Gun control and transportation among top issues facing Maryland General Assembly

January 3, 2013

The 433rd session of the Maryland General Assembly might be as notable for what isn’t on the agenda as for what is.

For the first time in years, legislative leaders are not considering tax increases or deep spending cuts to balance the state budget.

No major legislation on gambling — an issue that has long paralyzed Annapolis — is expected. The fight over legalizing same-sex marriage, which dominated during the past two years, is over. Gay couples will have started wedding eight days before lawmakers reconvene Wednesday.

“Most of the big things we’ve tackled are out of the way,” House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said.

That isn’t to say the 90-day session won’t lack drama.

In the wake of last month’s rampage in Newtown, Conn., gun control is likely to come to the fore in this year’s session.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said last month that he is likely to propose legislation that could include a ban on assault rifles, among other gun-control measures, in addition to proposals involving mental health and school safety.

“I think there’s been a change of heart,” O’Malley said, “and a greater open-mindedness in the wake of the murder of the innocent in Connecticut for people to take a look at especially assault weapons.”

O’Malley also is likely to take a third run at passing a bill that would provide incentives to jump-start the state’s wind-power industry.

Advocates for repealing the death penalty are pushing him to champion the cause this session.

O’Malley is still weighing whether to support a transportation funding plan that could significantly increase prices at the pump for drivers.

The state transportation budget is, by all accounts, in dire shape. Without a new infusion of funds, analysts say there will be no money for new highway construction or mass transit projects, including the Purple Line, after 2017.

Some advocates for more funding are pushing for an increase in the state’s 23.5-cent gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1992. Whether that issue will gain momentum is unclear.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who preside over the state’s two largest jurisdictions, are championing the cause for more funding.

Meanwhile, the outlook for the general fund — the source of money for most state services — is the rosiest it has been in years.

A “structural gap” between spending and revenue has been whittled down from $2 billion two years ago and is likely to soon disappear, legislative analysts said at a briefing last week.

That should allow lawmakers to craft a budget without higher taxes, such as the increase for six-figure income-earners passed in a special session last year.

There’s one big caveat: Lawmakers are watching anxiously to see what happens on the “fiscal cliff” in Washington. Failure to reach a deal could mean budget cuts and job losses in Maryland, scrambling the state fiscal outlook.

“Hopefully, things get settled in Washington, D.C.,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said after a recent meeting with O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) on session priorities.

Busch said continued investment in school construction will be a priority of his in the coming year.

Lawmakers are also expected to decided how to fund the $35 million annual cost of the health benefit exchange being created to comply with President Obama’s health-care reforms.

Besides wind power, energy debates are expected to include whether to allow hydraulic fracturing, widely known as fracking, for natural gas in the state’s Marcellus Shale.

The drilling has proven lucrative in other states, but environments warn that chemicals used in the process could contaminate groundwater in rural areas.

Lawmakers will also be asked to decide whether to reauthorize a law backed by O’Malley that allows collection of DNA from people arrested for violent crimes before they have been convicted. The constitutionality of the practice is being examined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The gambling debate in Maryland was largely settled by voters last month, when they approved a ballot measure allowing a new casino in Prince George’s and table games at the state’s five previously designated slots sites.

But a few small issues remain. As a sweetener to get the plan authorized by the legislature, a provision was added this summer allowing veterans organizations in some counties to have a small number of devices similar to slot machines.

Montgomery was not included in the legislation at the request of lawmakers from the region. Some are now having second thoughts and would like to change the law in the coming session.

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