Archive for the ‘State politics’ Category

Hoyer: Keep Election Assistance Commission, Expect Changes

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, urged fellow lawmakers not to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission at a House Subcommittee on Elections hearing Thursday morning.

“The EAC has created a comprehensive program to test state voting systems for accuracy—and use of this program has been shown to save our states millions of dollars and up to 12 months of testing time,” he said.

Established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the commission assists state officials with election funding and data collection. It also collects and standardizes data from the states and acts as a clearinghouse for best practices and election information.

Witnesses discussed a bill proposed by Subcommittee Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., which would eliminate the agency.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning testified that the organization has “outlived its usefulness.”

Secretaries of state from Florida, New Hampshire and Mississippi supported eliminating the commission, saying the responsibilities of the agency could be handled by other entities like the Federal Election Commission or Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Hoyer said the commission should continue to handle voting-related issues because the FEC is focused on campaign finance, not elections.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, said shifting the duties of the EAC  to another organization would not reduce spending because the agencies assuming those roles would require additional funding.

Witness John Fortier, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute, said he would like to see a “leaner, meaner EAC.”

Even if the agency is eliminated, Fortier said, continued data gathering and standardization by other agencies is necessary.

Jill LaVine, registrar of voters for Sacramento County, Calif., said election officials rely on the assistance and guidance of the commission. The agency helped local officials when Sacramento introduced assist terminals for disabled voters, she said.

“No one pays any attention  to an election official until something goes wrong,” LaVine said. “Now is not the time to terminate the EAC.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the commission has become redundant. He testified that the agency’s data reporting requirements have burdened states’ small election staffs.

Hoyer conceded that spending cuts and program reform may be appropriate for the agency but questioned the bill stating, “Should that mean that therefore we should abolish an agency which the Congress overwhelmingly decided was a useful and appropriate function for the federal government to follow? I think not.”

By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Marcellus Shale Drilling Moratorium Compromise In The Works

Friday, April 8th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – Compromises on a bill that would create a temporary moratorium on natural gas drilling in Western Maryland’s Marcellus Shale formation are being hammered out in a series of closed-door meetings.

Lawmakers and a variety of interested parties this week held several so-called “stakeholders meetings” that could produce a final compromise on the bill before the Senate takes it up for debate. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House last month.

The legislation would restrict drilling in Maryland’s slice of the Marcellus formation until 2013, when two state agencies would be required to complete a study that outlines the potential environmental impact associated with a controversial drilling method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Details of the closed-door discussions on the drilling moratorium are being held fairly closely at this point. Delegate Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill,  declined to comment Thursday on the meetings.

But Sen. George Edwards, a Republican from Garrett and an opponent of the proposed drilling moratorium, said at least two items are being negotiated at the meetings.

Under the legislation, energy companies would be required to pay $10 per acre of land leased in the Marcellus formation for two years. The money generated, which is estimated at about $ 1 million each year, would be used to pay for the study mandated by the legislation.

Edwards said the energy industry has agreed in the meetings to pay $10 per acre for one year only.

Edwards also is pushing for test drilling during the moratorium, so that experts can better gauge the potential impact that fracking could have on water wells in Western Maryland.

Another meeting was scheduled for today, but it was closed to the public and reporters.

“It’s not a public meeting,” Mizeur said Wednesday.

The stakeholders meetings are nothing new in Annapolis. The Associated Press’ Tom Lobianco reported in March on a series of “secret negotiations” that produced a compromise that allows wineries to ship bottles of their products to Marylanders.

–By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf

Legislative Audit Details $71,000 Theft by DNR Employee

Friday, April 8th, 2011

A legislative audit released last week uncovered about $71,000 of likely fraudulent purchase card charges by an unnamed Department of Natural Resources  employee.

The audit, found here, was released on April 1. The Department of Legislative Services started its audit in February 2010 when the DNR alerted the agency and the state Attorney General’s Office to the potential employee theft.

A DNR spokeswoman said the employee “parted ways” with the agency by March 2010, but the spokeswoman would not say if the worker was fired. The audit report says the employee was fired. The Attorney General’s Office is still investigating the purchases.

