Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Still work left — just no cash

Social issues, unfinished business on deck in wake of fall’s special session

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
The State House is reflected in the windows of Harry Browne’s in Annapolis. House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell of Lusby, a Republican, says one focus of the General Assembly may be ‘‘cleaning up some of the mess from the special session.”
ANNAPOLIS — The 2008 General Assembly convenes today, with legislators expected to focus on social issues and the aftermath of the tax and budget battles fought during November’s special session.

Legislators return to the capital less than two months after raising the state’s sales, income, corporate, tobacco and vehicle titling taxes.

‘‘We probably still need to do a little more work and figure out this budget,” said Del. Herman L. Taylor Jr. (D-Dist. 14) of Ashton, a member of the House Economic Matters Committee. ‘‘I have some concerns on how this is going to play out and what kind of economy we’re going to be in.”

The focus on social issues — including the death penalty, same-sex marriage and immigration — may be out of necessity.

‘‘I don’t see any new spending for new programs,” said Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village, a member of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. ‘‘I think we’ll be lucky to hang on to what we have.”

Lawmakers passed $890 million in new taxes and recommended $550 million in cuts to help resolve a projected $1.5 billion deficit next year.

The bipartisan Spending Affordability Committee, which sets guidelines for state spending, recently recommended growing the budget by 4.27 percent, but that’s still too much for some lawmakers.

‘‘[House Republicans] believe spending is still out of control,” House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell said.

Republicans want to reconsider the sales tax, which was increased from 5 percent to 6 percent, and revisit a 20 percent tax on electronic bingo, he said.

‘‘I think we’re going to be cleaning up some of the mess from the special session,” said O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby.

That includes efforts to repeal the sales tax on computer services, he said.

‘‘I just think that is not the appropriate kind of tax at a time when technology is critically important for our economic success and at a time when we’re trying to be a technology-based, knowledge-based state,” said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents business and civic groups in the Baltimore region.

King plans to introduce a bill that would exempt federal contractors and subcontractors from the tax.

If the computer services tax is repealed and no more cuts are made, the legislature must replace the $200 million in annual revenue that the tax is expected to generate. Legislators are considering bills to increase taxes on gasoline and alcohol instead.

The O’Malley administration plans to focus its efforts on increasing renewable energy production, delivering health care services and increasing space and security at juvenile treatment facilities. It also wants to crack down on illegal weapons. It is pondering legislation that would allow police to collect DNA upon arrest.

A Republican-led lawsuit on whether the tax increases approved during the special session are constitutional could complicate the fiscal outlook. Oral arguments in the case were heard Friday in Carroll County Circuit Court, and Judge Thomas F. Stansfield has said he will rule soon.

A balanced budget is the only bill the legislature is required to pass before adjourning April 7.

Education advocates ‘‘have a recognition that it will be difficult to get any kind of major revenue increases passed by the General Assembly,” said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association.

That said, teachers are hoping for modest increases for education — possibly from enacting a combined reporting law that would require corporations to report earnings for all entities as one unit, eliminating what some call a tax loophole.

Teachers and some lawmakers are also concerned about teacher pension costs being shifted from the state to the counties. Such a move would saddle Montgomery with $108.6 million in costs now covered by the state and ‘‘could bankrupt a lot of [smaller] counties,” King said.

Transportation remains a priority, although money is tight there as well.

The legislature missed an opportunity to find a dedicated funding source for transportation by failing to pass a gasoline tax increase during the special session, said Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Dist. 22) of Berwyn Heights.

‘‘It’s going to take a bit of time to come up with money, especially for transportation,” said Gaines, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Many are calling for $600 million for the Transportation Trust Fund. The legislature approved $400 million for transportation projects during the special session, an amount that Fry said ‘‘will barely make a dent” in the $40 billion in needed projects identified by the state.

Energy efficiency and conservation also stand to be on the front burner.

‘‘We’re going to spend a lot of time on that issue looking at how Maryland consumers have [more] reliable and affordable electricity service,” said Senate Finance Chairman Thomas ‘‘Mac” Middleton (D-Dist. 28) of Waldorf, whose committee handles utility issues.

Environmental groups are pleased that the legislature has earmarked $50 million to create a fund for Chesapeake Bay clean-up. During the session, they will look to ensure that the money is spent ‘‘wisely and efficiently,” said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

The environmental agenda also includes strengthening the state’s critical areas law, which is intended to limit development along Chesapeake Bay and tidal shorelines.

A rally in front of the State House on Jan. 17 will call for Maryland to establish goals recommended by the state’s Climate Change Commission Climate Action Plan, including the reduction of greenhouse pollutants by 25 percent by 2020 and by 90 percent by 2050.

Health care advocates will be quieter this session after the special session expanded Medicare to 100,000 Marylanders.

‘‘Our primary goal right now is to make sure the health care expansion enacted in the special session is properly implemented,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative.

Lawmakers could again take up legislation aimed at keeping the troubled Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly open.

Gaines said she expects Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and the Prince George’s County Council to come up with an agreement to present to the state.

Avoiding closure is paramount, Gaines said.

‘‘It will affect every county in the state because you have to shift the patients,” she said.

Lawmakers also could try to repeal the death penalty, an effort that failed last year.

Whether to legalize same-sex marriage could be one of the more divisive issues of the session.

‘‘It’s come up three of the five years I’ve been down there and it looks like it’s going to be back with a vengeance,” said Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr. (R-Dist. 3B) of Brunswick.

Democrats appear divided on the matter. The rift could be particularly apparent in the usually unified Legislative Black Caucus, where traditional African-American community and church standards conflict with the idea of same-sex marriage.

Other legislation will center on the Real ID Act of 2005. Some are pushing for state compliance with the federal law, which requires that applicants for a driver’s license or state-issued identification show documentation that they are in the United States legally. Others want to prohibit the Motor Vehicle Administration from moving forward because the federal law is too costly and licensees could be exposed to identity theft.

Proponents could also revive a bill to grant in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.

How much gets accomplished could depend on the will of lawmakers to compromise.

With some lawmakers still feeling the hangover of a contentious special session and the Republican lawsuit unresolved, Weldon said he worries most that the 2008 session could be marked by partisanship.

‘‘I just see a huge chasm between a productive legislature and 188 legislators that are walking into a chamber, drawing a line down the center with R’s on one side, D’s on the other and screaming back and forth,” Weldon said. ‘‘... It’s rallying around the party flag that concerns me. That’s a rational consequence of fatigue.”

Staff Writer Alan Brody contributed to this report.