O’Malley unveils agenda, including same-sex marriage bill

January 23, 2012

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley formally unveiled a legislative package Monday night that would legalize same-sex marriage while attempting to provide “protections” to religious institutions.

O’Malley (D) also wants to double the average “flush tax” paid by Marylanders and seeks to continue to aggressively implement the national health-care overhaul by fostering a health-
benefit exchange.

O’Malley had previewed much of his legislative package in recent weeks, so its release Monday night was more notable for the details than for its broad strokes.

As expected, the governor introduced bills to jump-start the wind-power industry and curb the use of septic systems.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) delayed adjourning the chamber’s session Friday, the deadline for the governor’s bills, to give O’Malley’s office the weekend to finish drafting the measures.

They were introduced Monday night in the Senate, and hearings are expected to begin in coming days.

Given the coalitions that will need to be built to pass several of the bills — as well as key budget proposals floated last week by O’Malley — Miller called the governor’s agenda very aggressive.

“When you look at the agenda we have before us and the dynamics that are going to come into play with the budget . . . it’s a very daunting challenge, I mean extremely daunting challenge,” he said. “We’re all going to have to work very hard.”

Religious-exemption language included in O’Malley’s same-sex marriage bill is intended to pick up additional support in the House of Delegates, where a bill fell unexpectedly short last year after clearing the Senate.

Aides said O’Malley, who did not sponsor last year’s bill, looked to other states with same-sex marriage laws, including New York, to find language that could address concerns.

Among other things, the governor’s bill plainly states that religious groups have exclusive control over their theological doctrines and expands protections against lawsuits arising from refusal to perform same-sex marriages.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the new language is meant as “a clarification” to address concerns raised by some delegates last year.

“It’s meant to draw a clear line that it won’t impact anyone’s religious ceremonies or religious beliefs,” said Busch, a same-sex marriage supporter. “We certainly don’t want to infringe on doctrines or ceremonies.”

Whether such language will be enough to produce a different result this year remains unclear.

O’Malley on Tuesday plans his most public display of support for a same-sex marriage bill since his announcement in July that he would sponsor the legislation. The governor is scheduled to host a breakfast gathering of same-sex couples at Government House and then tout his legislation at a news conference. Aides say O’Malley will be joined outside his residence by supportive legislators, clergy and labor leaders.

A summary of O’Malley’s agenda distributed Monday night also includes details of “flush tax” increases proposed to finance continued upgrading of the state’s major waste-water treatment plants.

What is now a $2.50 per month flat fee would become contingent on water usage. Low-end users would actually see a decrease, paying $1.80 a month, O’Malley said, while higher-end users would pay $9.30 a month. Users of septic systems, which are not metered for water use, would see rates double to $5 per month.

A separate bill to curb the use of septic systems would take a different approach than last year. Instead of banning their use in most new developments, this year’s bill seeks to aid local communities in moving away from septic growth in areas where it would contribute to sprawl and pollution, O’Malley said.

The governor also pledged to bring back a bill that would exempt most family-owned farms from the estate tax and foster public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects. Neither bill was ready for introduction Monday.

O’Malley also is planning to introduce a transportation package later in the session. It is likely to rely on an increase in the gas tax.

Also on Monday, lawmakers took their first in-depth look at O’Malley’s proposed $35.8 billion spending plan. Republicans and Democrats probed the governor’s plan to close a roughly $1 billion shortfall, in part by limiting income tax exemptions and deductions for those making six figures or more.

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