The report says many of the purchases were sent to the employee’s home address and had been purchased online.

It says that invoices generated after the purchases by the employee misrepresented the items. In some cases, invoices described office supplies when the actual items purchased included computer games, clothing and gift cards.

The audit recommended that DNR ensure all employees follow state guidelines for purchase cards, since supervisors are supposed to approve purchases.

The DNR said those guidelines had not always been followed until the thefts were exposed.

“We immediately trained everyone to make sure everyone more clearly understood policies (following the thefts),” said Darlene Pisani, DNR spokeswoman.

The agency was audited from May 1, 2007, to March 17, 2010.

In addition to the fraudulent purchase card discovery, the audit found:

  • Some public land leases were not adequately monitored by DNR, which is charged with leasing 468 properties.
  • The DNR lost $30,000 by not applying for federal fund reimbursements in a “more timely manner.”
  • The DNR did not keep up-t0-date equipment records.

By Capital News Service’s Kerry Davis

Hoyer Calls for Compromise to Avoid Government Shutdown

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Rep. Steny Hoyer,  D-Mechanicsville, called for Republicans to compromise on the looming budget challenges during a press briefing this morning.

The House Minority Whip said he opposes short-term continuing resolutions like the one introduced by the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. He said the “episodic, sporadic funding levels” of continuing resolutions, in lieu of passing an overall 2011 budget, do not address the essential challenges of funding the government.

The continuing resolution measure would fund the government for one week. The Department of Defense would receive funding through the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Hoyer said Congress is not going to solve the budget with non-security cuts and that all aspects of the budget, with the exception of the interest on the national debt, must be on the table in budget negotiations.

Without a continuing resolution, federal employees could face a shutdown that Hoyer calls “costly and demoralizing — not just for federal employees, but demoralizing for the nation.”

The ability to compromise is essential to the process, Hoyer said, and tea partyers who rallied on The Hill last week are unwilling to compromise.

Referring to last year’s tax cuts, he said, “In December, we made some compromises we didn’t like,” he said. “We’re prepared to compromise” on the budget issues, he said.

Hoyer said the budget is “a reflection of what people think is important.”

By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Hope Still Alive for O’Malley’s Offshore Wind Legislation

Friday, March 25th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Despite concerns that momentum behind the governor’s offshore wind energy bill is fading, Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s, said Friday that the bill has more than a fighting chance to pass this session.

The governor’s signature energy initiative has faced opposition from legislators concerned about the project’s costs to the state and consumers.

Davis, who is continuing to have meetings with Gov. Martin O’Malley and his staff, said he plans to turn the full attention of the House Economic Matters Committee to the bill next week. Davis chairs the committee.

That leaves less than two weeks before the end of the legislative session to get the bill out of committees and passed in the House and Senate.

The bill would contractually obligate utility companies to purchase some energy from offshore wind production companies for 25 years, once the wind turbines have been built. The turbines would be located about 12 miles offshore of Ocean City.

O’Malley announced Wednesday that he was introducing amendments to the bill that would cap rate increases at $2 per month, which Davis said could help get the bill out of committee.

“Any cap helps,” Davis said. “What folks want is a certain amount of cost certainty. That can’t do anything but help so that was certainly a good move on the governor’s part.”

Some of the bill’s opponents believe it is too cumbersome to pass this session, with some Senate Finance Committee members saying it should be recommended for a study over the summer.

Steelworkers unions and environmentalists are united in seeing the bill pass in the hopes that building the turbines would bring jobs to Maryland and help the state reach a goal of generating 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2022.

– By Capital News Service’s Kerry Davis.

Budget Debate Starts in House

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates today begins debate on a state budget proposal that reforms pensions for state employees, restores a large chunk of cuts to K-12 education funding and raises several fees to generate tens of millions in new revenue to help shore up a dedicated transportation fund.

The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a series of budget cuts and fee increases to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal.

Lawmakers will debate a series of amendments to the budget today before giving the bill preliminary approval. A final vote on the budget is expected Friday.

