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A different climate at Md. counties conference

Hogan team hopes to find allies at event

County officials will obey an almost biological mandate to travel to Ocean City Wednesday for the annual Maryland Association of Counties convention — a four-day beach trip where sand mixes with public policy and state politics.

The meeting will also feature closing remarks from either Gov. Larry Hogan or Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford — the first for either since attending last year’s conference as candidates.

“We’re now in the interesting part of the cycle where we’re learning the moving parts of the new administration and the priorities of legislative leadership,” Sanderson said.

To that end, Sanderson said organizers expect that most of the new department secretaries appointed by Hogan will attend the conference and members will have a chance to meet with them less formally during a reception this week.

This year’s conference, which each year draws hundreds of county and state officials from across Maryland, will feature less election-year politicking and more focus on a wide range of issues facing counties, from police body cameras to taxes, transportation and  medical marijuana. In particular, officials will assess how public policy at the state level affects local government, according to Michael Sanderson, executive director of the association.

“It’s really going to be a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B,” he said.

Sanderson will be a panelist during a session that discusses how the state economy could likely affect county budgets in the coming year.

“That pervades everything,” Sanderson said.

For the better part of the last decade counties have lived under the cloud of large state structural budget deficits, shrinking aid and expenses such as teacher pensions that have been shifted to local government.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been in a situation that looks this close to reasonable,” Sanderson said. “Now the conversation moves to the priorities for the future and away from solving the problems of the day.”

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the tone and message to local officials will not change now that Hogan is governor.

“The goal is to show the counties that we view them and want them to be our equal partners in building a better Maryland and are not just looking to them when times are tough,” Mayer said.

Mayer said there will be “a MACo surge with the vast majority of department secretaries” attending the conference and meeting local government officials.

“We’re down here to learn and listen and talk about how (Hogan) has governed,” Mayer said.

Of particular interest with a new Republican governor is how potential tax cuts could reduce revenue at the county level.

Hogan has not been shy about seeking such cuts, including breaks for first responders, military retirees and some small businesses. The association has opposed those cuts for the most part on the basis that it would have an adverse effect on local government budgets.

Currently, the Augustine Commission, which was appointed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., is reviewing tax structure in the state and is expected to make some recommendations later this year.

“Anything that the state does that reduces taxable income for citizens also lowers county income taxes,” said Sanderson, adding that the state “could be the dog and we could be the tail.”

Another seminar that is expected to generate a lot of interest involves growing local issues related to medical marijuana.

A number of jurisdictions are suddenly seeing a surge in zoning variances or preliminary approvals for growing facilities. In Baltimore County, the county council will consider legislation that could limit where dispensaries can locate. State Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, says he plans to introduce legislation that would limit the ability of local governments to impose restrictive zoning laws on such facilities.

Sanderson said such legislation concerns his members.

“There’s a local authority issue as it relates to local officials being able to be the planners of what their communities look like,” Sanderson said.

The meeting will close on Saturday with an address from either Hogan or Rutherford. Hogan is undergoing a third round of chemotherapy treatment for his non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and was expected to be released from the hospital Tuesday night.