Md. legislature back in session; issues and activists are waiting
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Maryland lawmakers were greeted upon their return to Annapolis on Wednesday by environmentalists in blue T-shirts who want to spur development of offshore wind farms, state workers in green T-shirts who don't want their pensions cut and immigrant teenagers in black T-shirts who are pushing for a change in college tuition rates.
Thus began the 428th session of the Maryland General Assembly, a 90-day stretch expected to be dominated by painful budget cuts and a handful of other high-profile issues - with plenty of advice offered from people on all sides.
After a few opening-day formalities, legislators streamed to receptions hosted by lobbyists fighting for the legalization of same-sex marriage and against an increase in alcohol taxes, among other causes, and they encountered county government officials who pleaded with them not to make deep cuts to local services.
"It's like the first day of school, except no one has any lunch money," said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), who grabbed a bowl of chili at a gathering hosted by the lobbying firm Alexander & Cleaver, whose many clients this year include a gay rights group. "We're listening, but this is a tough year to do anything."
Debate over the state budget will begin in earnest next week, when Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he will present a proposal to close a $1.3 billion shortfall in the state's $13 billion budget without relying on tax increases.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) - who was elected by his colleagues Wednesday to preside over the chamber for the 25th year in a row - said O'Malley has kept budget details "close to his chest."
But Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) - who was chosen to lead the House for a ninth straight year - said they anticipate cuts in education, health-care programs and aid to local governments, among many other areas.
"We have tough choices to make, and we are going to make them together," O'Malley said during a brief appearance in the Senate chamber, where spouses and children joined the 47 senators on the floor.
The scene was similar in the 141-member House, where a cast of visiting dignitaries, including U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D), watched members take the oath of office.
Although the day was marked by ceremony and goodwill, it also provided previews of the battles ahead.
One of the largest receptions of the day was hosted by the alcohol industry at the historic Calvert House, just steps from the State House. The guests wore stickers with a red slash through the words "Alcohol Tax."
Lawmakers and other elected officials mingled with beverage distributors, retailers and their lobbyists, who drank 14 types of beer.