Lawmakers adjourned and scattered from Annapolis before noon Friday, ending a largely ceremonial first week for the Maryland General Assembly. But a handful of moments from the opening days offered a glimpse at dynamics sure to shape lawmaking in 2013. Here’s five:
1) For a change, the session began with a lovefest among Maryland Democrats. The state’s dominant party won big in November with a sweep for referendums to legalize same-sex marriage and the state’s Dream Act and to build a new casino in Prince George’s County (not to mention, victories for President Obama, and in using redistricting to give the party seven of the state’s eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives).
Democrats’ shared success at the ballot-box seemed to renew camaraderie worn thin in recent years in Annapolis during intraparty battles over how to deal with deep budget shortfalls. The newfound goodwill was particularly evident between Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
The two ended last session exchanging blame for a failed budget bill, but after returning to Annapolis in special sessions to pass a spending plan and the ballot-bound deal to expand gambling, favored by Miller, the two had only flowery compliments for one another Wednesday.
Miller even predicted that O’Malley’s legislation for an offshore wind farm (twice stalled in the Senate) would prevail this year. And Miller shifted committee assignments in an apparent bid to make it so.
2) Referendums are back! Well, sort of. Miller also suggested that he may let another longtime O’Malley priority — a repeal of the death penalty — pass the Senate this year over his personal objection.
With voters having affirmed the General Assembly’s positions last year on same-sex marriage, the Dream Act and gambling, the referendum process may provide a political safety valve for a legislature historically averse to adopting progressive social policy.
Lawmakers on the fence or those who may face political repercussions could explain their votes as ones to simply put the controversial issue before voters.
Miller said that with a strong push by O’Malley, he thought a repeal would pass. And he said that he was “confident it will be on the ballot in 2014.”
“The ultimate decision will be made by the people of Maryland.”
3) For O’Malley’s promises this week to unveil a package of gun control legislation, he only generally outlined his plan as one that would tackle assault weapons, mental health and school security.
With O’Malley’s annual State of the State address scheduled late next month, he appeared to be upstaged, at least politically, by fellow Democratic governors.
In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (D) used his State of the State address Thursday to call for universal background checks on all guns sales.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) drew national attention for using his annual address Wednesday to call for making the Empire State the national model for gun control, and he appeared close to a bipartisan deal with state lawmakers to make it happen.
For early oddsmakers in the 2016 Democratic presidential sweepstakes, the announcement echoed the way Cuomo succeeded before O’Malley in passing same-sex marriage legislation.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert) predicted the political landscape would influence O’Malley’s package. He said he that he expects O’Malley will introduce gun-control efforts designed to “go to the left” of Cuomo.
4) Budget shortfall? What budget shortfall? For the first time in five years, the General Assembly’s opening week was not smothered with doom and gloom over impending budget cuts.
After billion-dollar shortfalls annually during the downturn, Maryland lawmakers are staring at a mere $27 million gap for the coming fiscal year
Republicans still fume over the tax increases, expanded gambling and cuts to local governments that have helped the state balance its budget. But there’s little denying that fiscal issues in Annapolis this year will be a shadow of what they’ve been for most of O’Malley’s tenure.
5) One budget caveat: transportation funding. Fixing the state’s near-bankrupt transportation trust fund during the remainder of the 90-day session will be a very — very — heavy lift.
Miller and O’Malley appeared on opposite ends of the spectrum this week. The Senate president said he thinks a regional taxing structure would be necessary for residents in and around Baltimore and Washington to fund mass transit projects, such as the planned Purple Line connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
O’Malley suggested that he may again introduce legislation to charge sales tax on gasoline or add a penny to the state’s sales tax to fund a backlog of road and transit needs.
But the governor has yet to name a replacement for his transportation secretary, who left last summer, and his legislative secretary also recently departed, depriving him of two key liaisons to work out a deal with the legislature.
However, with Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) pursuing a radical fix of his own for transportation funding, it will be a hard issue for lawmakers in Annapolis to ignore.