When state lawmakers convene in Annapolis on Wednesday for the 431st legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly, they will be prepared to debate whether any plan to halve the state’s $1 billion structural deficit should include new revenue or consist entirely of spending cuts.
Meanwhile, an expected high-profile effort to legalize same-sex marriage looms over the statehouse chambers.
The 90-day session also could resemble a three-month prize fight between Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and rural legislators, who have cried foul at a number of key initiatives backed by O’Malley.
During a meeting with reporters last week, the governor would not rule out including tax increases in his fiscal 2013 budget, and many expect him to back an increase in the state’s gas tax, which is 23 cents a gallon.
“The governor’s going to be focusing on job creation, [and] it’s going to be a lot of debate, but the governor’s going to propose a gas tax increase,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) of Chesapeake Beach.
Miller has pushed for an increase to the gas tax for years but has found resistance from lawmakers wary of raising taxes amid a struggling economy and high oil prices.
To boost transportation funding, a state commission has recommended the gas tax be raised by 5 cents annually for three years and has estimated that doing so would raise an extra $491 million in annual revenue.
“It’s controversial, but it’s something that needs to be done,” Miller said.
The legislature could also index the gas tax to inflation so that it automatically rises in the future, a “nice, sneaky way to increase taxes without ever having to take the heat politically for it,” St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly said.
To discourage the future use of septic systems, which environmentalists say leak too much pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, another state commission has recommended raising the annual $30 “flush tax,” which goes toward bay restoration programs, to $60 in 2014 and $90 in 2015.
During last year’s session, O’Malley pushed a bill that would have banned the use of septic systems in new housing developments but was met with stiff resistance from rural lawmakers who said the ban would place an effective moratorium on housing construction in their districts.
O’Malley has made plain his desire to curb the proliferation of septic systems, and he plans to revisit the issue this session, which could set him on a collision course with rural legislators already agitated by a new land-use plan intended to control sprawl.
Last month, O’Malley, flanked by former governors Harry Hughes and Parris Glendening, adopted PlanMaryland, which will funnel state funding to projects in accordance with “smart growth” principles.
Rural lawmakers have lambasted the plan as usurping the authority of local governments by providing incentives for developments supported by the state.
“It looks like empire building in the Maryland Department of Planning, the executive branch,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert).
Although Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) of Waldorf has not read the plan in its entirety, he said, he “cannot support any initiative for the state to come in [and] take over land use.”
“The local government should be responsible for land use,” Middleton said. “I don’t think Southern Marylanders want some executive in Baltimore city having control over land use.”
But no legislation figures to generate more passionate debate than the effort to legalize same-sex marriage, an issue that many lawmakers felt hijacked the 2011 session and in the coming months could center the national media’s cross hairs on Annapolis.
A bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage last session fell a few votes short of approval in the House of Delegates, but proponents got a major boost over the summer when O’Malley, who sat out the 2011 debate, said he would sponsor similar legislation in 2012.
O’Malley’s support came as a sign to many that he was looking to keep pace with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), whose national profile received a boost when New York legalized same-sex marriage in July.
Both Cuomo and O’Malley are thought to have Oval Office aspirations and are considered potential presidential candidates in 2016.
“In many ways, this will be a test of Martin O’Malley,” Eberly said of the same-sex marriage debate. “If O’Malley can’t get his own party to pass it, then how effective will he be nationally?”