As lawmakers gear up for the 2013 General Assembly session, a familiar refrain can be heard from many in Annapolis: Please, let it be quieter than 2012.
While the past year is likely to be remembered for its hat trick of victories for same-sex marriage (two in the legislature, one at the ballot box) and voter approval of the Maryland Dream Act, it also featured prolonged arguments over tax rates and expanded gambling.
There was April’s Sine Die budget collapse, when lawmakers ended their regular session without passing a finished spending plan and raised the threat of the so-called “Doomsday budget,” which promised devastating spending cuts.
There was not one, but two special sessions so the General Assembly could finish work on both the budget and a plan to allow table games and a sixth casino in the state.
And then there was the general election in November, with not only a presidential race but seven statewide ballot questions, one of which prompted a fierce ad campaign between rival casino owners — one looking to move into the state, the other seeking to preserve its West Virginia stronghold.
Initiatives that stalled in 2012 — such as offshore wind power and transportation funding — are likely to dominate the 2013 session, but Marylanders also can expect a major debate over gun control proposals in the wake of the mass shooting this month in Connecticut.
Budget standoff mars regular session
The passage in February of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, was an early achievement of the General Assembly this year.
The bill was approved by the Senate in 2011 but died in the House, resurfacing this year under the sponsorship of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) himself. Victory in the House was narrowly secured thanks to the votes of Republican Dels. Robert A. Costa (R-Dist. 33B) of Deale and A. Wade Kach (R-Dist. 5B) of Cockeysville.
But part of the compromise that led to its passage was to move the effective date until after the election, thus giving opponents ample time to petition the measure to the ballot, where at least 30 similar measures had been defeated across the country.
Lawmakers also approved an administration plan to curb sprawl by establishing four “growth tiers,” each based on different land-use criteria, that would regulate development and limit the use of septic systems in the state.
The plan drew fire from lawmakers from the state’s rural counties who saw it as a blow to the authority of local governments to decide local matters.
Some of O’Malley’s other initiatives, such as plans for an offshore wind farm and a proposal to phase in a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline to fund transportation projects, weren’t as successful.
The wind plan got stuck in the Senate Finance Committee, something Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach has said he might prevent in 2013 by shaking up the committee roster.
The gas tax proposal also floundered, a victim of rising prices at the pump, according to some lawmakers. O’Malley wants legislators to revisit the issue, although he has suggested that a penny increase to the state’s sales tax might prove a more beneficial method of generating revenue.
But the session’s big disappointment came late on April 9, when the House and Senate adjourned Sine Die without approving a spending plan. Each chamber passed its version of the bill, but the conference committee assigned to smooth out the differences couldn’t agree on the threshold for an income tax hike until late in the day, and the clock ran out before the full chambers could OK the compromise.
Gambling expansion, including adding table games and a Prince George’s County casino, was another casualty.
Weeks of tense speculation over the rift between Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) followed, and O’Malley’s critics accused him of spending too much time jetting around the country as chair of the Democratic Governors Association and focusing too little on Maryland’s affairs.
The debacle threatened to set in motion a “Doomsday” spending plan, which included $500 million in cuts, if an alternate budget wasn’t passed by the start of the fiscal year, but the legislature reconvened in a three-day special session in May and approved a revised budget.
The final plan included the controversial shift of a substantial portion of teacher pension costs — 50 percent of the so-called “normal cost” — from the state to the counties, which came out to $136.6 million for fiscal 2013.
The plan had drawn fire from county leaders, who argued that their jurisdictions were being sent the bill for poor pension-management decisions at the state level.
Deja vu on gambling expansion
With the casino question still unresolved, O’Malley convened a work group on gambling expansion to determine whether the state gaming market could sustain another casino and, if possible, draft legislation to be considered in a special session.
Because the state Constitution requires voter approval for an expansion of gambling, lawmakers needed to either sign off on the plan this year or wait until the next general election in 2014.
While work group members largely agreed that the state could sustain another casino, House members balked at proposals to lower the tax rate for the state’s existing casinos, and the group — like the legislature — adjourned without an agreement.
The stall prompted O’Malley to issue a sharply worded rebuke to Busch, accusing House leadership of trying to make sure the recently opened Maryland Live! Casino in Anne Arundel County maintained “a virtual monopoly” on the central Maryland gaming market.
After another month of negotiations, a compromise plan, which included adjustments to the tax rates to compensate for the new competition the state’s existing casinos would face, was hashed out, and lawmakers reconvened in August to give it their approval.
More bad press for Prince George’s
This year also was marked by the ongoing legal saga of now-former Prince George’s Del. Tiffany T. Alston (D-Dist. 24) of Mitchellville, who was found guilty in June of a charge that she used General Assembly funds to pay a clerk at her law practice.
Alston was scheduled to stand trial in October on a separate charge that she used campaign funds for personal expenses, including wedding bills, but instead pleaded no contest. As part of the deal, she received a one-year suspended sentence, probation and 300 hours of community service for the first conviction.
State lawyers argued that Alston was immediately removed from office by act of law once her plea was entered, but Alston and her legal team said that because her sentence was converted to probation before judgment, upon completion of her community service her conviction was stricken and the office was still hers.
Alston sued O’Malley and Busch to reclaim her seat, and the case is set to go before the Maryland Court of Appeals next week.
The Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee, meanwhile, chose local businessman and community activist Greg Hall as Alston’s successor, then sought to withdraw his name after controversy erupted over criminal charges in his past, including his implication in a 1992 shootout that left a teen bystander dead.
Hall sued to prevent his name from being withdrawn, and the Court of Appeals will hear his complaint alongside Alston’s.
Elsewhere in the county, Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Dist. 22) of Hyattsville retired in November. Ross was replaced by Alonzo T. Washington (D), also of Hyattsville.
And a little for Anne Arundel County…
While corruption at the county executive-level was once the near-exclusive domain of Prince George’s County — former County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his County Council member wife, Leslie, began serving time on federal corruption charges this year — Anne Arundel County got a piece of the action in 2012.
State prosecutors indicted County Executive John R. Leopold (R) in March on charges of misconduct in office and embezzlement.
The state alleges that Leopold used his security detail — paid for by taxpayers — to assist in campaign activities, drive him to and from sexual encounters with a former employee of his office and perform personal errands, including emptying his urinary catheter bag. He also is accused of stealing the campaign signs of a political rival.
Leopold has described the allegations as “scurrilous and salacious.” His trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 16.
Another elected official from the county made headlines in August, when Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr. (R-Dist. 31) of Glen Burnie was involved in a serious boating collision that injured seven people.
Dwyer addressed reporters outside a Baltimore hospital the next day and asked for forgiveness, confessing that his blood-alcohol level had been more than twice the legal limit at the time of the crash.
After a long investigation, Dwyer was charged last week with operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Police from the state’s Department of Natural Resources said both he and the driver of the other boat were responsible for the collision.
Man spites dog
Pit bull terriers found themselves at the center of controversy this year after an April ruling by the state Court of Appeals declared that pit bull-type breeds were inherently dangerous. The legal decision could have made landlords liable for the actions of dogs owned by their tenants.
The ruling prompted some pit bull owners to give up their dogs in order to keep their apartments or find temporary housing so they could keep their canines, and drew a pledge from a bipartisan group of lawmakers — including Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park and Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Dist. 36) of Chesapeake City — to remedy the situation.
Legislation that would have made dog owners liable for their pets’ actions — no matter the breed — was considered alongside the gambling proposal in this year’s second special session, but the House and Senate failed to agree on the final proposal.
That same week, the Court of Appeals reversed part of its earlier decision that declared cross-bred pit-bull mixes also inherently dangerous. The court maintained its assertion that pure-bred pit bulls were dangerous.
Personnel shake-ups in Annapolis
State Transportation Secretary Beverly K. Swaim-Staley stepped down in July after nearly three years at the post and has since become head of the Union Station Redevelopment Corp.
When she announced her intentions in April, Swaim-Staley said she didn’t yet know what she would do next — and offered what might have been a subtle swipe at O’Malley’s long-rumored interest in a run at the White House in 2016.
Describing her lack of immediate plans, Swaim-Staley said you can’t do one job if you’re focused on the next one.
More recently, two of O’Malley’s top aides — Chief Legislative Officer Joseph Bryce and Director of Public Affairs Rick Abbruzzese — left for the private sector, and Secretary of Business and Economic Development Christian S. Johansson announced last week that he would be departing to take a position with Laureate Education of Baltimore.
Casino spending dominates election season
While the presidential candidates duked it out over national job creation and the economy, the campaign battles in Maryland focused largely on a few of the state’s seven ballot questions.
The nearly $100-million ad war over Question 7 — the measure to expand gambling in the state — is probably still fresh in the collective memory of Maryland voters. As predicted by Miller in August, when the fight in the legislature ended, the battle between rival casino companies began.
In one corner stood Penn National Gaming, the Pennsylvania-based owner of Hollywood Casino in Charles Town W.Va., a popular gaming spot among Marylanders.
In the other corner was MGM Resorts International, which sought to open a major resort and casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, if voters approved.
Each side poured roughly $45 million into a media blitz, with an MGM-backed group touting the lucrative increases in jobs and education funding a new casino would bring, and a Penn National-supported group trying to raise doubts about where the money would go and whether lawmakers’ promises about the economic benefits of the plan could be trusted.
Even O’Malley, who had never been a particular fan of gambling, stepped into the fray, recording a commercial in support of the measure and, in a separate discussion with reporters, memorably dismissing the opposition’s claims as “total crap,” “hogwash,” and “West Virginia casino hooey.”
A similar, if less expensive, battle was fought over Question 6, which allowed voters to decide the fate of same-sex marriage in the state.
Supporters received endorsements from President Barack Obama and the NAACP, as well as numerous state officials, such as O’Malley. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) and several Democratic county executives also spoke out in favor of the ballot question, which the voters ultimately approved.
Opponents, backed substantially by the National Organization for Marriage, which also helped finance anti-same-sex marriage campaigns in other states, were out-spent by same-sex marriage supporters.
Two other measures passed by the legislature but petitioned to the ballot by opponents were upheld as well. One was the Maryland Dream Act, which offers in-state college tuition to some undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers adopted it in 2011, but implementation was delayed once enough signatures were gathered to put it on the ballot.
The second measure was Maryland’s new congressional district map, which critics believed was severely gerrymandered. Opponents narrowly gathered enough signatures to place the plan before the voters. The most prominent victim of the new map was longtime U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown, whose district was redrawn to include a large portion of Montgomery County. The 86-year-old Bartlett was defeated in November by Democrat John Delaney, ending a 20-year career on Capitol Hill.