By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 1:31 PM
Maryland lawmakers will convene Wednesday for their annual 90-day session, to grapple with hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts and a big social issue: same-sex marriage.
With the state facing a budget shortfall of more than $1.2 billion, lawmakers are bracing for a proposal from Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) toward the beginning of the session that will frame the fiscal debate.
O'Malley has said he plans to close the gap in the state's $13 billion spending plan - largely attributed to the recession - with a "steady diet of cuts." He has pledged not to raise taxes.
"Once the legislature gets this budget, the immediate reaction will be, 'Surely, there is another way,' " O'Malley told reporters recently. "The pain will be so evident."
Among the issues being considered by O'Malley and lawmakers is whether to shift a portion of the state's teacher pension costs to Maryland's counties. That could save the state mightily but would exacerbate the budget problems being experienced by county governments.
State employees' pension payouts and health benefits are being eyed for cuts, as are programs in every agency in state government.
Education spending, which has largely been spared in previous rounds of budget cuts, will probably not fare as well. That's in part because federal stimulus dollars, which helped prop up the state budget for the past two years, are drying up.
Although O'Malley said he will not propose tax increases, some lawmakers are pushing for increases in the gas and alcohol taxes, two levies that Maryland has not raised in many years.
Revenue from a gas-tax increase would help pay for transportation projects, and health advocates say they would like to earmark proceeds from an alcohol-tax increase for programs that help the mentally ill.
Although the budget is expected to dominate the session, prospects for passage of a same-sex marriage bill have greatly improved since the Nov. 2 elections.
A Democratic pickup of two seats and a shift in committee memberships have changed the dynamic in the Senate, where same-sex marriage bills have stalled in the past.
"This has truly been a transformative election on this issue," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), an openly gay lawmaker who has sponsored same-sex marriage legislation and said he plans to push for passage this session. "I could not have hoped for a better result," he said. "You can see a real path to enacting this legislation."
The legislation would remove a long-standing requirement in Maryland law that recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman. O'Malley has pledged to sign the bill if it reaches his desk, provided that it does not require particular religious groups to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Aside from the budget, aides say O'Malley will probably have a light agenda this session.
After an election dominated by talk of jobs, the governor's priorities, aides say, will include legislation to create a public-private partnership to spur venture capital investment that would benefit Maryland's "innovation economy."
Battles are also expected on several issues that don't have a direct effect on the state budget, including a push to allow Marylanders to buy wine through the mail from out-of-state vineyards. The state's powerful alcohol lobby has stymied such proposals in the past.