The budget approved by the Appropriations Committee would increase several fees to generate more than $60 million in new revenue. The bulk –about $50 million — will come from a proposed increase to the titling fee for vehicle purchases, which would double from $50 to $100. Another $2 million to $3 million in new revenue would come from doubling the fee for vanity license plates from $25 to $50.

The money generated from those two fees will go toward the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which O’Malley is planning to tap to the tune of $100 million this session to plug budget holes.

“This is designed to provide some help and relief for transportation instead of doing some sort of gasoline tax,” said Delegate John Bohanan, a St. Mary’s Democrat and key member of the Appropriations Committee. “We’ve got to come up with some funds for transportation.”

The budget approved by the committee also increases a fee Marylanders pay to file property tax records from $20 to $40. That change is estimated to raise about $10 million, Bohanan said.

House Republicans fired back at the House spending plan Wednesday, saying the budget does little to address long-term debt and spending. The proposed fees, said House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell, amount to the government “taking money out of the private sector.”

“We don’t have a revenue problem. These are revenue mechanisms,” said O’Donnell, R-Calvert. “We have a spending problem and this budget doesn’t address our over-spending.”

House Republicans are readying amendments to present today. O’Donnell did not elaborate on specifics but said the amendments will “highlight greater opportunities to reduce spending in Maryland.”

House GOP leaders presented a proposal earlier this month that outlined $621 million in additional spending cuts on top of the nearly $1 billion in reductions O’Malley proposed in his budget.

O’Malley’s budget proposal would cut the state’s structural deficit, which is estimated between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion, by $730 million. The House budget goes a bit further and seeks to slash the structural deficit by $803 million.

That’s not enough, Republicans say, and the GOP proposal presented last month would eliminate about two-thirds of the deficit in fiscal 2012 and the rest by fiscal 2013.

“The Democrat plan is silent with regard to when the structural deficit will be completely fixed,” O’Donnell said. This budget “doesn’t solve our problem and it kicks the can down the road.”

Bohanan, the chair of the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, said Democrats refused to cut deeper because any further reductions could “decimate” education funding. The committee voted last week to restore about $58 million of the $94 million O’Malley cut in funding for K-12.

“That’s the one priority we continue to hold and maintain,” Bohanan said.

The House gets the first shot at the budget this year. Bohanan said the Senate is “in sync” with the majority of the House plan, but the two chambers will likely have to reconcile differences on pension reform.

The House is proposing to change O’Malley’s pension reform plan by requiring state employees to pay 7 percent of their salaries instead of 5 percent into their pension plans. O’Malley’s proposal would have given state employees the option to choose between 7 percent and 5 percent contributions.

The Senate on the other hand could move toward a shift to have local governments help pay for pensions. The House last year rejected a “wholesale shift,” Bohanan said.

“The main thing is going to be pensions,” he said. “We’ll be in sync on education funding, but pension reform will be different.”

By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.

Compromises in the Works for Tubman Statue Bill

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS –  A bill to place a statue of Harriet Tubman in the U.S. Capitol will likely look a little different when it comes up for a vote in committee.

Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, said Thursday that she is working with the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee to offer amendments to the bill “that will not divide the House or Senate, but I don’t know what that will look like.”

The bill, which is opposed by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., would move a statue of colonial Maryland statesman John Hanson out of its place in National Statuary Hall in Washington to Annapolis, putting a statue of Tubman, the Civil War-era former slave and abolitionist, in its place.

Hanson was the first president of the Continental Congress after the Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1781, leading some to consider him the first president of the new nation’s first government. Tubman, who many know as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, was also a scout and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War.

One amendment being considered would put the statues on a rotation, swapping one for another every few years, though the time period is not yet specified. Another option is asking for an exception to each state’s allowance of two statues in the collection.

The bill to permanently switch the statues has support from Gov. Martin O’Malley and groups like the National Organization for Women and the NAACP, as well as the Legislative Black Caucus and the women’s caucus, but has been opposed staunchly by Miller and others who feel Tubman should be honored without moving Hanson.

Pugh said she expects the bill to come up for a committee vote in the next week, as the General Assembly has less than a month left in the 2011 session.

Delegate Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said she had hoped it would be a conflict-free, feel-good piece of legislation for the General Assembly to pass this session.

