Thursday, Jan. 11, 11 a.m. ET

Maryland Politics

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John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer John Wagner looks at the issues facing the Maryland General Assembly and new Gov. Martin O'Malley. Wagner was online Thursday, Jan. 11 at 11 a.m. to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows.

Follow the latest news from Annapolis in the washingtonpost.com's Maryland Moment.

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John Wagner: Welcome to our chat about Maryland politics. The General Assembly convened yesterday, and the state will get a new governor on Wednesday, restoring one-party rule to Annapolis. There are high hopes among lawmakers that a productive session is ahead, despite a tight budget year. I'm happy to take your questions on issues confronting lawmakers, Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley (D) or anything else.

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Baltimore: What are the chances we're going to see slots in Maryland soon?

John Wagner: Soon does not seem likely. Gov.-elect O'Malley told reporters yesterday that he would like to see Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) come together on a plan and present it to him. But he acknowledged that is unlikely. Miller is a major slots proponent, while Busch remains very reluctant to take the state down that path.

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Rockville, Md.: What percent chance would you give a comprehensive indoor smoking ban including bars and restaurants being signed into law in the State of Maryland? This bill is introduced every session and never seems to make it out of Committee. However, more and more states, even states seen as more conservative than Maryland, are passing these laws. Is it something where the legislature is waiting for the big domino (Baltimore City) to fall and pass the bill and then a bill will go statewide?

John Wagner: Chances are certainly better than they have been in previous years. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) opposed a ban, so even if legislation made it through the legislature, he would have vetoed it. O'Malley has said he prefers a statewide ban to local bans but has not thrown his support behind the effort.

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Baltimore: What steps will the General Assembly have to take to correct the procedural error involved with lethal injections in Maryland?

John Wagner: The ball is actually in the administration's court, because the procedures are contained in regulations. That said, we're likely to see bills introduced to ban the death penalty, as in past years. A committee of lawmakers will also get a chance to review the regulations drafted by the O'Malley administration -- assuming it does so -- but the administration can ignore the committee's advice.

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Baltimore: Is Gov. O'Malley required by law to balance the budget every year or is he permitted to put off tough choices in terms of raising taxes and cutting spending by running budget deficits instead?

John Wagner: He is, in fact, required to present a balanced budget to the legislature. That said, O'Malley is still likely to put off the toughest choices for another year. Legislative analysts put the coming shortfall at about $400 million, which can be bridged without a tax increase. The shortfall grows to $1.6 billion the following year. Some combination of new revenue and spending cuts will probably be required at that point.

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Frustrated Voter: Is there strong support in both chambers for a constitutional amendment allowing early voting?

John Wagner: There is. Bills implementing early voting were passed previously but struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Bills that would insert the procedure into the constitution have already been introduced and have the support of both the Senate president and House speaker.

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Hyattsville, Md.: I VIGOROUSLY oppose slots in Maryland. I would really like to see one of our delegates propose a bill that would stipulate, should slots ever be legalized in Maryland, that they would only be located in those districts whose delegates vote for them. Certainly this is entirely too practical and fair to ever pass!

John Wagner: Perhaps, though O'Malley has said that communities that do not want slot parlors should not be forced to have them. His position is that slots should be limited to horse tracks, where gambling is already taking place.

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Rockville, Md.: Thank you for taking my question.

When are we going to see the infrastructure to support all this growth we have in the D.C. area? One reason I voted for O'Malley was to hopefully get a governor who understands that when you lure businesses and people to an area, you need to make sure you have the base to support the growth. I live near Frederick; 270 and 70 are a nightmare.

John Wagner: Transportation issues will certainly be front and center in coming years. Some Washington-area lawmakers are pushing for an increase in the gas tax, revenue from which is used for transportation projects. But that seems unlikely to pass this year without O'Malley's support. He has asked his new transportation secretary, John Porcari (who served under the previous Democratic governor as well), to lead an audit of the state's existing plans for projects.

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RE: Early Voting: What makes the constitutional amendment for early voting different than previous legislation declared unconstitutional?

John Wagner: To oversimplify, if it's written into the constitution, it's not unconstitutional. The measure will also need to be approved by voters.

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North Potomac, Md.: Will Sen. Barbara Mikulski retire in 2010? If so, are there any Democrats who WON'T be running for her seat?

John Wagner: Sen. Mikulski has not announced that she plans to retire in 2010, and the betting is mixed as to what she will wind up doing. But you're right: If she steps aside, the contest to replace her could be quite crowded. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who weighed a Senate bid last year, is among many Democrats who would likely jump in.

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Cumberland, Md.: What is the buzz about Thornton funding?

John Wagner: The real question regarding Thornton funding is whether O'Malley will fund what is known as the Geographic Cost of Education Index, an optional part of the law. The index allocates more money to jurisdictions, including Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where the cost of education is considered more expensive. Ehrlich never funded it. O'Malley has not said how much, if any, of the $96 million plan he will put into his budget, which is due Jan. 19, two days after he arrives in office. Another $580 million increase in education spending mandated by law is expected to be in his budget.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think O'Malley will follow through on building the Intercounty Connector? In some of his comments, his support seems sort of lukewarm.

