April 12, 2007
After 90 days, the 423rd session of the Maryland General Assembly drew to a close at midnight, April 9th. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to represent you in the House of Delegates for the past thirteen years. I am pleased to serve the 11th District of northwest Baltimore County along with my teammates State Senator Bobby Zirkin, Delegate Jon Cardin, and Delegate Dana Stein. We share a common vision to improve our community, and together we have achieved positive results. Your priorities are clear, and we have worked hard to reflect them.
In January I was named Assistant Majority Leader and House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Delivery and Finance. I continue on the Health and Government Operations Committee and chair the Government Operations Sub-committee. In that latter role, I continue to focus on finding efficiencies and streamlining the bureaucracy...not an easy task but an important one.
The media tends to cover high-profile and controversial bills. Some of these are important, but coverage for other, often more significant, legislation is limited or non-existent. Let me summarize some of these below to give a fuller view of what was accomplished this year and what was not. Bills with one * are bills I lead-sponsored; those with two ** are bills I co-sponsored. You can look up details for these bills, plus all others, at the Maryland General Assembly web site.
The key challenge looming before us is Maryland's fiscal problems. For the most part this was deferred this session but will undoubtedly be the front burner issue over the next twelve months. Fixing the imbalance will not be easy, and we each will have to think long and hard about the best courses of action. I've attached a separate message at the end of this letter on fiscal issues for your review and comment. Please take a look at this. I sincerely request your input and guidance on these decisions.
The House took a big step forward with the passage of HB 754**. It would provide health insurance for up to a quarter of uninsured Marylanders (some 200,000 of our fellow citizens), and it had other key provisions, including an emphasis on wellness. The costs would be funded by a combination of raising the tobacco tax and diverting funds for uncompensated hospital care to primary care. Unfortunately, the leadership in the State Senate blocked action on this bill. While I agree with their contention that a comprehensive fiscal strategy is needed, I believe that providing basic health insurance coverage is one of the best ways to accomplish this. Keeping people healthy and out of hospitals avoids costly illnesses, which we are all paying for anyway. Other key bills include: HB 27* provides funding for cerebral palsy care ($200,000 appropriated); HB 29* provides funding for Hopewell cancer support services ($100,000 appropriated); HB 157* promotes wellness; HB 214* facilitates end of life care; HB 487 * keeps CareFirst's board on its non-profit mission; HB 682* deals with end of life care in emergency situations. I chaired the sub-committee that passed HB 1030** which would prevent counterfeit medications from entering the State. HB 30** provides oral health care. HB 359 ** promotes clean indoor air; HB 524** reduces minority health disparities; and HB 793** helps those with sickle-cell disease.
HB 488* builds on our success with electronic recycling. This is an effort I initiated three years ago, and I'm pleased to report that e-cycling is working in Maryland in a way that is both good for the environment and for business. Our unique approach is being modeled by other states. HB 942** expands the role of the Maryland Green Building Council, an important step toward green building construction, something long overdue in state policy. Other key bills included HB 131** the clean cars initiative and a variety of clean, alternative energy bills ( HB 74**, 76 **, 416 **, 451**, 745**). House Bills 74, 76, and 451 were not passed by the Senate. These are all vital to protecting our public health and quality of life.
Several key bills were passed, including "Jessica's Law" which increases penalties for the most serious sex abusers of children. HB 216 * helps crime scene investigators, and HB 53 * tightens rules for residential child care centers that take care of juvenile offenders. I played a key role in chairing the sub-committee for HB 879 which regulates forensic labs; this is important to be sure that evidence is properly handled so that the guilty are caught and the innocent set free.
HB 28* continues a program that expands small businesses. I also supported numerous bills, such as HB 135**, that promote the life sciences and biotech in Maryland. I am pleased to continue on the Board of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute (UMBI) which does basic science research and translates that into economic development and new businesses. Eminent domain issues took a first step with a bill that fairly compensates property owners. More work is needed in this area.
The most important step was to continue funding for school construction and renovation. Baltimore County has some of the state's oldest schools, and students and teachers deserve a clean and safe environment. I continue to work for the incorporation of green building techniques in school construction: these will save money and, as numerous studies show, promote performance. Other bills included HB 243** for Baltimore County athletic fields ($250,000 appropriated); HB 316** to help Irvine Nature Center with its programs for school children ($325,000 appropriated); HB 619** which deals with county superintendents; and HB 1056** which helps blind and disabled students. I also worked on ways to help make our Baltimore County school board more responsive to the public.
