Last year at this time, just days before the start of the General Assembly session, the state’s — and nation’s — economic woes continued to dominate the conversation. Still suffering the effects of the Great Recession, Maryland faced a structural deficit of $1 billion.
With all the talk of tight purse strings and fiscal restraint, legislative leaders basically pre-warned lawmakers that programs costing a lot of money were out of the question. So if the legislators had designs on expensive pet projects, they were forced to shift their thinking. As expected, social issues — some quite controversial, such as same-sex marriage — got much of their attention during last year’s session.
Now, Maryland’s fiscal picture is considerably brighter — pending, of course, any unexpected federal “fiscal cliff” residue. In the past three years, state officials have reduced the deficit from a high of about $2 billion to under $500 million, Warren G. Deschenaux, director of policy analysis for the Department of Legislative Services, said recently. “It’s not all gone, it’s just small enough that it’s not a major worry,” he said.
In December, the joint Spending Affordability Committee recommended that Maryland cut its remaining structural deficit in half in the next fiscal year — to about $183 million. The committee also proffered that the state leave a general fund balance of at least $200 million in fiscal 2014. Taken along with the forecast for the Rainy Day fund balance, the state’s reserves would be close to $1 billion, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said last month.
That solid figure should serve as a reminder that fiscal responsibility is a wise approach. Equally important, the 433rd session of the General Assembly finally must address the state’s vast transportation infrastructure needs as its No. 1 priority. The Transportation Trust Fund has to be replenished — and stay replenished. Local governments shouldn’t have to go begging for the highway user revenues to which they are entitled. A mantra of the state’s business leaders is that infrastructure is a prerequisite for economic stability and growth.
Beyond transportation, other issues likely to come to the fore in Annapolis include gun control — a number of lawmakers already are touting an array of proposals — death penalty repeal and quite possibly wind power.
On the latter, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is likely to reintroduce legislation calling for a wind farm off Ocean City. Last year, his proposal failed to come to a vote in the Senate after passing in the House. Recently, O’Malley sent a letter to President Barack Obama appealing for support and asking the president to ensure that tax incentives for private investment didn’t expire Dec. 31. The down-to-the-wire budget deal in Washington preserved the tax credit.
Still, questions remain concerning the viability of a wind farm. Opponents fear that the cost of such a project would far surpass the benefits of a clean energy source that not everyone is sold on.
As lawmakers make their way back to Annapolis, they have another overriding mandate — to not repeat last year’s despicable failure to approve a state budget by the end of the regular session. A special session of the legislature was needed. That can’t be the case this year.