Md. legislature back in session; issues and activists are waiting
By John Wagner and Ann E. Marimow,
Maryland lawmakers were greeted upon their return to Annapolis on Wednesday by environmentalists in blue T-shirts who want to spur development of offshore wind farms, state workers in green T-shirts who don't want their pensions cut and immigrant teenagers in black T-shirts who are pushing for a change in college tuition rates.
Thus began the 428th session of the Maryland General Assembly, a 90-day stretch expected to be dominated by painful budget cuts and a handful of other high-profile issues - with plenty of advice offered from people on all sides.
After a few opening-day formalities, legislators streamed to receptions hosted by lobbyists fighting for the legalization of same-sex marriage and against an increase in alcohol taxes, among other causes, and they encountered county government officials who pleaded with them not to make deep cuts to local services.
"It's like the first day of school, except no one has any lunch money," said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), who grabbed a bowl of chili at a gathering hosted by the lobbying firm Alexander & Cleaver, whose many clients this year include a gay rights group. "We're listening, but this is a tough year to do anything."
Debate over the state budget will begin in earnest next week, when Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he will present a proposal to close a $1.3 billion shortfall in the state's $13 billion budget without relying on tax increases.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) - who was elected by his colleagues Wednesday to preside over the chamber for the 25th year in a row - said O'Malley has kept budget details "close to his chest."
But Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) - who was chosen to lead the House for a ninth straight year - said they anticipate cuts in education, health-care programs and aid to local governments, among many other areas.
"We have tough choices to make, and we are going to make them together," O'Malley said during a brief appearance in the Senate chamber, where spouses and children joined the 47 senators on the floor.
The scene was similar in the 141-member House, where a cast of visiting dignitaries, including U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D), watched members take the oath of office.
Although the day was marked by ceremony and goodwill, it also provided previews of the battles ahead.
One of the largest receptions of the day was hosted by the alcohol industry at the historic Calvert House, just steps from the State House. The guests wore stickers with a red slash through the words "Alcohol Tax."
Lawmakers and other elected officials mingled with beverage distributors, retailers and their lobbyists, who drank 14 types of beer.
Seventy-five lawmakers have signed on to a plan to raise alcohol taxes - Maryland's are among the lowest in the nation - by the equivalent of a "dime a drink" and use the proceeds for health programs. For beer, that would mean an increase in the excise tax from 9 cents a gallon to $1.16 a gallon.
"Anytime you have to raise a tax 1,000 percent, that is insanity," said Joseph A. Schwartz III, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association and one of the organizers of the reception.
His words echoed those of Miller, who said during a radio program taped Wednesday morning that the "dime-a-drink" plan was "insanity personified."
Vincent DeMarco, a health-care lobbyist who was making the rounds in Annapolis, countered: "The insanity is that the alcohol tax in Maryland has not been raised since 1972 on beer and wine and 1955 on spirits."
Some legislators at the event said it was a time for celebration, not for talking policy. When asked his position on the alcohol tax, Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George's) told a reporter, "Don't ask that question in here."
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) said she was intentionally skipping the alcohol industry event because of her support for raising the tax.
"It would be hypocritical of me to drink their beer and then support the tax bill," said Gutierrez, who displayed a button with the message: "10 Cents Makes Sense."
Meanwhile, dozens of Maryland teenagers, many of them undocumented immigrants, canvassed the hallways of the State House complex to press for legislation that would allow students like them to pay in-state tuition at public universities.
Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's) plans to introduce a bill that would allow immigrants who have attended state high schools - and whose parents are taxpayers - to pay resident tuition. At the University of Maryland's flagship campus at College Park, tuition for residents is at least $15,000 less than for nonresidents.
Dulce, a high school junior from Prince George's County, called it a wise long-term investment for the state. "We'll pay back the state when we have good jobs," said Dulce, 17, who arrived from Guatemala nine years ago and declined to give her last name because she is undocumented.
Miller predicted that the bill, as written, would fail and suggested limiting it to community college students.
Throughout the day, state employees visited with lawmakers to make the case for protecting their retirement and health benefits.
And a coalition of environmentalists and steelworkers pitched a bill that would require state-regulated utility companies to buy a portion of their power from offshore wind farms.
Among them was Jo McLaughlin, a member of the Howard County Climate Change Initiative, who stood outside the Senate chamber wearing a bright blue T-shirt proclaiming, "Good Jobs, Clean Power."
"It's important that we not only have a visible presence here today," McLaughlin said, "but that we go behind the scenes and meet with legislators."