Overall, I believe the legislature took positive steps this year. Partisan bickering was minimal, and legislators worked together regardless of party affiliation. Besides the fiscal issue, it is my fervent hope that we will find a consensus on making health care effective, available and workable for patients, providers, and payers.
Last, your input is key. We won't always agree, but it's important that we communicate. Please stay in touch with me and with my excellent legislative staff: Mary Lou Cole and Penny McDougal. We will do our best to respond.
Delegate Dan Morhaim, M.D.
STATE FINANCES AND FISCAL CHALLENGES
Maryland faces a fiscal challenge over the next 1-2 years. I'm writing seeking your specific input on how to handle this.
Our State is confronting a $1.4 billion deficit. The deficit has come for many reasons, some of them good, some not. Funds were invested in worthwhile causes, mainly education (the Thornton Bill) as well as health care, public safety, environmental protection, and economic development. Revenues did not keep up, partly due to lowering income tax rates in the late 1990's and then economic fall-out from 9/11. Maryland passes a balanced budget each year and has kept its AAA bond rating. Governor Glendening accomplished this by making a number of one-time fixes and adjustments. Governor Ehrlich kept the budget balanced primarily by raising certain fees, such as the near-doubling of motor vehicle registration fees. Now, however, the end-of-the-line for those adjustments has been reached, and it's time to take stock and re-assess our financial direction.
There are three basic items that determine fiscal soundness.
1) Increasing Revenues: Whether called taxes, fees, surcharges, it boils down to the same thing: bringing money into government. There are principles that may be applied, such as trying to find revenues that tax Maryland residents less and out-of-staters more, like hotel taxes. Or, trying to arrange taxes that are paid more by the wealthy than the poor, like graduated income taxes. Or, using taxes to promote certain social policies, like supporting home ownership by allowing the deduction of home mortgage interest. Or, taxing some items selectively, like tobacco, while not taxing others, such as food and medicine.
2) Reducing Spending: Government, like households, can help to balance their budget by reducing spending. However, many constituents ask for increased spending on specific items, usually ones related to their personal experience. For example, parents of students want more money for education; families with an ill person want more money for health care; those threatened by crime want more money for police and jails; businesses want more money and tax credits for economic development; and so on. And there is a multitude of requests for specific items, such as money for museums, for hospitals, for community centers, for local health clinics. It has been my observation that each of these requests is sincere, well-founded, and serious. The problem is that there is not enough money to meet all the demands. Cutting programs may seem easy, but there are always individuals and groups for whom the programs are valuable and worthwhile.
3) Efficiencies: This has been a key focus of mine. I want to be sure that each dollar spent by government is spent as efficiently as possible. That's why I've sponsored legislation that increases government buying power through coordinated purchases; that make state agencies more accountable; and that set in place sound buying principles and long-term strategies such as investing in high-performance "green" buildings.
Last, a few words about slots. Some oppose slots on moral grounds and therefore oppose slots in any form. For everyone else, let me advise that the "devil is in the details." Two years ago, the House slots bill and the Senate slots bill were very different. I voted for the House version but would not have voted for the Senate one. There are numerous reasons for this: the House bill kept slots under State control; it priced slots licenses at market value (about $1 billion each), whereas the Senate bill set an arbitrary fixed price at a giveaway value; the House bill placed slots at specific locations with tourism and economic development in mind, while the Senate bill left locations to a commission to be named later, which could place slots anywhere. There were other significant differences as well, so if slots become an option, please be sure to study the details carefully. The differences can be most significant.
We can anticipate much discussion over the next year and leading into the 2008 session on how to best manage and balance State finances. I'm inviting you to participate actively in this process. Please send your ideas, suggestions, and concepts. Please share your perspective on how to best balance revenues, spending, and efficiency in ways that help society and does not hurt people.
Consider the issues carefully, and try to be consistent and specific. Some ask for tax cuts but then want more money for something else. We can't have it both ways. Everyone wants efficiencies, but working to reform bureaucracies is complex and tedious, and rarely gets anyone's attention. Any specific suggestions to increase efficiency are appreciated.
I look forward to hearing from you.