School funding leads General Assembly issues

The Eastern Shore Delegation: Delegate Wayne Hartman, Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, Delegate Charles Otto, Sen. Addie Eckardt, and Delegates Chris Adams, Johnny Mautz, Sheree Sample-Hughes, Carl Anderton and Chris Adams,

As they head back to Annapolis this week, Lower Shore lawmakers will be asked to tackle issues ranging from how to fund education priorities recommended by the Kirwan Commission to whether Salisbury should control liquor licensing inside city limits.

The Maryland General Assembly, which convened Wednesday, also faces what state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza calls a “monumental shift in power” with a new Senate president and new speaker of the House of Delegates.

Carozza said she and other Republican senators met recently with new Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, who outlined his priorities for this year’s session: a balanced budget, a smooth transition of power and public education.

Ferguson was elected to the post after longtime Senate President Mike Miller stepped down last year.

“He seems to recognize he needs to be the president for all the Senate and we will hold him to that,” she said in a recent interview on PAC14.

Ferguson also is friendly with Salisbury Mayor Jake Day and seems to have an interest in the Eastern Shore.

In the House, Delegate Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, replaces Delegate Michael A. Busch who died last April as Speaker of the House. After her election as speaker, Jones named Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes of Wicomico County as speaker pro tem.

Since Sample-Hughes now has added responsibilities, Delegate Carl Anderton of Delmar said other members of the Eastern Shore Delegation are pitching in to help out in her district.

“We have such a great team to work together,” he said.

Here are some of the issues facing legislators this session:

Public school funding

Eastern Shore Delegation members seem to be united in their stance on recommendations made by the Kirwan Commission. They agree that changes need to be made, but they don’t want to raise taxes to cover the $3.8 billion price tag.

Named for William “Brit” Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education was formed in 2016 to recommend changes to education policy and to find a new funding formula that would deliver more money to school systems in less wealthy areas of the state.

Carozza, the only commission member from the Eastern Shore, said she supports the recommendations which include universal pre-kindergarten, full-day education for 3-year-olds from low-income households, better college and career readiness training, teacher pay raises, better teacher training and more resources for at-risk students.

But Carozza said the commission didn’t devote enough time to the funding formulas.

“That’s where I think the Kirwan Commission failed,” she said.

The new Senate president has indicated the matter will be sent to two committees to figure out: Budget and Taxation of which state Sen. Addie Eckhardt of Cambridge is a member and Education, Health and Environmental Affairs where Carozza serves.

Last year, the Legislature passed what is commonly called “Kirwan light” that provided some funding for two years.

Anderton said lawmakers need to look at how additional funding could come from cuts to other categories in the state budget rather than getting it from taxpayers.

“We are not in a spot right now to raise taxes,” he said.

Rural broadband

Delegation members also fully support an effort to bring high-speed internet service to rural parts of the Eastern Shore.

Choptank Electric Cooperative is seeking a federal grant to bring broadband internet to its customers, and it needs a bill introduced in Annapolis to change how it is regulated through the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Delegate Charles Otto of Somerset County said he has talked to residents of places like Shelltown, a remote community on the Pocomoke River in Somerset County, who can’t work from home or whose children can’t do homework online because there is either a poor quality internet connection or none at all. He supports Choptank’s initiative.

“No one else is going down there,” he said of the other internet providers in the region.

Delegate Wayne Hartman of Ocean City said the availability of broadband also will improve property values in rural areas.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” he said.

Anderton said the bill is likely to have opposition from large internet providers in the area, such as Comcast and Verizon, but none of them have been willing to venture into some of the more isolated areas of the Shore.

The bill has the support of the entire Eastern Shore Delegation whose members range from Cecil County to the north to Somerset County to the south.

“Whatever we have to do to get it done, let’s get it done,” Anderton said.

Salisbury liquor licensing

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day has asked legislators to support a bill that would establish a city liquor licensing board that would remove the licensing responsibility within Salisbury city limits from a county board, but not all legislators seem to be onboard with the idea.

“No alcohol bill is simple,” Carozza said. “It would have to have strong local support across the board.”

So far, only Anderton has expressed support for the measure. During the 2020 Southern Delmarva Economic Forecast on Dec. 6 at Salisbury University, Delegate Chris Adams of Salisbury said he was not in favor of the proposal, while other legislators have remained silent.

Day has said the move would allow business owners to get all of their necessary permits in one office, he said. The city has already streamlined the process for taking projects from permitting through completion, but restaurants and stores must still get liquor licenses through the county board.

Additionally, Day said the county board is too political and lacks transparency.

City officials have been considering such a move for a few years, but it became a priority after accusations were made by County Executive Bob Culver over how a liquor license was granted for the National Folk Festival in September.

Culver said the city and state Comptroller Peter Franchot acted illegally when Franchot’s office granted a license for the festival, bypassing the Wicomico County Board of License Commissioners.

Day has said that after city officials perceived the county’s licensing board was dragging its feet on approving a beer and wine license at last year’s event, the city went to Gov. Larry Hogan and then to Franchot whose office ultimately signed off on the license.

Carozza said there might be other ways to address the city’s concerns, including having city and county officials meet to iron out differences.

Airport tax exemptions

Delegation members all support a measure to provide a sales tax exemption on airplane parts and repair and maintenance businesses at the Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport.

Previous attempts to pass a bill have failed, but local legislators are hopeful this year.

“The Salisbury airport is an economic driver,” Carozza said.

It is the second largest airport in Maryland and under the leadership of manager Dawn Veatch, the airport is in the process of building a commercial drone testing facility, making it the first in the country to develop this type of operation.

Wicomico County officials also have been in discussions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a disaster distribution center at the airport that could store medical supplies, diapers, water, nonperishable foods and other essential items.

Carozza said there also has been talk of building a cold storage facility at the airport as well.

Other issues

Legislators are expected to be faced with these other issues of local interest:

  • Offshore wind: The planned wind farm off the Ocean City coast is expected to be a topic of discussion as several lawmakers, including Carozza, have concerns about the visibility of the turbines, the impact on commercial fishing and military communications. Others, such as Anderton, tout the jobs and economic boost to the region that the project is expected to provide.
  • Budget requests: Legislators hope to bring home money for several Lower Shore projects including the final leg of Salisbury’s Main Street project, Salisbury University’s Entrepreneur Center and a new building at Wor-Wic Community College.
  • Tax differential: Topping Mayor Jake Day’s requests is a bill for a tax differential, which would ease some of the tax burden on city residents and business owners who pay for duplicate services in both the city and county. But Anderton said he won’t introduce a bill without input from Wicomico County officials who will have to figure out how to do without some of the revenue coming from taxpayers in all eight municipalities in the county. “Maybe not this year,” he said.

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