On the opening day of Maryland’s legislative session, there was no shortage of the usual ceremony and schmoozing. But state leaders also served up some bold predictions Wednesday about moving forward on issues that have previously stalled in Annapolis.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said he expects lawmakers to pass an assault-weapons ban during the 90-day session, as well as other measures he will propose after last month’s school shootings in Connecticut.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said this will be the year the General Assembly embraces O’Malley’s twice-rejected legislation to boost the state’s wind-power industry by encouraging the installation of giant turbines in the Atlantic off Ocean City.
And Miller suggested another long-stymied O’Malley initiative has a real chance: repeal of the state’s death penalty. That is likely to pass, Miller said, if the governor “uses his persuasive techniques, of which he has many.”
Such compliments were commonplace on a rancor-free day in which Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) delivered ceremonial speeches, delegates showed off infant sons and daughters on the House floor and Annapolis lobbyists treated lawmakers to chilli, roast-beef sandwiches and beer at welcome-back receptions.
The remaining 89 days aren’t likely to be so easy, particularly when lawmakers get down to issues such as transportation funding, which Miller called his top priority and Busch told his members will be part of the agenda.
“The problem is not going away,” O’Malley said in a radio interview, taped just hours before the session kicked off at noon.
O’Malley said the state could use an additional $700 million to $800 million a year to meet its road and transit needs, and he suggested several possible options for raising the revenue, including an increase in the state sales tax.
Pressed by Marc Steiner, who hosts a talk show on WEAA (88.9 FM), O’Malley would not say what exactly he plans to propose in the coming weeks. He said more conversations with legislative leaders must come first. Rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties have been cool to the idea of raising taxes.
Miller, who prefers an increase in the gas tax that motorists pay at the pump, acknowledged the initiative is “a tough sell for any governor.”
“It doesn’t poll well,” said Miller, who is beginning his 27th year as Senate president. “I’ve urged the last four governors to pass one, and they’ve walked away from it.”
According to legislative analysts, Maryland will have no money available for new transportation projects, including the planned Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, after fiscal 2017.
Republicans, who hold a modest minority of seats in both chambers, signaled that they are not likely to provide much help on new transportation funding.
“Raising the gas tax is the worst thing we could possibly do in this economy,” House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert) said in an interview Wednesday.
O’Donnell, sporting a new beard he said was grown in protest of “the nation’s fiscal woes,” also indicated that most GOP members would oppose a repeal of the death penalty.
That issue has gained fresh momentum in recent days.
Repeating a recent promise to O’Malley, Miller said Wednesday that he will allow the bill to be debated on the Senate floor if the governor can show that he has the 24 votes needed for passage.In years past, the bill has remained bottled up in a committee, one vote short of the number needed to advance to the full chamber.
A count this week by The Washington Post identified 23 likely Senate votes for a repeal bill, one short of passage. But an additional four members have said they would consider supporting O’Malley-backed legislation.
“I think there are a number of people that can be persuaded,” Miller, who supports the death penalty, said Wednesday. He suggested that as many as 26 senators could vote for repeal.
Advocates of repeal say support is stronger in the House, a view bolstered by a statement made Wednesday morning by Busch: “I believe it’s time to repeal the death penalty.”
Under legislation being discussed, death sentences would be replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Miller predicted that if a bill passes, opponents of the measure would petition it to the ballot, as happened with same-sex marriage last year. Under that scenario, Maryland voters would decide in a November 2014 referendum whether to end capital punishment.
Over the course of the session, lawmakers will consider hundreds of bills, including several designed to safeguard motorists against faulty speed cameras. That issue has come to the fore after a Baltimore Sun investigation that documented erroneous speed readings at several cameras in the city, including one that clocked a car going 38 mph while stopped at a red light.
Kate Havard contributed to this report.