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At Md. counties conference, politics to join policy discussions

Governor Larry Hogan speaks during the 2016 annual meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Governor Larry Hogan speaks during the 2016 annual meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Thousands of local government officials will descend on Ocean City for an annual meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties to talk policy, but it’s the politics that will have a lot of tongues wagging.

Attendance for the annual summer conference usually jumps in the third year of a gubernatorial term as the focus of many shifts to politics, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

“Certainly there is a heightened interest in the policy and the politics,” Sanderson said. “That will be present this year.”

But the association that represents the state’s 24 jurisdictions will try to keep its focus on the policy, Sanderson said.

Gov. Larry Hogan returns to the Maryland Association of Counties convention in the resort town being able to claim he successfully beat back a law he said threatened transportation projects around the state. At the same time, he has yet to fulfill a vow to restore highway user revenues to local governments that were drastically cut nearly a decade ago.

Sanderson called the transportation funding question the “gorilla in the room.”

“There’s lots of $1 million questions and $10 million questions, but there is only one $400 million question and that is who pays for roads and bridges,” Sanderson said, adding that the closing addresses have historically given governors an opportunity to look forward to initiatives for the coming legislative session.

Last year, Hogan used his speech to rally local governments behind his opposition to a transportation project scoring law he dubbed “the road kill bill.” He vowed to repeal the law, which had been championed by legislative Democrats as a way to provide clear criteria for which projects were receiving funding.

Earlier this year Hogan signed into law a bill that creates a virtual if not actual repeal of the transportation scoring law by replacing the original measure with one creating a nearly perpetual delay in implementation. Instead, transportation projects will be ranked and listed in the governor’s annual six-year plan. The law also calls for a three-year study of that scoring system, which must be developed by the governor.

Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, declined to provide details about the governor’s upcoming address.

“There will be some news made but I’m not going to announce what it is,” Mayer said.

Restoring state aid to local governments for road projects remains a top priority – a promise Hogan made to the group, said Mayer.

“He’ll encourage them to lobby their senators and delegates for their priorities,” Mayer said. “(Highway funding) is something the governor puts in his budget every year and it’s something the legislature has removed every year.”

Hogan, who is scheduled to deliver the conference’s closing address on Saturday, is also likely to address the growing heroin and opiate crisis in the state.

Earlier this year at the Maryland Municipal League conference Hogan touched on the opioid epidemic in the state as well as his hopes to restore highway user revenues that were cut by 90 percent nearly 10 years ago. He also used his closing remarks to announce he was canceling an executive order issued by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley that made it harder for local governments to expand existing landfills or build new ones, and he ordered them to reach a 65 percent recycling goal by 2020.

Sanderson said he expects the governor will touch on that announcement again at the end of the week.

All of this will occur in a year when a number of Democrats, some of whom lead the state’s largest jurisdictions, will be in attendance not only as county leaders but as prospective 2018 challengers to the first term Republican governor. Other potential candidates who are not elected county leaders are also likely to be present in the Ocean City Convention Center.

As many as 2,800 state and local officials from across Maryland and exhibitors are registered to attend the annual conference, up from about 2,500 attendees last year, according to Sanderson.

Panels offered during the four-day conference typically mirror local government concerns. Others are issues likely to be taken up the coming General Assembly session.

In past years the conferences have looked at police body cameras, state revenues, medical marijuana and local zoning issues, the use of drones and even how augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go are changing the way the public accesses and uses public land and buildings.

This year the conference will focus on jobs, from the standard economic development issues to governmental hiring, including attracting and retaining millennial employees as well as hiring police officers.

“That seminar might sound like a yawner but it resonates with the kind of social issues we’ve seen in our society lately,” Sanderson said.


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