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Friday, February 5, 2010:

The Agenda:

Snow Economics

"Budgeting for snow removal requires a crystal ball and, in lean financial years, the guts to bet against the wrath of Mother Nature." -- Ashley Halsey III

Thumbnail image for Snow 2.jpgWoe is the Maryland politician (and that would be all of them) who bet wrong on the winter of 2010. With a third major storm in seven weeks set to strike the state Friday, it's entirely likely that by next week, plowing and related snow-removal costs will be nearing historic records.

Following a mild winter a year ago -- and faced with a multibillion-dollar shortfall -- Gov. Martin O'Malley's (D) administration this year budgeted just $26 million (or 56 percent of the state's average annual costs) for snow removal from Maryland highways. Before Tuesday's storm, the state had already spent some $46 million, and if the Christmas-time blizzard offers any guidance, Maryland could be on the hook for another $20 million or more in costs to clear roads over the weekend. That would put the state within striking distance of its record $73.4 million for snow removal costs in 2003.

But that's just the beginning; the hardest hit may be Maryland's counties, cities and towns, which suffered a 95-percent reduction in state transportation aid over the summer as O'Malley sought to deal with a precipitous fall in state tax revenue.

Many local governments say they were counting on that money to help cover plowing costs, which have already obliterated many municipal spending plans. In Southern Maryland, for example, Charles County budgeted $350,000 for the year and spent more than $1.2 million by the end of December. As a rule of thumb, every inch of precipitation
over the weekend will cost the county an additional $60,000. In La Plata (Pop. 8,400) the same story: the town budgeted $10,000 for the year; spent nearly $50,000 in December, and is still spending.

Multiply La Plata's story across the state's 157 municipalities and near two dozen counties and it's likely a matter of time (Monday morning, we're guessing, or until the steps to the State House are cleared) before lobbyists for local governments come knocking in Annapolis.

snowplow.jpgPart of the problem, of course, is that large or small, no government has a choice when it comes to paying almost whatever it takes for snow removal. Plowing streets offers no more visible sign of tax dollars at work. And when they are not cleaned, and the dangers of accidents multiply, there are few government failures that elicit a more visceral response from voters.

So how, then, to pay? Like so many parts of budgeting in Maryland, the situation looks dire when comparing how much more was spent than budgeted. But by another important measure -- how much could be spent -- things don't look nearly as bad.

Thanks to so many cuts over the summer, the state is expected to end the budget year in June with about $100 million still in the bank. Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley suggested to a Senate budget committee this week, however, that the department doesn't expect to see any such contingency funds and would likely have to shift money away from capital projects to cover paychecks and other operating costs if snow removal costs top the now likely figure of $60 million.

One real question local governments may begin asking is whether another foot or more of snow might amount to the hell-freezes-over scenario O'Malley has set up for tapping the state's near $600 million rainy-day reserve fund, especially since the federal government hasn't yet responded to a requested emergency declaration to help cover the costs of December's storm.

Another question voters may ask is with the federal government having already ordered most workers to stay home on Friday, and with the legislature in Richmond (where forecasts call for much less snow) having canceled its session, why will Maryland's General Assembly continue to meet? Neither the House of Delegates nor the Senate are expected to meet for more than 30 minutes, but lawmakers' per-diems and hotel bills for the day will cost the state about $30,000.

Some lawmakers in Maryland's State House on Thursday sneered at Virginia for closing its capital because of the snow.

Alexandra Hughes, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, said that in Annapolis, "the work of the people will go on."

-- Aaron C. Davis

News You Should Know

House says 'no' to pay raises
"Neither the governor, lieutenant governor nor any of the state's 188 lawmakers will see a pay raise anytime soon," writes The Baltimore Sun's Julie Bykowicz. "A House of Delegates committee unanimously rejected Thursday the recommendations of a pair of independent commissions that called for moderate pay raises in about three years."

Slots headed to the Anne Arundel ballot?
Thumbnail image for Anne Arundel slots.jpg"Opponents of a proposed slots casino at Arundel Mills mall said Thursday that they have collected enough signatures to force a public vote on whether zoning for the facility should be allowed," reports The Post's John Wagner. "A coalition of anti-slots activists and horse-racing industry representatives said they submitted 23,702 voter signatures to the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections -- more than the 18,790 signatures required to put the measure on the county's November ballot."

Business owners question governor's tax cut
"Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed job-creation tax credit may have the support of several business associations, but some small business owners are saying it won't help," writes Daniel Leaderman of Capital News Service. "'How in God's name is a tax credit ... going to help me?' Tony Passaro told the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday. 'I don't have anything for [a new employee] to do.'"

Rawlings-Blake.jpgRawlings-Blake takes the reigns
"Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake was sworn in Thursday afternoon as the city's 49th mayor, pledging to 'build a better, safer, stronger Baltimore,'" writes The Sun's Julie Scharper. "Rawlings-Blake, who had been president of the City Council for the past four years, assumes the office vacated by Sheila Dixon, who resigned as part of a plea deal resolving her criminal case."

Quotable

"I share your sense of outrage that a sex club is operating in your lovely neighborhood. I want you to know that my office has been advised that our County has moved aggressively to put an end to this blight on your community."
-- Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D), responding to residents fed up with kinky sex parties being held at a home in their neighborhood

"I would encourage them to keep their training wheels on a little longer."
-- Henry Fawell, a spokesman for former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), reacting to a complaint filed by the Maryland Democratic Party that alleges Ehrlich improperly used the airwaves to promote the interests of a slots applicant who was being assisted by Ehrlich's law firm

"Upon some reflection, he may have taken an opportunity to press a little harder on those two pieces of legislation."
-- Del. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), as quoted in Gazette, assessing Gov. Martin O'Malley's advocacy in his "State of the State" speech of bills offering a tax credit for hiring unemployed people and revamping the unemployment insurance system

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Trust First Click for critical news and analysis you need to navigate Maryland politics. Each weekday, First Click brings you The Agenda, a concise, forward-looking analysis of the day's top development in politics or policy. "News You Should Know" breaks down top stories from across the state. And Look Ahead, Unspun, News Makers, and Week in Review keep you up to speed with power brokers in Annapolis and beyond. Want First Click on the go? Sign up for our free e-mail edition, and get the news delivered to your inbox or mobile device.

By Aaron C. Davis  |  February 5, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Aaron C. Davis , First Click , John Wagner  
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Next: Gov. O'Malley declares emergency in Maryland

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