John Wagner: As recently as Tuesday night, he said publicly that he continues to favor the project. It is true that O'Malley says he is not a fan of toll roads -- tolls are a significant funding source for the ICC -- but aides indicate the project should move ahead as planned.

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Rockville, Md.: What are the chances that the state legislature will step in on the gay marriage issue? Will they wait for the Court of Appeals to issue a decision? Is there any chance of getting a civil union bill passed and signed by the governor?

John Wagner: The odds are strong that the legislature will not act before there is a court ruling, and that the ruling will play a large role in determining what action, if any, the legislature takes. If the court rules that Maryland must allow gay marriages or civil unions, the issue would clearly dominate the session and perhaps the first several years of O'Malley's term.

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Too many bills: I recently heard that the assembly considers over 2,500 bills each session, and the person that said this seemed proud of it. I can't see any justification for this, we have too many laws, taxes, fees, etc. now! Is this typical for a state?

John Wagner: The number of bills introduced varies among states but Maryland, is not unusual in this regard. It's safe to say the vast majority of bills never get mentioned in the newspaper. A significant percentage introduced in Maryland affect only one jurisdiction.

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Cumberland, Md.: The GCEI was an important part of his campaign. I heard him make the promise to fund it at a rally in Frostburg. He also promised more school-construction money.

I guess my real question is for the years after '08 when the structural deficit gets gigantic. Delegates are already presaging doom. How bad will it be?

John Wagner: It is true that O'Malley promised to fund GCEI. Aides insist that he never said how quickly he would fund it. Even so, he was quite critical of Ehrlich for not including it in his budgets.

Regarding the coming budget shortfalls: Legislative projections are generally conservative, fiscally speaking, so the gap may not be as large as projected. Much depends on the economy going forward. But it's hard to imagine a solution that does not involve some type of tax increase.

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Annapolis watcher: How will O'Malley's pledge not to deal with lobbyists who have felony convictions -- aimed at Bruce Bereano and Gerry Evans -- affect these two top earners? Are they being shunned by clients or getting their share of the work?

John Wagner: So far, there's little evidence that it is hurting their business. Evans appears to have picked up several new clients. One of those -- Wal-Mart -- has since reversed course. Evans insists O'Malley's ban had nothing to do with that however. Bereano, meanwhile, maintains one of the largest client lists in Annapolis.

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Montgomery County, Md.: I was disappointed to learn of O'Malley's feuding with several state and local officials, particularly State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, who has maintained the support of the State Board of Education, which appoints her. Is it just that she and the Board tried to do something about some very bad Baltimore schools?

John Wagner: Relations between Grasmick, who is close to Ehrlich, and Baltimore officials have been strained for several years. During the campaign, O'Malley accused Grasmick of trying to undermine the city's progress for political reasons -- something she strongly denied. The low point came during the last legislative session when Grasmick, with Ehrlich's blessing, sought to take control of 11 of Baltimore's lowest-performing schools. Baltimore officials said they were caught off guard by the action, which the legislature blocked.

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Riverdale, Md.: Can O'Malley do anything about desperately needed property tax relief?

The amount I pay monthly for property taxes is approaching the amount of my mortgage!

My house is assessed for an insane amount.

John Wagner: O'Malley has expressed interest in reducing the state property tax rate, which was raised during the Ehrlich administration. But the current budget outlook makes that unlikely in the coming year.

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D.C. area: How is O'Malley going balance the demands on the state budget: Thornton, ICC, schools, health insurance for state retirees, understaffing at prisons, affordable tuition for college?

John Wagner: O'Malley is scheduled to present his budget to the legislature on Jan. 19, but early signals are that it will include few new initiatives. In fact, O'Malley has used recent public events to announce actions he won't take: diverting transportation dollars to other areas of the budget or shortchanging spending on land preservation. Ehrlich did both things early in his term to balance the budget.

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Annapolis, Md.: Will legislation be introduced to reform the state personnel system and reduce the number of "at will" positions as a result of investigations into the hiring practices of the previous administration.

John Wagner: The short answer is yes. Leaders of both the House and Senate have said they are interested in preventing the kind of mid-level firings that took place early in the Ehrlich administration and sparked a legislative investigation. Ehrlich dismissed that inquiry as a witch hunt.

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Rockville, Md.: About the ICC, you wrote, "aides indicate the project should move ahead as planned."

Judging by the crowd in Kensington the other night, many Maryland residents don't think it should! O'Malley would reduce the budget deficit by more than $265 million if he canceled the ICC. His new transportation and environment department heads should look closely at Ehrlich's plan for the ICC. If they do, they'll see that it would be a huge waste of money and would be an environmental disaster.

John Wagner: Your opinion was indeed expressed by many of the speakers the other night in Kensington. O'Malley said he would maintain an "open mind" regarding the project, but it seems unlikely he would reverse course.

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Montgomery: Has anyone mentioned introducing legislation for a statewide no smoking ban? Or do you think Maryland counties will continue to be forced to tackle the issue?

John Wagner: As noted earlier, there is more momentum than in the past for a statewide ban. One reason for that is the number of counties that have passed bans or are considering bans. The most significant of those is Baltimore, which could vote on a ban in February, ahead of any action in the legislature. Many observers believe passage in Baltimore would be a tipping point for a statewide ban.

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John Wagner: Thanks for all your great questions. I'm afraid that's it for now.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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