Expect contention in Annapolis over eminent domain, legislators tell GBC audience

The Greater Baltimore Committee’s 2006 legislative agenda drew generally supportive comments from Democrat and Republican General Assembly leaders at the GBC’s annual Legislative Forum on Jan. 30.

But legislative leaders clearly indicated to the early-morning breakfast audience of more than 300 at the Hyatt Regency that they expect contention over one of the GBC’s top legislative priorities — retaining the ability of local governments in Maryland to use existing powers of eminent domain to acquire land as a effective community revitalization tool. A number of bills are being drafted seeking to restrict the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes.

The House of Delegates will not support a constitutional amendment on eminent domain, predicted House Speaker Michael E. Busch, (D-Anne Arundel). He said he believes in “flexibility to give local governments the opportunity” to accomplish large-scale revitalizations, but that he also wants to protect property rights.

“We’ve got to forge a solution” to the eminent domain issue, said Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore, Harford). For Baltimore County property owners in the year 2000, Middle River was “ground zero” for use of eminent domain to “take waterfront property and put it in the hands of private developers,” he said.

Because the use of eminent domain has played a key role in enabling Baltimore’s past and continuing revitalization efforts, the GBC strongly opposes any legislation that would unreasonably inhibit this authority, said GBC President Donald C. Fry. The GBC supports “fair and equitable compensation” when eminent domain is used, but opposes any legislative changes to compensation provisions that would make the use of eminent domain cost-prohibitive, he said.

“All of the economic development that has occurred in the city is because of eminent domain,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, (D-Calvert, Prince Georges). When it comes to use of eminent domain, “there has got to be an even keel. There has to be a balance,” Miller added.

House Minority Leader George C. Edwards (R-Garrett, Allegany) predicted that as many as 30 bills on eminent domain could be filed this session, including many local bills.

Meanwhile, the looming fall election framed comments on the issue of Governor Robert L. Ehrlich’s proposed $29.6 billion operating budget. Legislators agreed that the General Assembly will make cuts, but no predictions were proffered as to where cuts might be made or in what amounts.

Senate President Miller said the governor has submitted “a very political” budget in an election year. “You can’t give money away and cut spending at the same time.”

“What you’re hearing is all election spin and politics,” countered Senator Harris. The Thornton plan to increase education funding “was an election year plan – creating the entire budget mess that the Governor has dug us out of.”

“Our job is to cut,” said Speaker Busch. However he noted that $1.5 billion of the $3 billion increase over last year’s budget is consumed by “mandates and major commitments” that include increasing Thornton K-12 education funding, matching state funding for Medicaid, fully funding state’s commitment to local governments, and increasing funding to the state’s higher education institutions.

Legislators pointed out that the budget’s proposed spending increase of 12 percent exceeds the General Assembly’s spending affordability limit of 8.9 percent. To bring the budget within that limit, lawmakers would have to cut substantially, said Busch.

Another option for legislative leaders would be to consider raising the spending affordability limit to avoid having to make such large cuts in an election year, the GBC’s Fry said afterwards.

“We’ll cut the budget. We always have,” said Edwards. “But I think we do have some room for togetherness this year.”

Other 2006 General Assembly issues that prompted lawmakers’ comments included:

  • Tax credit for biotechnology investment. The House will “go forward” with a biotechnology tax credit, predicted Busch. The GBC supports dedicating $20 million for this program.
  • Funding stem cell research. “It’s important for Maryland to be on the cutting edge” of stem cell research, said Busch. Senator Harris complained that Democrat leaders are now rushing competing stem cell funding measures through the General Assembly “to make a political point.” The GBC supports the adoption of legislation that would “provide funding for the capital and/or research components for stem cell research.”

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