Legislative Session Review

ANNAPOLIS – The 2008 Maryland General Assembly session expired with Sine Die at midnight on Monday with several bills of local importance enacted into law and many others left on the table for debate another day.

Thousands of pieces of legislation were debated during the 90-day regular session, and while few had the impact of the actions taken by the General Assembly during the special session last fall when sweeping tax changes and a referendum on slots were approved as a means to address the state’s growing structural deficit, many consider it a productive session nonetheless. State lawmakers addressed the growing foreclosure and mortgage crisis, enacted legislation aimed at protecting and restoring the Chesapeake, passed several public safety laws including a statewide DNA database for convicted criminals, and repealed a rather onerous tax on computer services statewide.

Locally, there were several important pieces of legislation enacted, from enabling legislation that could offer tax protection to historic amusement parks such as Trimper’s and Jolly Roger’s to a bill that will allow Ocean City to continue to collect a 1-cent addition on the sales tax to help fund another expansion of the Convention Center. Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) said this week the session was a productive one in many respects from the statewide issues down to the local matters.

“I’d have to say my second legislative session was positive for the most part,” he said. “We did some good things for the state, got some important work done for the environment and the bays, public safety. There were some disappointments along the way, but it was a productive session.”

Mathias said one of the most difficult parts is getting up to speed on the thousands of pieces of legislation that come before him over the course of the session.

“Some of these things are extremely complicated issues,” he said. “They take a tremendous amount of thought, reading and soul searching, and we do it all in 90 days.”

The 2008 edition, like most others, came down to a lot of compromise. The fate of a particular bill is often tied to one’s ability to give and take with fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, according to Mathias.

“The one thing I did learn was the importance of relationships,” he said. “We left there with good relationships intact, which will serve us well in the future. What we didn’t get accomplished we’ll make priorities the next time around.”

What was accomplished on the local front was the passage of a wide variety of bills of particular interest to Worcester County and Ocean City. The following is a quick look at some of the highs and lows from the 2008 session:

Tax Relief Near For Trimper’s, Jolly Roger

Legislation enabling the Worcester County Commissioners and/or the Ocean City Mayor and Council to provide tax credits to two landmark amusement parks in the resort faced with soaring property tax assessments cruised through both the House and Senate, tossing the decision to provide relief back in the court of local lawmakers.

Faced with soaring property tax assessments, which rose a staggering 163-percent in the three years since the last reassessment, Trimper’s officials said last year they could be forced to close all or parts of the historic park if some relief could not be afforded. Several ideas were bandied about including a historic designation for the park, but after careful consideration, local officials opted to find a way to offer special tax credits to the park in the future. Before local officials could grant tax credits to Trimper’s, however, they needed a change in existing state law to enable the provision.

Pointing out Trimper’s is not the only historic Ocean City amusement park threatened with extinction over soaring property taxes, Buddy Jenkins, who owns and operates the Jolly Roger parks on the Sinepuxent Pier and at 30th Street, sought similar relief.

Although the language is different in the Jolly Roger bills and the circumstances are not quite the same, the intent is the same and state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved similar enabling legislation

Convention Center Bond Bill Passes

Also enacted into law during the 2008 session was House Bill 1064, which would enable Worcester County to impose a tax on food and beverage sales in the resort if all or a portion of the increase was dedicated to the expansion of the Convention Center.

For years, there has been an additional one cent per $1 tacked on the sales tax in Ocean City to help pay for the most recent expansion of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center. The supplementary sales tax is set to expire in 2015, but with Ocean City’s convention center possibly slated for another major expansion in the next few years, the bill introduced by Mathias and Delegate Norm Conway provides the mechanism for extending it through the life of the new expansion project.

Homeowner’s Insurance In Coastal Areas Protected

In 2007, several major homeowner insurance policy carriers threatened to pull out of coastal areas in the state including Worcester County and Ocean City, citing the potential risk of increased losses due to dire forecasts of increased storm activity and sea-level rise.

Still smarting from huge financial losses incurred during major coastal storms such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many of the major insurance carriers threatened to raise premiums or stop writing new policies altogether in coastal areas of Maryland, causing the creation of a task force to study the issue. Borne out of that task force was House Bill 1353, introduced by Mathias who served on the task force.

The bill sailed through the House and the Senate and was enacted into law. Among other things, the bill will prohibit insurance companies from raising premiums by more than five percent without permission of the state insurance commission.

Commercial Waterfront Assessment Bill Passed

Another bill of local importance approved by both the House and the Senate would establish commercial waterfront property as a subclass for property tax assessment purposes. Akin to the amusement park bills, the intent of the bills, which were borne out of the working waterfront commission, is to protect working commercial waterfront areas and the indigenous seafood industry from soaring tax assessment increases by assessing waterfront property based on its use rather than its market value.

“Soft” Shoreline Bill Breezes Through

Another bill of local importance to pass both the House and Senate is House Bill 973, which will allow the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to require waterfront property owners to install soft, or “living,” shorelines as opposed to bulkheads or rip-rapped stone revetments. Under the bill, soft, sloping shorelines made up of sand, indigenous plants and some rock would be required on new projects or the reconstruction of existing waterfront areas where practical. Although this bill would apply to all waterfront areas of the state, it could have significant implication in Ocean City and Worcester County where development along the shoreline continues despite the recent real estate slowdown.

Rackliffe House Gets State Funding

Many of the bond bills introduced in both the House and the Senate were folded into the state’s capital budget including $250,000 in funding for the ongoing restoration of the historic Rackliffe House Plantation on Assateague Island.

Mathias and Conway sponsored the bond bill on the House side and Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-38) sponsored the bill on the Senate side. The bond bills were eventually folded in the capital budget with the entire amount requested for Rackliffe House project approved including $145,000 on the House side and $105,000 on the Senate side.