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ROCKVILLE—The Montgomery County Council met with Senator Chris Van Hollen for an informal discussion about legislative work at the state level.
The council and Van Hollen gathered on April 5 to discuss issues like the federal budget, the government shutdown, environmental matters that face Maryland and the upcoming census in 2020.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Van Hollen, “every morning I wake up and wonder how we got here, and we’re working every day to get it right.”
The group began by discussing the federal budget that President Trump put forth.
On March 11, President Trump released his budget request for the coming year. His proposed budget totals $4.746 trillion with total estimated revenues coming in at $3.645 trillion. This proposal presents a problem because it creates a $1.101 trillion deficit.
To rectify the problem the responsibility falls to Congress to pass appropriations bills. These bills will allocate money to specific government departments and programs that will keep the administration up and running. If Congress cannot pass appropriations bills, the government will experience another shutdown.
Van Hollen explained that there has been about a nine percent cut in the budget across the board for programs and departments that are considered non-defense.
“That could be bad for the whole country, but it could be especially bad for our community,” Van Hollen said. “We’re going to be pushing back against these cuts, but the good news is that we have bipartisan resistance.”
Another silver lining Van Hollen pointed out, is that despite the cuts he and his colleagues pushed for about $150 million in funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and that funding was included in the budget.
Van Hollen also noted that there had been some promising bi-partisan work between Republicans and Democrats when asked by Council Vice President Sidney Katz.
He pointed out that there has been successful bipartisan work on issues like the opioid epidemic, which the state of Maryland will be working towards combating with about $35 million in allocated funds.
“Working in a bipartisan way on some big contentious issues like where we go on healthcare or agreeing that climate change is a pressing issue that is a man-made problem are still areas in which we have work to do,” Van Hollen said.
Another issue the group discussed concerning funding was the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Workers Act, which was introduced in January by Democratic Senator Tina Smith. The act is designed to provide backpay to low wage contract employees that were affected during the most recent government shutdown.
“Compensation for low wage workers during the government shutdown was really outrageous,” Van Hollen said.
He noted that there are many Americans for whom $400 is the amount between them and an eviction.
The Baltimore Sun reported that the shutdown had particular effects on Maryland workers. The State Comptroller’s office estimated that 172,000 Maryland residents were affected by the shutdown.
“We’re going to keep pushing to get this act through,” Van Hollen said. For the moment, the act has not yet passed the House of Representatives which would be the first step of four to get the act phased into law.
The group also discussed environmental issues at play in Maryland, specifically the Conowingo Dam. The dam is situated near the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland and acts as a sort of pollution gate. It keeps pollution from agricultural, urban and suburban areas from flowing downstream towards the southern part of the state.
The dam, which spans the lower Susquehanna river, plays a role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay because the river feeds into the northern portion of the basin.
The council requested federal action to deal with pollution coming from Pennsylvania. The dam traps pollution in the short term, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, but pollution still makes its way over the dam and has lasting effects on water quality. The pollution contributes to harmful blooms of algae that suffocate marine life.
The council noted concern on spillover and wanted to see federal assistance focused on Pennsylvania’s role in pollution.
Finally, the group talked about the upcoming census in 2020. Their main point of discussion was the addition of a citizenship question that the Trump administration has been pushing. The question would ask respondents about their citizenship status here in the United States.
The push to add the question has drawn considerable resistance in the past months, and so far, three federal judges have declared the question unlawful.
Some of the concern surrounding the question stems from worries that it will deter people from responding to the census for fear of legal trouble. But perhaps an even more considerable concern is that government officials will use information from the question to track people down, almost like a registry.
Council President Nancy Navarro felt that if the question is allowed to remain on the 2020 Census, there should be some kind of security or protection for individuals in danger of legal ramifications. The council echoed this suggestion also noting that information gained from the question should be safeguarded.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to settle the case of the citizenship question later this month.
Van Hollen explained that meetings between the county council and state level officials are important because it helps to make both bodies more efficient.
“We all have the same constituents, and we need to make sure we’re coordinating our efforts,” he said, “This county council really reflects the whole community.”