Voting on legislation is fairly cut and dry. In most votes on the Anne Arundel County Council, votes are either aye (yes) or nay (no). The third voting option is an abstention. I have cast a vote of abstention in specific circumstances, and I will tell you why.
A councilmember can abstain and decline to vote either for or against a motion, amendment or bill. The council does a significant amount of work on legislation through work sessions and discussions with stakeholders. Although rare, abstentions have been used during the final vote of a bill or resolution. In even rarer cases, abstentions take place during the amendment process or during a motion.
There is one scenario that I have and will likely continue to abstain from. Resolutions calling on Congress to take specific action. Why? Because I believe in the three levels of government, and the enormous level of responsibility that comes with the discussions, deliberations and decisions that each legislative branch, at the local, state and federal level, is tasked with.
While there have been others before, Resolution 43-23 is the most recent example of an area from which I have consistently abstained. This resolution supported House of Representatives 3421 — Medicare for All Act, a 131-page bill before Congress. It was discussed and voted on by the county council at the October 2 council meeting. The resolution called for “supporting Medicare for All and urging federal and state legislators representing Anne Arundel County to work toward enactment of Medicare for All.”
For background, HR 3421, like all congressional bills, follows a different process than the Anne Arundel County Council. A bill in Congress must first be heard by the assigned committee, with testimony invited by the chair of the congressional committee. There is no opportunity for open public comment during the hearing. Bills must first make it out of committee, then pass favorably in both houses before moving to the president for signing. Bills are often grouped as a “package.”
The county council operates differently. There is no committee deliberation. There is no vote in the House and/or Senate. The largest bill we have considered was under 30 pages in length. There is ample time for online, in person or written testimony from the public for all county council bills.
At the time of the hearing and vote on Resolution 43-23, the hearing date for the congressional committee to discuss HR 3421 had not been determined. Given these details, I could have halted my consideration of the resolution at this point, but I decided to dig a little further. I want to give every bill and resolution the same consideration, which means full review. In reviewing the bill before Congress, I had 25 questions prepared by page 30 of the bill. My review took three days.
During our October 2 council meeting where we discussed Resolution 43-23, only one of the eight questions I was able to ask was answered. No one had a deep understanding of the language and details of a bill we were asking Congress to pass in the resolution before us. I do not fault any of my colleagues. How should members of the county council answer questions on bills we have not drafted, heard, or discussed with one another, stakeholders or our constituents? This is the basis for my abstentions on resolutions calling on Congress for a specific legislative action, of which we have no part of.
Imagine a government structure where the local branch spent time reviewing and voting on resolutions for the federal branch, and the state reviewed and weighed in, through resolutions, to the local branch. This is a government with lines so blurred that chaos can become the result, and our respective legislative responsibilities are abandoned in the mix.
The time I could have devoted to a deeper dive on congressional HR 3421 was best spent on the commitments I made to our district — reviewing and discussing legislation before the county council. Bill 78-23 is one such bill.
Bill 78-23 would establish a moderately priced dwelling unit (MPDU) program as the required way of developing new communities in the county and was introduced at the request of the county executive. The goal is to increase the number of affordable housing units for the county workforce, but I question if it would have the opposite impact. The bill would make necessary additional staff to run and manage the housing program.
Bill 78-23 would require all community developments of 20 homes or more to set aside a portion of MPDUs in the development that would be offered as rental units or ownership units at 75% of the median income adjusted for household size of the Baltimore metropolitan statistical area (BMSA); and that the income does not exceed 100% of the median income adjusted for household size for the BMSA.
The bill would allow for exemptions in certain circumstances, like size of the proposed community and opportunities to pay the county in lieu of offering MPDUs. While an owner or renter can breach the income threshold and remain in their unit, the community manager must make another unit available to an applicant who meets the income threshold, or else the community is out of compliance with the program. These communities can be single family, townhome, or multifamily developments. Unit owners cannot resell their unit for a price above the restrictions of the MPDU program.
This is a high-level review of an impactful bill — one that I still have a lot of questions about. There are other jurisdictions in Maryland that have MPDU programs. Most of them have not yielded the affordable units intended, if any at all, and some have resulted in the increased price of housing in the area.
We are in a housing crisis. This is not just an Anne Arundel County issue, but a national issue. I recently attended the grand opening of a senior living facility in Severna Park. When I asked about the demographics of residents moving in, the answer was “Severna Park and Pasadena residents.” I heard from another resident in Severna Park that they are on multiple waitlists for available housing for their aging mother who wants to stay close to family in Severna Park.
Every generation is struggling with the housing dilemma. The housing market, in general, is not moving. That is a problem for everyone.
Is Bill 78-23 the answer? I am not so sure.
Please share your thoughts with me on these and other matters at firstname.lastname@example.org.