A number of tax and revenue proposals — coupled with the continuing tough economic climate — are making this one of the busiest General Assembly sessions in memory, Annapolis lobbyists say.
The major difference between this session and others is the sheer volume of work, said Bruce Bereano, who has been a prominent Annapolis lobbyist for more than 30 years.
Several significant monetary issues have come before the legislature, including provisions to raise income taxes and shift some teacher pension costs onto the counties, as well as revenue proposals such as a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline and changes to “flush tax” calculations, said Bereano, who is registered with 38 clients this year.
The revenue and tax proposals have meant constantly tracking how bills might be amended in case legislation suddenly included a tax or fee that would be bad for a client, said Lisa Harris Jones, founder of the Baltimore-based firm Harris Jones & Malone. The pace of this year’s session was much like that of the fall 2007 special session, she said.
During that three-week session, lawmakers discussed numerous tax bills and passed the short-lived “tech tax” on computer services, which was repealed in 2008 before it took effect.
That tax passed quickly and caught many off guard, a situation Harris Jones said she doesn’t want to see repeated.
In past years, lobbyists have said they felt frustrated by lawmakers’ aversion to spending state money when tight budgets loomed.
Overall, opinions were split on whether this session has been good for lobbyists.
Steven Proctor, president of G.S. Proctor & Associates, said the session so far had been surprisingly productive, pointing to funding for local bond bills as an example.
More than 120 such bills were put forward to finance public projects this year, each competing for a share of $15 million in state funding.
“Coming into the session, a lot of people weren’t sure there was going to be any bond bill money,” Proctor said. “Everybody’s pleasantly surprised.”
But the economy still is dragging, and the funding won’t be there for many of those projects, said lobbyist Gerard Evans.
“This is the most [financially difficult] session I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Some who are advocating tax increases, however, are feeling satisfied.
“We’re seeing a lot of openness to our proposal to increase the tax of cigars and smokeless tobacco,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative. “The legislature recognizes that [it’s] long overdue.”
But for better or worse, there’s still time left in the session for progress on bills to reverse course, said Sushant Sidh, a lobbyist with the Annapolis-based Capitol Strategies.
“Things that are seemingly done can get undone,” he said. “You never know how things are going to shake out.”
Slight differences between House and Senate versions of bills could keep legislation from passing if one chamber doesn’t approve of a change, Sidh said.
Debate about the state budget, including controversial provisions to raise income taxes and shift some teacher pension costs onto the counties — as well as revenue proposals such as a phased-in 6 percent sales tax on gasoline — have given lobbyists and legislators plenty of information to sift through and digest.
At a House Ways and Means Committee meeting, Del. Ronald A. George (R-Dist. 30) of Arnold voted against the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act as amended because he said there were a lot of problems with the bill and no time to work them out.
“There’s too many moving parts in here,” George said. “It seems to me we need a whole session for the BRFA, let alone the budget.”
George told The Gazette he thought he’d seen fewer lobbyists in committee this session, perhaps because they knew there was less funding available.
“Moods are either way up or way down this year,” he said. “They’re either really happy or really sad.”
Given the number of tax initiatives and the number of meeting requests he received, Del. William C. Frick (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda said it was sure to be a lucrative year for Annapolis lobbyists.
“Whether or not it’s going to be a successful year, in terms of the outcomes, I wouldn’t profess to judge,” Frick added.