Halfway through General Assembly session, focus shifts to fiscal matters -- Gazette.Net







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With half of the 90-day General Assembly session in the books, social issues will fade from debate as legislators gear up to address the state’s budget, experts said.

One major social issue on the year’s agenda — same-sex marriage — wrapped up with the Senate passing the legislation Thursday night, but a great number of complicated, contentious issues still need to be settled. The governor has proposed legislation dealing with a gas tax, pension shift, online taxes, wind energy and flush tax.

Although fiscal issues always dominate the second half of the session, when the budget is passed, the sheer number of tax proposals and their far-reaching effects will take more time to discuss and likely will squeeze out some other issues, the experts said.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor Laura Hussey says issues such as repealing the death penalty and a number of gun bills won’t get as much attention as they would in a session with weaker economic undercurrents.

Kathleen T. Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said committee hearings on a number of bills of concern to the group seem to be coming up later than usual.

“It seems like the session started even more slowly than it has in the past several years,” Snyder said. “We are very concerned about a number of bills that are totally unresolved right now.”

Chamber members are meeting within the next week to discuss the governor’s gas tax proposal, which is supported generally, although the group might draft a different form for consideration, Snyder said.

The gas tax bill, which has not been scheduled for committee hearings yet, would apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline purchases by phasing it in at 2 percent per year over the next three years.

Republicans are fiercely against the majority of the governor’s revenue-generating proposals.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby called the governor’s tax proposals “job killers” and pledged a fight.

“Any tax increases in this economy is a bad idea,” O’Donnell said. “These folks are tax-aholics. We ought to stop their habit.”

He challenged Democrats to defy the governor’s agenda. “We’ll see if people are more concerned about the future of Martin O’Malley’s political career or the future of the citizens of Maryland,” he said.

Legislators also are hearing from local governments and the Maryland Association of Counties, which are fiercely opposed to the pension shift proposal.

Under O’Malley’s plan, the state and jurisdictions each would pay half of the total cost of teacher pensions and Social Security, a move that would shift $239 million onto local governments.

“Counties should not be asked to assume financial responsibility for costs not of their making,” Montgomery County leaders said in a statement released Thursday. “We have cut services to the bone, and we have reached our limit on taxes.”

Hussey predicts the budget debate will lift moderate Democrats into a key role.

The eventual budget deal will be fashioned specifically to moderates, Hussey believes, so the moderates won’t appear to be creating economic hardships for their constituents.

She believes this was foreshadowed in the governor’s State of the State address last month.

“Progress is a choice,” O’Malley said in his address. “Strengthening and growing our middle class is a choice. We can be the victims of circumstance or we can build a better future.”

Hussey said she took that as a “pep talk” to moderate Democrats who might be wavering over some tough decisions.

“It really seemed like he was trying to remind them of the reasons they’re Democrats,” she said.