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Like their majority counterparts, Maryland Republicans expect to focus on issues such as transportation funding, school safety and budget matters.

But party leaders indicate they'll again be pushing to reduce government spending and avoid policies they see as harmful to the state’s rural communities.

The General Assembly’s 2013 legislative session began in Annapolis this week amid calls to fix the state’s transportation funding system and pledges from Democrats to ban assault weapons in the state. But there’s also a brighter picture of the state’s budget, with many lawmakers confident that Maryland’s remaining structural deficit can be eradicated.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby, though, is wary of such optimism.

“There’s a sense that the state budget is back on good footing; I don't think that's necessarily true,” O’Donnell said.

The looming threat of federal funding reductions –– such as sequestration measures that could take effect in February and drastically restrict federal spending –– leave Maryland vulnerable due to the strong federal presence in the state, he said.

About 300,000 Marylanders work directly or indirectly for the federal government.

The state also has many unpaid bills, including about $20 billion in unfunded pension liability, O'Donnell said.

A new tax to raise transportation funding –– whether a sales tax on gasoline or an overall sales-tax hike, as have been discussed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) –– are also a bad idea in the state’s delicate economic situation, O’Donnell said, adding that such taxes were regressive and ultimately would harm the economy.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton said he believes there would be bipartisan support for a proposal to isolate road repair funding from mass transit funding.

Pipkin and other Republicans have long been critical of transit initiatives such as the Purple Line and Red Line light-rail projects, in the Washington and Baltimore regions, respectively, which they say will cost several billion dollars but which won’t be used by rural residents.

“In order for us to resolve that, I think we need to talk about separating funding streams,” Pipkin said.

Cecil County Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Dist. 36) of Chesapeake City said the solution to transportation funding was for the state to stop using transportation money to balance the budget, as has been done with funds for local road repair in previous years.

In a radio interview Wednesday morning, O’Malley acknowledged that Highway User Revenues had been used to close budget gaps during the recession, but argued that such transfers were only a small part of the overall problem.

A bigger issue was that the state’s 23.5-cent flat tax on gasoline has not been raised since 1992, and no longer had the buying power it once did, O’Malley said.

Lawmakers expect another heated debate to focus on gun control, a topic that has commanded national attention since last month’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

O’Malley has called for a three-pronged effort that would strengthen the state’s mental-health safety net and keep the dangerously ill from accessing guns, ensure student safety in Maryland schools and ban assault weapons in the state. Democratic lawmakers have pledged to pursue such a ban.

Pipkin said he didn’t believe gun control to be a partisan issue, but said he expected his caucus would be more focused on school security and mental-health issues rather than restrictions on gun ownership.

Even with some conservative Democrats joining Republicans in opposition, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips were likely to pass this session, said Donald Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Overall, the Republican Party’s position in the state was “not enviable,” Norris said. “[They] have virtually no influence.”

Republican efforts to limit both the size of state government and its spending practices are typically a hard sell in Maryland, both because of the party’s minority status and because the state’s residents generally view government as a helpful entity that provides a safety net, said John Bambacus, a former state senator and retired professor of political science at Frostburg State University.

“Their best bet is to try to be as reasonable as they can and persevere,” Bambacus said of the Republicans.

dleaderman@gazette.net