|Wednesday, January 12, 2011 – Robert Lang|
|The 428th session of the Maryland General Assembly starts today at noon.
The 90-day session will end on April 11.
Thirty new members of the Maryland House of Delegates (16 Democrats and 14 Republicans) will take the oath of office today. Republicans gained six seats in the November election, but Democrats still hold a 98-43 majority in the chamber. Del. Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel Co.) is expected to be re-elected as Speaker of the House.
In the Maryland State Senate, 10 new senators ( 7 Democrats and 3 Republicans) will take the oath of office today. Democrats gained two seats in November, and hold a 35-12 majority. Sen. Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Calvert/Prince George’s Co.) is expected to be re-elected Senate President.
Today is largely a ceremonial day. Governor Martin O’Malley is expected to briefly address each chamber today.
About two dozen bills have already been introduced in the House of Delegates. Five bills have already been introduced in the Senate.
Budget & Taxes
Like most sessions, much of the 2011 Maryland General Assembly session will be dominated by passing the state budget for Fiscal Year 2012. This year lawmakers must close a budget deficit that is estimated at $1.6-billion.
Governor Martin O’Malley says his budget proposal will not include any tax hikes. However , lawmakers are expected to consider raising the state taxes on gasoline and alcoholic beverages.
Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch both told WBAL News that it is likely lawmakers will consider a gas tax increase this year. However, both leaders admit there may not be the votes to pass it.
Busch told WBAL News that county governments have complained about not having enough money to maintain their roads, and that may convince some lawmakers to convince a tax hike even though gas prices have topped $3-per-gallon.
The state’s gasoline tax has not been increased since 1992. It stands at 23.5-cents per gallon.
The alcohol tax has remained unchanged for much longer than the gas tax.
The tax on liquor had not been raised since 1955. The tax on beer and wine has not been raised since 1972.
Legislation to increase the tax on beer wine and liquor by 10-cents per drink has already received a lot of attention from lawmakers and health advocates.
Health Care For All, a group led by veteran lobbyist Vincent Demarco is pushing lawmakers to approve the tax to fund programs for people with disabilities.
The bill is opposed by bar and liquor store owners. Some legislative leaders support raising the tax, but feel that more of the revenue should be used for the state’s general fund rather than programs for people with disabilities.
Aides say Governor O’Malley want to avoid furloughing state workers, but they say that may not be avoided. The O’Malley Administration said this week that nearly 1,400 state workers agreed to take a buyouts to leave their jobs. The governor, who made the offer last month, wanted at least 1,500 workers to accept the buyouts.
Some lawmakers also want to transfer some of the cost of teacher pensions from the state to county governments.. However, last week Governor O’Malley told a convention of county leaders that he would not propose such a transfer.
The state’s slots commission is recommending legislation to allow anyone with a slots license to have a second, if one of those licenses is the slots parlor proposed for Rocky Gap in Western Maryland. Two years, since the state sought applications for the license, there have been no applicants for that site.
Senate President Mike Miller believes lawmakers may also take up a bill to let the license holder get a greater share of revenue from slots. At the state’s other slots parlors the state takes two-thirds of the revenue.
Officials from Penn National Gaming which owns the Hollywood Casino Perryville told the state racing commission that it would seek a slots license for Laurel Park, where the company is a minority owner.
Both Miller and House Speaker Busch, say lawmakers are not likely to approve that request, which would also have to be approved by voters.
Lawmakers are expected to consider legislation that would legalize same sex marriage. Montgomery County Democratic Senator Rich Madaleno is expected to introduce the bill as he has done in previous years. Republican Minoirty Leader Allan Kittleman says he will introduce a civil unions bills which will give same sex couples the legal rights of a married couple, but it would not define that couple as married. Governor Martin O’Malley has said he would sign a bill legalizing same sex marriage if it came to his desk.
A bill to abolish the death penalty is expected to be considered this year. Two years ago the House passed this bill, The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee rejected it, and instead passed a bill that placed limits on death penalty prosecutions. Death penalty opponents note the membership of the committee has changed. Republican Alex Mooney, who was the swing vote two years ago, lost his bid for re-election last year. Aides to Governor O’Malley say the governor will not include a death penalty bill in his legislative package.
Illegal immigration will be considered again this year. Incoming Prince George’s County Senator Victor Ramirez says he will introduce a Maryland version of the “Dream Act” that will allow students who enter the U.S. illegally to attend college in Maryland at the in-state tuition rate.
Two bills related to wine will be considered. One bill would allow consumers to order cases of wine directly from a winery. Another bill would allow customers to bring their own bottle of wine to a restaurant, even if the restaurant has a liquor license. The restaurant could charge the customer a fee for serving the wine.
Congressional Redistricting To Be Considered In Special Session
One issue that will not be resolved in the next 90-days is congressional redistricting.
Lawmakers must approve new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts in time for next year’s election, based on the results of the 2010 U.S. Census.
Based on numbers released last month, Maryland would not lose any of its eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although some Republicans believe that the Democratic controlled legislature will try to split at least one of the two districts now held by Republicans, in order to deny the Republican incumbent a seat in Congress. As of this year, the First Congressional District seat which includes the Eastern Shore is held by Republican Andy Harris. The Sixth Congressional District which includes Western Maryland is held by Republican Roscoe Bartlett.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael Busch told WBAL News that the legislature will get final census numbers by the end of next month. Governor Martin O’Maley will appoint a commission that will draft the proposed boundaries. That proposal will be the focus of public hearings to be held this summer. The Maryland General Assembly would then convene in a speical session either in late summer or early fall to adopt a new plan.
Next year, lawmakers would have to draft a plan for state legislative districts.
Baltimore County Executive Reveals Agenda
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s legislative agenda includes requesting $78-million for school renovation projects. Kamenetz describes the request as modest. He says the top priority for school renovation is $6.5-million for Hampton elementary School in Towson which is currently 189 students over capacity. He also is seeking $2-million in capital funding money that would help pay for the design work for improvements to Liberty Road that would allow Northwest Hospital to have a grand entrance on Liberty Road. He said that access road would also have retail shops and restaurants.
Kamenetz says he is pleased that Governor O’Malley told county leaders last week that his budget would not include a plan to transfer the cost of teacher pensions to county governments. Kamenetz also says he is skeptical of plans from county lawmakers to require that some of the Baltimore County School Board be elected rather than appointed. Supporters say an elected school board would be more accountable to the public.
Dundalk area Delegate John Olzewski Jr., has been elected chairman of the Baltimore County Delegation in the House of Delegates. Maryland Morning News contributor Bryan Sears of patch.com reports that the current chairman of the County’s Senate delegation Norman Stone says he will not run for chairmanship. Senators Delores Kelley and Kathy Klausmeier are expected to run for the post.
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