O’Malley bills, some weakened, advance in Maryland legislature

March 26, 2012

The Maryland General Assembly, in one of its busiest days of the session, advanced legislation Monday to privatize state facilities, spur offshore wind power and implement President Obama’s health-care overhaul — all key priorities of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

As the U.S. Supreme Court opened a historic review of federal health-care mandates, legislators in Annapolis went as far as any state yet in implementing the reforms.

The House and the Senate passed legislation to set up a competitive marketplace for residents to buy health-care coverage and to establish plans Marylanders could purchase.

“As Supreme Court justices are deciding the issue, we’re rushing into it,” said Del. Michael D. Smiegel Sr. (Cecil), one of several Republicans who implored Democrats to slow down in creating the exchange, which would take effect in 2014.

“Oh, we’re tops. Number 1; way out there — out there in left field,” added House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert).

Democratic sponsors of the bill predicted it would reduce Maryland’s health-care costs by getting uninsured residents to doctors’ offices and away from emergency rooms.

Votes on the identical measures broke largely along party lines, passing the House 94 to 44, and the Senate 35 to 12. The measure is expected to go to O’Malley’s desk this week after final procedural votes.

The governor’s victory on health care came amid a flurry of activity on hundreds of bills as each house of the General Assembly faced a deadline to advance legislation to the opposite chamber.

Bills that failed to “cross over” Monday became subject to an additional procedural hurdle that could spell their demise in the remaining two weeks of the session.

Most of O’Malley’s major initiatives — except proposals to raise the gas tax and curb sprawl — had cleared at least one chamber as of late Monday.

Some of the most heated debate in the House came over a bill proposed by O’Malley and being shepherded through the legislature by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) that would give the executive branch broad latitude to seek partnerships with private companies to privatize state facilities.

Roads, bridges, buildings and other assets could be leased by investors for up to 50 years in exchange for upgrades or replacement of the facilities. Private companies could also make unsolicited bids to take over management of state assets.

The public-private partnerships have been sought by several Democratic governors in the wake of the economic downturn as a way to fund public works. But critics contend Maryland’s plan would make the system ripe for corruption.

Republicans and the state’s bar association were particularly incensed by a measure that could upend a lawsuit against the state’s most expensive foray into privatization — an eight-city-block development in Baltimore that would house thousands of state workers. The state has been ordered to produce documents justifying its decision to bankroll the project, but the bill would allow the state to seek to quash the lawsuit.

The House voted 81 to 52 in favor of the legislation, with several Democrats breaking ranks and voting against it and others abstaining or absent. The measure now goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

O’Malley also scored qualified victories Monday on his environmental agenda.

Passing its first committee vote was the governor’s proposal to subsidize development of a multibillion-dollar offshore wind farm off the coast of Ocean City.

The plan would add a fee to every Marylander’s monthly electric bill for 20 years and thousands of dollars to the bills of the state’s largest businesses to construct what could be the nation’s first Atlantic offshore wind farm.

O’Malley has argued that the costs would be more than outweighed by the benefits of creating about 2,000 jobs and giving Maryland a leg up on neighboring states in a new green-energy market.

To secure enough votes in the House Economic Matters Committee, however, the administration agreed to lower the monthly subsidy charged to residential customers to $1.50 from $2. More important, the fee on large commercial and industrial users was lowered by 40 percent, to 1.5 percent of their electrical bill.

The difference would mean the subsidy collected from ratepayers would amount to far less than what O’Malley’s administration originally envisioned.

Proponents acknowledged that the scaled-back plan would make the project less economically viable without an extension of federal loan guarantees for clean-energy projects. Those programs are scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), said he was pleased with the outcome.

“The technology itself is promising, but we had to put in enough safeguards to protect ratepayers; I think what we did will make it a good deal for the state,” Davis said.

“And quite frankly, it probably doesn’t go forward without federal subsidies, and that’s a good thing. The feds have to be willing to back it, and the developers have to take on more risk as well.”

If all goes according to the O’Malley administration’s plans, the fee would be added to residents’ bills beginning in 2017 and would continue for two decades.

The subsidy would amount to about $88 million annually and would be used to help offset a developer’s higher overhead costs for producing offshore wind energy.

In all, administration officials said they believed the smaller subsidy could support a wind farm of about 40 turbines that would produce 200 megawatts annually. That would be less than half what O’Malley sought when he first introduced the idea before the 2011 legislative session.

The full House is expected to debate the proposal later this week. A companion bill remains stuck in a Senate committee.

On another O’Malley bill, the House on Monday passed a proposal important to Prince George’s County. It would allow local governments to use their taxing authority to offer incentives to lure doctors, physicians’ assistants, nurses and other medical professionals to set up practice in underserved areas.

The bill would create health-care zones, which would mimic economic enterprise zones that have been in use for several decades.

Meanwhile, the Senate rejected several amendments to a gaming bill that would allow a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County as well as Las Vegas-style table games at the state’s five previously authorized slots sites.

A Senate vote on the measure could come as early as Tuesday. The bill represents the largest attempted expansion of Maryland’s slots program. Prospects in the House remain uncertain.

The amendments rejected Monday night sought to limit an increase in the share of proceeds casino operators may keep and to prevent casino owners from holding more than one gaming license in Maryland. The bill currently allows owners to hold two licenses.

On another gambling measure that gained surprise momentum in recent weeks, the House voted 114-16 to allow Marylanders to compete for cash and prizes in fantasy football leagues and other simulated competitions on the Internet.

Supporters argued that the measure would allow residents to compete in games of skill that are not prohibited in most other states.

Opponents countered that lawmakers should be steering gamblers to the state’s existing slots casinos and horse tracks. “We need people to invest in the infrastructure we’ve created,” said Del. Michael A. McDermott (R-Worcester).

The bill, which would allow regulation of the fantasy games by the state comptroller, now moves to the Senate.

With a 46 to 0 vote, the Senate also passed a bill that would require state lawmakers and high-ranking officials to post their financial disclosure statements online. An amendment passed last week would extend the requirement to county officials as well.

Under current law, members of the public wishing to examine the state-level forms must come to an office in Annapolis and provide their name and home address.

The bill was spurred by an ethics case brought against Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s), who failed to disclose nearly $250,000 in consulting income from a grocery chain for five years.

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