Legislative calm after the storm? -- Gazette.Net







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After a whirlwind 2012 regular session of the Maryland General Assembly, some legislators say they are looking forward to a less-frantic pace for the 2013 session, which begins Jan. 9.

“I’m expecting a session of good vibes and warm feelings,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park. “We’ve just left behind a period of budget battles and tough, socially divisive issues. It’s nice for the General Assembly to get to draw on a clean slate.”

The clean slate comes after the legislature during the regular session passed a controversial same-sex marriage bill but failed to approve a budget or a bill to expand gambling in the state. Lawmakers had to return to Annapolis for two special sessions to get those matters settled.

“We got so much done last year that there really isn’t anything left,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg. “It’s hard to see what earth-shattering issues could come up.”

But others say at least three issues are sure to emerge. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has said he will push for a bill to incentivize the development of a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City. Sponsors and advocacy groups have said they will try to repeal the death penalty, although O’Malley has not yet announced whether he will play an active role in an effort. Local elected officials also are promising to press for more transportation funding, which could lead to a fight over a gas tax hike.

In addition, the General Assembly will have to vote on how to finance the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, which must be up and running by an October deadline set by the federal government. The exchange, where Marylanders will shop for health plans and see if they qualify for subsidies, will require funding of $35 million annually.

“It’s one of those magic moments when we get to pick some new fights,” Raskin said. “The General Assembly has shown that it can take on big, complex issues, and everybody has things that they’re working on, that they want to move forward.”

Todd E. Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is skeptical that the Senate and House of Delegates will get along after last year’s budget — the only business that the General Assembly is required to accomplish — failed to pass in the final hours of the regular session, and each side blamed the other.

“What will happen is the two chambers will eye each other suspiciously,” Eberly said. “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do in the widely perceived failure of the general session. The pressure is on them to prove that they’re capable of doing what they are constitutionally mandated to do. The tension is going to be there, as everyone tries to prove that they can do their job.”

Barve said the need to focus on the job of approving a budget, as well as fatigue from three sessions in 2012, is changing the dynamics of 2013.

“Normally around this time of year before the session, people are coming up with new bill ideas, and you get a whole bunch of emails from people looking for co-sponsors,” Barve said. “I haven’t gotten a single one of those this year.

“Things will come up, things always come up, but what’s striking to me is that people aren’t bringing a ton of things up.”

Barve’s counterpart on the Senate side, however, said he already is seeing a full plate of legislation.

“Certainly there is less on the social-issues front,” said Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (D-Dist. 15) of Germantown. “Less-emotional issues is my expectation. But there will be more budgetary issues and economic issues, and these are serious issues.

“Will there be debate? Absolutely. But hopefully there will be less contentiousness.”

Across the aisle

For Republican legislators, the idea of a quiet session is laughable, said Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Dist. 33) of Crofton, the minority whip.

“Oh, the fight continues,” he said. “It’s going to be a long and stressful session. I’ve been told by those older and wiser than myself that not every session is as contentious as the three I’ve been through.”

While the Republican caucus has not met to advance an agenda, Reilly said the minority party likely will fight a bill to subsidize wind energy and a hike in the gas tax.

Led by Western Maryland lawmakers, Reilly said, they also will look to allow drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation in the Appalachian Mountains that contains vast reserves stretching from New York to Virginia. The gas can only be accessed through the controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and O’Malley issued an executive order halting permits until a study is completed on the environmental and health risks associated with drilling.

Some Democratic lawmakers are hoping to issue a more permanent statutory ban and to allow for the funding of such studies through industry fees, which Republicans likely will oppose.

“I understand that some people call the Republican Party the ‘party of no,’” Reilly said. “But there are going to be good, positive bills coming from caucus members,” including a pro-business bill package, and right-to-work and medical marijuana legislation.