MontCo lawmakers have history of keeping around temporary laws

Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

Montgomery County lawmakers have a long history of passing laws that were extended long after their expiration dates.

In the last 25 years, county lawmakers have passed at least 90 bills that were supposed to be temporary. But in most cases, they were kept on the books.

For example, they approved a bill in 1988 that changed the way the county allocates funding for building public works of art. It was supposed to end after fiscal 1991, but in 1990, another bill was passed removing the expiration date.

In the nearly 25 years since that bill, the practice hasn't changed much.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the County Council is considering extending or removing the temporary clause in the elevated energy tax rate that was passed in 2010 as part of the fiscal 2011 budget.

County Executive Ike Leggett proposed the 155 percent increase in the energy tax on residents -- a 60 percent increase on nonresidents -- at a time when the county was trying to fill a large budget gap. The County Council added a two-year deadline in the hopes that revenue would improve.

"My hope was that this was a temporary measure that we would be able to do away with and that was premised on the economy being much better than it turned out to be," said Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda. "Circumstances are not what we thought they would be, therefore we will not be able to [end] it."

A similar "sunset" decision was made with a bill delaying the collection of development taxes, a measure intended to spur development during the recession, said Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield.

"It was sunsetted because the design was to provide a break for a specific time period and no more, so as to mitigate the effect on county finances," Lacefield said. "Of course, even such a sunset could be extended."

In addition, the clauses are often a way for lawmakers to experiment with new legislation, said County Council Senior Legislative Attorney Michael Faden. "You want to see if it works the way it was intended and doesn't have any negative side effects."

In other words, laws with the provisions should be a signal that lawmakers are going to reassess the situation in a few years, not remove them from the books, Berliner said.

But residents and lawmakers don't always see eye to eye, especially when it comes to taxes.

"A sunset means it's over. That means there will be no more increases," said Joan Fidler, president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League. "It's a matter of credibility with the taxpayers."

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