- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Maryland General Assembly will reconvene in Annapolis on Wednesday, hoping its 431st legislative session will be far calmer than those of the past couple of years, which have been marked by stark budget cuts, controversial tax increases and divisive social issues.
Following a 2012 session in which lawmakers failed to live up to their one constitutional mandate — pass a balanced budget — before the end of their regular 90-day session and twice returned to the statehouse to deal with the budget and gambling legislation, Democratic leaders would like to ensure that the traditional closing balloons drop on time this year.
“The reality is that 2012 was a catastrophe for the General Assembly and I think they just want to get beyond that and that means having no big headlines but a come-in-and-get-the-job-done session,” St, Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly said. “All they want to do is project an image of an assembly that’s functional. They don’t want any hot-button social issues. They don’t want anything to derail a timely budget deal.”
It helps that the state’s fiscal outlook has improved since two years ago, when lawmakers began the 2011 session facing a $2 billion structural deficit, the gap between projected spending and revenue.
Now, that gap is down to $383 million. Last month a joint legislative committee recommended that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) trim the remaining structural deficit by another $200 million.
“It leaves you with a very manageable budget process,” said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s), co-chairman of the Spending Affordability Committee. “Two-hundred million [dollars] or less is well within the range of tweaking and trimming each year, so we end up with a fairly painless process of balancing the budget; $200 million compared to $2 billion is essentially within the margin of easy solutions.”
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) and the other two Republicans on the committee wanted to recommend that the governor eliminate the entire structural deficit this year, but were voted down by the panel’s 17 Democratic members.
“It’s going to be challenging,” O’Donnell said of the upcoming session. “Maryland still has very large fiscal problems in my opinion. Some people have tried to characterize our fiscal situation as much improved, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I still think we’re going to have serious fiscal challenges.”
In addition to fiscal matters, the past two sessions have been marked by emotional debate over same-sex marriage — which culminated in November when Maryland voters made Maryland the first state to legalize same-sex marriage at the ballot box — but lawmakers don’t expect any comparably high-profile issues this year.
There will be some concern over pending federal sequestration budget cuts, which were delayed two months Tuesday by the fiscal cliff deal passed by Congress, but legislators are confident the state is as prepared as it can be if such cuts take effect.
“Obviously we’re going to be worried about the fiscal cliff, but I think [the 2013 session] will be much less traumatic than last year,” Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) said. “Really, the session carried on until the election in November, so I think this session will be a relatively slow, less complicated and controversial.”
That isn’t to say there won’t be contentious debates, including over how to repair the state’s aging infrastructure and whether an increase in the gas tax or other transportation revenues should be considered.
The state’s 23.5-cent gas tax was last raised in 1992. O’Malley recently floated the idea of raising the state sales tax to 7 cents and earmarking the 1-cent increase for transportation, but his proposal last session to raise more than $600 million for transportation projects by applying the 6-cent sales tax to gasoline was dead on arrival.
Miller said he hopes his colleagues consider increasing transportation revenues and expressed disappointment that the Calvert County Republican Central Committee, in announcing the election of new chair Ella Ennis last month, made opposition to an increase in the gas tax part of its platform.
“We need transportation revenues, so we’re going to have to find them from somewhere and people are going to have to understand it’s about economic development and quality of life,” Miller said.
Efforts to raise the levy on gas could be hampered by the absence of a Maryland Department of Transportation secretary — former secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley announced her resignation in April, and O’Malley has yet to name a successor.
With fewer major social issues on the agenda, activists are looking to 2013 as the year to repeal the state’s death penalty.
O’Malley proposed repeal in 2009, but the Senate opted to only allow executions in cases with DNA evidence, videotaped confessions or clear video evidence. Since then, repeal bills have failed to make it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where six of 11 members support the death penalty.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President and CEO Benjamin T. Jealous met with O’Malley last month to discuss the latest efforts at repeal.
“We must end the death penalty in Maryland this year,” Jealous said in a statement. “This is a matter of justice and a matter of safety. We are optimistic that Maryland will be the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty. We are moving closer to abolishing it in the country as a whole.”
In addition, O’Malley and some Democratic lawmakers are expected to propose bills banning ownership of assault weapons in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last month in Newtown, Conn.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have vowed to protect their constituents’ Second Amendment rights and resist any efforts to curb gun ownership.
O’Donnell called the Sandy Hook shooting “a horrible, terrible tragedy and we need to figure out why what happened happened, but I’m not convinced that taking away gun rights will solve anything.”
O’Donnell mentioned how many government buildings have armed guard protection, “but yet somehow that seems like a bad idea for our kids in close quarters.”
With every legislator facing re-election in 2014, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) “want to have two sessions leading into those elections where people don’t have much to gripe about in terms of the Democratic majority,” Eberly said, and proposals to ban the death penalty and assault weapons might be just the kind of “controversial legislation Busch and Miller would like to avoid.”
This session also will be the third consecutive in which O’Malley will try to push his proposal to build a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City.
The bill has failed to make it out of the Senate Finance Committee the last two years, and Miller recently intimated that he would consider a shakeup of the committee’s membership in order to bring the legislation to the chamber’s floor.
“I don’t know that there are going to be any changes to the committee, but I expect that we’ll move the offshore wind bill out of committee,” said Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “I’m hopeful. I would really like to see the bill pass.”