this week to discuss legislative priorities for 2015, it was a lovefest of optimism for the administration of Governor-elect Larry Hogan. But some officials cautioned that a looming state budget crisis means that there may not be any immediate fiscal help for Cecil County.

The best the county can hope for short-term, several officials said, would be some relief from regulations imposed by Annapolis on local land use decisions, environmental mandates, and regulatory burdens that discourage business development.

Cecil County Executive Tari Moore, all five members of the County Council, and all Delegates and Senators representing Cecil County attended the meeting at the county administration building in Elkton. But two Democrats —Del. David Rudolph and Del Mary-Dulaney James— who were fixtures for many years at similar sessions in the past were no longer in the room. Rudolph was defeated for re-election from his Cecil County district while James lost a bid for a Harford County-based Senate seat.

And unlike past delegation meetings with local officials, there was no specific list of legislation sought by the county from Annapolis. Since the shift to Charter government two years ago, the county has more control of its own affairs but there are usually a few items on the agenda.

The most significant state issue for the county is one that will take a statewide solution: the loss of highway user fund revenues. Moore noted that the county has lost 90 percent of the money it used to receive from the state as its share of gas-tax revenues paid by county motorists. (The county’s aid dropped from $6 million a year to $600,000—meaning the county has had to dig into its own pockets to pay for filling potholes or resurfacing roads.)

Moore said the county tapped into its “impact aid” revenues from the Perryville casino to cover some of the costs of needed road work in the past year, but she said the state needed to come up with a “Plan B” to begin returning some of the highway funds to the counties “over time,” even if it is not done all at once.

Hogan has said he will look at reversing policies of the O’Malley administration that diverted highway user funds to the general budget or allocated disproportionate shares to mass transit projects in Baltimore City and Montgomery County.

But Hogan recently cited new analysis showing the state has a $300 million deficit in the current budget year and faces a similar shortfall looming in 2015—a $600 million conundrum that could tie his hands on his pledge to rollback various tax increases and revenue diversions by his predecessor.

“You’re seeing deficits in abundance,” observed Del. Steve Arentz (R-36-Queen Anne’s).

“The budget will be key,” said Sen. Steve Hershey (R-36). He noted that Hogan must present a new budget two days after being sworn into office in late January and with such a compressed timeframe, the governor might have to submit supplemental budget items as the legislative session progresses.

Hershey said he was optimistic that Hogan has a much more positive view of the “rural counties” than O’Malley and would listen to their concerns.

Another key concern of Cecil County—the significantly higher Hatem Bridge tolls that impact multi-axle business vehicles and tourists with boat trailers—is being worked on by local officials, County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) said. But the county held off on presenting a new plan for revisions until Hogan names new members of the Maryland Transportation Authority that Hodge hopes will be “more receptive” to Cecil County’s pleas. A task force, including Hodge and local business users of the bridge, is currently working on a plan showing how the higher tolls have hurt the local economy.

Much of the discussion centered on the latest revision to Cecil County’s “tier map” for preservation of rural lands and limiting development. The county hopes that a change in administration at the state Department of Planning will provide a more positive review than what Eric Sennstrom, the county’s planning director, said was a “frosty” reception from the state in August.

The county has been in negotiations with the state for nearly two years, since Moore presented a bare-bones plan that provided the maximum protections for local property rights but state officials found grossly deficient under a new state law. A new map includes more lands in “preservation” areas and includes farms of over 155 acres for inclusion in the preserved areas.

Sennstrom said that the latest re-configuration could still protect property rights if the state grants an “exception” to broader rules governing population density.

Del. Jay Jacobs (R-36-Kent County), a member of the newly-renamed “Environment and Transportation” committee, said that a new chairman (Kumar Barve of Montgomery County) and many new members of that panel in the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates will make for some new challenges in getting members to listen to rural counties’ concerns.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jacobs told Cecil Times after the meeting, adding that he planned to stay on the panel and fight for the rural counties in his district on the key transportation and environmental issues affecting the Upper Shore.

Newly-elected members, such as Del. Jeff Ghrist of Caroline County and Kevin Hornberger of Cecil County, have not yet received their committee assignments, Ghrist said.

The overall tone of optimism at the meeting was summed up by County Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2), who said, “I think we’re going to get some good stuff done” under the new Hogan administration.

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