Last year at this time when the General Assembly session convened, 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 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 a result, 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, according to Warren G. Deschenaux, director of policy analysis for the Department of Legislative Services.
“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 that began on Wednesday 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 on Dec. 31. The down-to-the-wire budget deal in Washington, D.C., 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 made their way back to Annapolis this week, they have another overriding mandate not to repeat last year’s despicable failure to approve a state budget by the end of the regular 90-day session. A special session of the legislature was needed. That can’t be the case this year.