Md. lawmakers get set for budget-heavy session

By Alan Brody
Maryland Independent
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Election-year politics and budget limitations are poised to collide as Southern Maryland legislators refine their priorities and shorten their wish lists for the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session that begins Wednesday.

The still-gaping state deficit, which could reach $2 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and the lingering national recession will drive the agenda in Annapolis. As a result, lawmakers largely have abandoned hopes of procuring big-ticket items for their districts that look good on the campaign trail.

"I'm just hoping with the budget situation the way it is that it's just a little bit more serious of a session," said Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert). "A little less about grandstanding, a little more about rolling up sleeves and getting a tough job done."

The legislature's presiding officers have laid out stringent guidelines dictating that bills bearing any cost to the state will be heavily scrutinized. The Spending Affordability Committee urged Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to hold the line on general fund expenditures for the fiscal year. Administration officials have said O'Malley will adhere to the recommendation for zero growth in spending, which he could ignore, when he submits his budget this month.

"We're not going to entertain bills that cost money without a funding source," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "You've got to pay to play. If you want to spend money, then you better come up with a way to fund it."

Still, politics will be part of the script, especially with the gubernatorial election looming in the fall. Republicans are grumbling that actions by O'Malley and the Democrat-led General Assembly have exacerbated the state's budget troubles.

"I have never seen the budget in such a mess," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary's).

With fiscal restraint a guiding principle, lawmakers are planning modest requests and policy-oriented initiatives that cost little or nothing.

For instance, Sen. Roy Dyson is pursuing legislation to address the deer overpopulation that is ravaging farms in Southern Maryland and the shortage of Department of Natural Resources police officers. Both measures failed last year.

"One of the greatest Americans of all time said that all politics is local," said Dyson (D-St. Mary's, Calvert, Charles), echoing the words of former U.S. House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, "and one of the biggest local issues we have right now is our deer overpopulation and what it's doing to our farmers."

Deer cost farmers about $9 million in ruined crops last year, he said, and one farmer told Dyson he replanted soybeans four times after deer ate the plants, before giving up.

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