Maryland General Assembly has much to do in a week

March 31, 2012

Marylanders who have paid scant attention to this year’s
session of the General Assembly can take heart. If you tune in
this week, you won’t feel like you’ve missed much.

State lawmakers, who are set to leave Annapolis next Monday, are still haggling over major parts of a $36 billion budget, including dueling proposals that would
affect how many Marylanders pay higher income taxes.

The House has yet to act on
a proposed casino in Prince George’s County. And most of
the ambitious agenda that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) introduced in January — including plans to promote wind power and curb the use of residential septic systems — is hanging in the balance.

So, too, are literally hundreds of lower-profile pieces of legislation affecting matters including liquor licenses and rules of the road.

And if O’Malley has his way, lawmakers, in the final days of the session, will begin to debate in earnest a proposal to pump more than $600 million a year in additional tax revenue into Maryland’s transportation system.

“I know that people are fatigued. I know that they’re tired
of even the talk of it,” O’Malley said of his transportation plan, which would apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline. “But I’m going to try.”

In what may be a last-ditch effort to get lawmakers to move his bill, O’Malley said he is willing to delay the first installment of the tax increase to allow gas prices to settle down.

Just how much else remains to be done?

During last year’s 90-day session, lawmakers passed 707 bills, and this year’s output is not expected to be dramatically different. But as of Friday night, 59 bills and three resolutions had cleared both the House and Senate.

The only O’Malley initiative lawmakers have sent to his desk is the high-profile measure to legalize same-sex marriage — something legislative leaders wanted to get out of the way early so that the debate wouldn’t hold up other issues.

Asked to explain what has
become a predictable end-of-
session crush in Annapolis,
Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) cited the many “very tough decisions” lawmakers face.

“People get locked into positions, and we seem to need deadlines to force compromise,” Davis said.

House and Senate budget
negotiators are starting the final week with some major differences in their tax and spending plans. An initial meeting Friday to start working toward some compromises was postponed.

Both plans honor O’Malley’s wish to continue funding education at record levels and to raise taxes rather than cut projected spending increases that outpace still-depressed state tax revenue.

The Senate plan would collect most of its new revenue from
an across-the-board income tax increase; the House version would target the top fifth of state tax filers, or most of those earning more than $100,000.

The plans also differ in how quickly they shift part of the financial burden of teacher pensions from the state to counties — a long-festering issue in Annapolis that could be on the brink of resolution.

Under the state constitution, adopting a balanced operating budget is about the only thing lawmakers must do each year while in Annapolis.

O’Malley’s plan to bolster a separate transportation budget is optional, and with the surge in gas prices, most lawmakers seem inclined to opt out.

“With gas at these prices, there’s no way,” said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery), voicing a common sentiment.

O’Malley acknowledged that gas prices are making his task harder, but he said it remains necessary.

“Once we get the budget passed, we need to take an honest look at what can be done,” he said. “Right now, if we do nothing, we’re all condemned to paying higher costs through rising congestion and greater traffic.”

Several other O’Malley initiatives — including three environmental bills — appear to be on track but haven’t crossed the finish line.

Those include a bill to subsidize development of an offshore wind farm, which passed the House overwhelmingly Friday after an hour-long debate. The measure, which would increase every Marylander’s electric bill, still must clear the Senate in the coming week.

An O’Malley-backed bill to double the state’s flush tax on sewer and septic users also requires Senate approval this week after House passage about a week and a half ago.

The Senate, meanwhile, has passed a bill that, in the interest of curbing sprawl and protecting the Chesapeake Bay, would require counties to draw mapped “tiers” of development before any major subdivisions served by septic systems could be approved.

That measure, which was weakened during Senate debate, moves to the House. A work group set to meet Monday will look at other provisions in the bill of concern to environmentalists.

Also hanging in the balance is an O’Malley bill that would make it Maryland policy to seek out private partners to build, operate and maintain roads, bridges, schools, government buildings and most any other public asset.

That bill has cleared the House but run into resistance in the Senate.

Perhaps the biggest wild card in the session’s remaining week is a bill that would allow a casino in Prince George’s and authorize Las Vegas-style table games there and at Maryland’s five other gambling sites.

The legislation passed the Senate last week, throwing the controversial debate to the House, which had spent little time on gaming issues this session.

The bill has prompted a late flurry of lobbying from interests on all sides as delegates try to get up to speed on the measure. After a briefing Friday, Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard), chairman of a subcommittee with oversight of gambling issues, declined to speculate on the bill’s future.

“We have a week,” Turner said with a chuckle. “That’s plenty of time.”

Staff writers Aaron C. Davis and Greg Masters contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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