Anne Arundel County political leaders are viewing the new legislative session in much the same manner as other local officials around Maryland--with dollar signs in their eyes.
In view of the $1 billion state budget surplus and the state's huge multi-year settlement with big tobacco, county leaders say they will spend much of the legislative session lobbying for money.
County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) set out a long list of budget requests, led by her goal of bringing home $24 million in funding for school construction.
"I think I have a fairly reasonable and doable request," Owens said. "The schools have been, and continue to be, our top priority." Antiquated classrooms and a shortage of space have dominated the county's agenda since Owens took office 13 months ago. She was elected, in large part, on an education mandate. And in her first county budget last summer, she repaid her supporters by creating a special $40 million fund to begin catching up on much needed school maintenance.
"We're talking about roofs, boilers, wiring, everything," said Kevin O'Keeffe, who is lobbying legislators on the county's behalf this year. "We're going to continue to make this our top priority." But with the apparent abundance of state money, schools will not be the county's only interest. Owens said she will ask the governor for grants to help establish an expanded drug treatment program and a broader smoking cessation initiative, both of which could tap into a portion of the tobacco settlement.
She will request matching funds to build a highway interchange where Route 2 meets Route 50, a traffic-plagued section of road that must accommodate major business growth, including the newly constructed Anne Arundel Medical Center. At a recent dinner with legislative leaders, Owens said the governor "absolutely committed to me on that."
She also will ask for help paying for the county's plans to buy up development rights covering wide swaths of county farmland, a priority for her constituents in south Arundel, where there is a strong distaste for the incursion of Washington suburbs.
Del. Mary Ann E. Love (D), who chairs the county's legislative delegation, put it plainly: "Our goals are the same as in prior years, except we're going to be asking for more."
While the goals may appear ambitious, legislators said the county should benefit from a new political climate in Anne Arundel government. Owens's defeat of Republican incumbent John G. Gary marked a political shift in the county--giving the top elected job to a Democrat for the first time in eight years. At the same time, the County Council swung to the Democrats. And late last year, the county's only Republican state senator, Robert R. Neall, announced he was switching parties.
"The fact that most of us are now in the same party [as Glendening] means he will look at us and our needs a lot more closely," Love said. "It's definitely a boost for us."
While funding requests will dominate the county's agenda for the session, which began yesterday, area legislators do have other issues to tackle. Sen. Philip C. Jimeno (D) and Del. Joan Cadden (D) will be among those sponsoring a bill that would replicate an effort in Virginia to stiffen penalties for people convicted of illegal handgun use.
Del. John Leopold (R) will offer a bill that allows businesses within Anne Arundel County to get more than a single liquor license. And Love said the delegation will be considering a bill to enable county residents to elect the members of the school board. Currently, the governor appoints board members based on recommendations from a county nominating committee.
One marked difference from last year will be Owens's willingness to be seen in the legislative corridors and hearing rooms. Last year, as a new executive, she rarely crossed the street from her government office to lobby on the county's behalf.
But this week, she has already arranged to walk the halls introducing herself to lawmakers from other counties. And county officials said they expect to see her testifying on at least a handful of bills.
"I think she will be making her voice heard," O'Keeffe said.