An exchange lasting less than nine minutes in the Maryland State House on Wednesday encapsulated almost every economic and partisan tension driving Maryland’s 90-day legislative session to a frantic end.
It could have been a debate about raising hundreds of millions of dollars in income taxes; creating a subsidy for a $1 billion offshore wind farm; doubling residents’ water-bill fees; or hiking taxes on gasoline.
All of those major plans and more remain in play before the General Assembly’s scheduled Monday adjournment.
But Wednesday’s brief debate – over 19 cents – took Republican and Democratic arguments to their logical extremes. In so doing, it crystallized the core tension that has left uncertain the fate of many of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) key agenda items.
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery), fresh off a defeat in the Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District, asked his colleagues to approve a bill accelerating the state’s requirement to get a share of its power come from solar energy.
The cost? “Pennies each month,” Garagiola said, perhaps only 19 cents over two years.
The benefit? “a shot in the arm” for the state’s solar panel-installation business, chimed in Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles). “The economy right now needs jobs and we can create jobs, that’s what this bill will do.”
Middleton’s comment summed up the core of Democratic arguments for higher taxes and fees in Maryland this year: The state can create jobs, if it is allowd to raise money and direct it in the right places.
“Wrong,” charged Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin (R-Cecil). A few pennies from each house adds up to $163 million in subsidies for the solar industry.
Those pennies, he said, added to other ones added onto electric bills to subsidize wind power, and onto gasoline bills and income taxes will take money out of the economy that could pay for other jobs.
“You can’t turn around and say we need jobs and then pass something that is going to cost more,” Pipkin said. “You take money out of people’s pocket; and then on one side take credit for the jobs, but on the other side say that taking that money out of the pockets of the consumer has no impact on job creation on the other side.”
The measure passed the Senate on a near party line vote.
House and Senate lawmakers are scheduled to meet early Thursday to continue negotiating a compromise on the state’s near $36 billion spending plan.
The main difference is over how far the state should go in raising income taxes to allow the state to continue fully funding education and programs.