Feats, Feuds and Compromises: The Year's Best, and Worst, in State Government
As the new year begins, the Notebook takes a look at the highs and lows of 2007.
The governor and state schools chief have never made a secret of their mutual dislike, which peaked when Nancy S. Grasmick tried unsuccessfully to take control of some of Baltimore's low-performing schools last year while Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) was mayor and campaigning against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The legislature overruled her.
The feud was publicly contained for most of O'Malley's first year in office. But the guns fired this month, when the State Board of Education, a majority of whose members are Ehrlich appointees, voted to extend Grasmick's contract by four years. O'Malley countered by appointing members who will give him a majority on the board the day her new term begins July 1. Democratic General Assembly leaders have vowed to block the contract during the upcoming legislative session.
From the moment Peter Franchot (D) took office in January, the state comptroller began railing against slot machine gambling, corporate tax loopholes and land purchases he called questionable. No one seemed more irritated by the tax collector's activist approach to his office than the governor and his staff.
Franchot ran afoul of the administration by hiring three top aides at salaries equivalent to those of some Cabinet secretaries. He derided O'Malley for calling a special session of the legislature in November, partly to approve a referendum on legalizing slots.
Franchot denies any designs on higher office. But he's likely to continue to try to upstage the governor as their terms unfold.
Passage by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly of $1.4 billion in tax increases to address the state's chronic budget shortfall. Lawmakers raised Maryland's sales, corporate income, tobacco and vehicle titling taxes and revamped the personal income tax system. The overhaul, opposed by the Republican caucus, boosted O'Malley's clout in Annapolis. The longer-term fallout is unclear.
Led by O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a gambling foe, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the General Assembly's biggest proponent of slot machine gambling, agreed to put the issue to voters in November. Lawmakers went along with them during the special session, breaking a years-long impasse.
Lowest-Profile Statewide Official
Not known for his retiring personality during his tenure as Montgomery County State's Attorney, Douglas F. Gansler (D) steered clear of the limelight in his first year, instead hunkering down to get his office in order. Political observers say the state's top lawyer is plenty ambitious for higher office but is biding his time, saving his firepower for later.
Most Persistent Lawmaker
Del. Peter A. Hammen (D-Baltimore), House Health Committee chairman, backed by Busch, O'Malley, health advocates and unanimous support from his committee, hammered out the details of a bill that extends health coverage to an estimated 140,000 uninsured Marylanders. The law expands Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor, and offers subsidies to very small companies to offer health plans to their workers.
Worst Consumer News
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers saw their bills jump close to 75 percent after rate caps imposed by the legislature in 1999 came off. O'Malley, hit by a political backlash from angry ratepayers, ordered regulators and policymakers to come up with ways to mitigate the rate increases. So far, they haven't.
Runner - up: The eleventh-hour special session vote to apply the state sales tax to data processing, custom programming, consulting and hardware maintenance caught business groups and computer owners by surprise. A movement to repeal the tax -- estimated to raise $200 million a year -- is growing.
Biggest Legal Defeat
To the dismay of gay rights advocates, Maryland's highest court upheld a 34-year-old state law banning same-sex marriage, ruling that limiting marriage to a man and a woman does not discriminate against gay couples. The court urged the legislature to sort out the issue, setting up a battle in the upcoming session between those advocates and social conservatives who want an amendment to the state constitution to bar same-sex unions.
Most Effective County Leadership
The jurisdiction with the largest number of high-income earners in Maryland was represented so effectively in Annapolis that lobbying by the Montgomery County delegation and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) minimized the increase in the top income tax rate. The new rate will be 5.5 percent. That's up from 4.75 percent, but the governor and House leaders had pushed for higher top rates to help close the deficit.
Biggest Lingering Stalemate
State and local leaders made no long-term progress in helping the financially troubled Dimensions Healthcare nonprofit hospital system in Prince George's. Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly and Dimensions' other facilities serve a large population of uninsured patients. The state and county have been unable to agree on how to save them, although the Senate did provide $50 million for the system over five years, with strings attached.
Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. (R-Washington) proposed banning from the road the outsize plastic testicles that truckers dangle from the trailer hitches of their pickups. He said constituents in his Western Maryland district faced an anatomical affront on the road. Civil libertarians and Myers's House colleagues invoked the truckers' First Amendment rights, and the measure, the brunt of jokes in the blogosphere, was promptly put in a legislative drawer.