Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law a package of tax increases Tuesday targeting six-figure earners, tobacco users and companies engaged in real estate transactions to cover record spending on education.
In a two-hour ceremony, it was easily the most recognizable measure O’Malley (D) signed but hardly the most popular. Rather, union members, minorities and interest groups crowded the State House to celebrate more than 200 lesser-known and often narrowly tailored bills. They passed the General Assembly with little fanfare but, taken together, will color the state’s social and political identity a slightly deeper shade of blue.
The bills included efforts to stimulate the economy, protect the environment and help family farms. And nearly a century after three-quarters of U.S. states ratified the 17th Amendment — which allowed U.S. senators to be elected instead of appointed by state legislatures — Maryland got on board.
One of the first bills O’Malley signed was a capital budget, which will accelerate borrowing of more than $100 million to promote job growth through construction and maintenance of schools, parks and public housing.
Answering a call from President Obama, Maryland will raise the age that children will be required to stay in school, from 16 to 17, and raise it again within five years, to 18.
Maryland will also continue expanding collective-bargaining rights to state employees, increase tax breaks for solar, geothermal and other green-energy projects, and become the first state to ban arsenic in chicken feed.
In addition, officials will develop a network of parking and charging stations for electric vehicles, study whether to issue citations rather than jail time for hundreds of minor crimes, and race ahead with implementing Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Maryland will also rewrite the definition of a “child” to include those conceived and born using frozen genetic material for up to two years after the death of a parent. The move came a day after the Supreme Court ruled that twins conceived through in vitro fertilization after the death of their father are not eligible for Social Security survivor benefits under Florida law.
Some of the bills O’Malley signed were aimed at competing with the District and Virginia for federal jobs. In July, for example, the state will begin to offer tax credits for costs incurred by Maryland residents to obtain security clearances required for many federal jobs. Another bill will help entrepreneurs turn discoveries made in public universities and government labs into commercial products.
“We’ve made important progress for job creation, important progress in improving public safety and public education, and, therefore, our quality of life,” O’Malley said at the outset of the rapid-fire ceremony.
In a post-session ritual in Annapolis, supporters were lined up in order of bill number, escorted to the governor’s reception room for a photo op and whisked away moments later to make room for the next group.
Summarizing the disparate bills, O’Malley drew on a larger theme he often invokes to encapsulate his vision for government.
“If there is a thread that unites all of our work together, it is the thread of human dignity,” O’Malley said. “The dignity of every single life in our state, the dignity of a job, the dignity of work, the dignity of every child’s health and every child’s full potential.”
O’Malley also signed a bill seeking to make it easier for children of Maryland farmers to continue the family business, exempting $5 million of farmland from estate taxes on inheritance.
The governor did not directly mention the first bill he signed this session to great fanfare — a measure in March making Maryland the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Opponents are attempting to petition the law to a referendum in November.
In general, O’Malley’s detractors steered clear of Tuesday’s event. After battling the governor last week over the tax package, Republican lawmakers, including a couple who authored bills that passed, were absent from the ceremony.
The tax package that limits exemptions and increases rates between a quarter percent and half-percent for most six-figure earners was one of the last bills O’Malley signed.
A handful of supporters — much smaller than the crowds who flanked the governor when he signed bills banning arsenic or expanding solar tax credits — filed in behind him.
Among them was Vincent DeMarco, head of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, which has lobbied successfully in recent years to increase taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. This year, it sought higher taxes on the little cigars increasingly popular with adolescents. Levies on those will jump from 15 percent to 70 percent. Taxes on smokeless tobacco products will double to 30 percent.
“This is great. We’re the number-one tobacco-taxed state,” DeMarco said, referring to what he said was Maryland being the only state this year to raise a tax on tobacco products. “This will save a lot of lives.”