“We want this to be a unified body behind this legislation,” Lee said.

The creation of the Tubman statue and the transportation of both statues would be funded by private donations.

– By Capital News Service’s Holly Nunn.

Senate Gets In St. Patrick’s Day Spirit

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate kicked off St. Patrick’s Day in style with bagpipes, a string quartet and a ballad from a former lawmaker.

Two bagpipers and the quartet provided the backdrop for former Sen. Tim Ferguson’s rendition of “Danny Boy.” Ferguson, who croons to the Senate annually on St. Patrick’s Day, received a standing ovation for his performance.

Click below to listen to today’s Senate serenade.

By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.

Large Demonstrations Expected in Annapolis Monday Night

Friday, March 11th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – As the Senate prepares for a final vote on Maryland in-state tuition legislation Monday night, Annapolis police will be closing segments of Rowe Boulevard, Bladen Street and College Avenue approaching the State House, anticipating about 5,000 protesters.

Senate President Mike Miller told senators Friday to arrive early for the session, which starts at 8 p.m. Monday. Miller reminded lawmakers that they would be voting for what was best for the state, and asked them not to be swayed by the crowd.

Miller’s office said the crowd would be a combination of people with interest in the tuition bill, known as the Maryland DREAM Act, and people with interest in retirement and pension security.

The city of Annapolis issued a press release naming Marylanders for Retirement Security, a coalition of organizations representing public employees, as the group responsible for the rally. The city expects 5,000 people.

Maryland Capitol Police said the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is the only organization that has taken out a permit to protest Monday night. AFSCME said they are expecting about 10,000 people, including AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, demonstrating for pensions, education, health care and retiree benefits.

CASA de Maryland plans to bring 30 to 40 students and members in support of in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Incoming lanes of Rowe Boulevard will be closed at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium from 6:15 to 6:35 p.m. Inbound lanes of Bladen Street from Calvert Street to College Avenue will be closed from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., as will College Avenue from Church Circle to St. John’s Street.

– By Capital News Service’s Holly Nunn.

Cardin Proposes Elimination of Blenders’ Ethanol Tax Credit

Friday, March 11th, 2011
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced legislation to repeal the  Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, which gives companies 45 cents on every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline.

“There is no real justification for the subsidy for the blend on ethanol,” Cardin said. The subsidy does not help corn growers, but rather contributes to the profits of oil companies, he said.

Should the bill become law, the short-term impact on corn growers would be relatively small, said John Urbanchuk, technical director at Cardno ENTRIX, an environmental and natural resources consulting firm. But the long-term effect on ethanol demand could be substantial, he said.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, comes on the heels of a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last week saying the VEETC subsidy cost $5.4 billion in 2010. The report indicated the measure could cost $6.75 billion in forgone revenue in 2015.

“We’re looking for ways to save money,” Cardin said. “I think this is way you can save several billion dollars to help balance the budget.”

A demand for ethanol would remain without the VEETC because of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires minimum volumes of biofuels like ethanol in transportation fuels, according to the GAO report.

“Importantly, the fuel standard is now at a level high enough to ensure that a market for domestic ethanol production exists in the absence of the ethanol tax credit and may soon itself be at a level beyond what can be consumed by the nation’s existing vehicle infrastructure,” the report stated.

Growth Energy, an organization advocating for ethanol production and use, issued a statement condemning the bill.

“The ethanol industry is fully prepared to reform and reduce the cost of current tax programs,” said CEO Tom Buisin in a statement released Thursday. “I would suggest Sens. Coburn and Cardin introduce legislation requiring the oil industry to do the same. ”

Urbanchuk said a repeal of the tax credit could create another unintended consequence: an increase in the already-growing investment in foreign ethanol production.

“We’ll end up, instead of being a net exporter, perhaps being a net importer of ethanol again,” he said.

Cardin acknowledged opposition but remained confident in his objectives for the legislation.

“There could be some regional controversy because people identify it with corn, but I really think when people look at it they’ll see that this is not really an issue about the corn industry,” Cardin said. “It’s really an issue about removing a subsidy that’s no longer needed.”

– By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee