Facing Maryland's growing budget problems, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. called yesterday for a task force to figure out how the state can keep up with its needs in education, health care and transportation.
The task force -- dubbed by Taylor the "Maryland Fiscal Commission" -- will be the leading bill in the House Democratic leadership's legislative package for next year's General Assembly session.
Other bills in the package cover such topics as drunken driving, deer and black bear hunting, the conversion of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield into a for-profit company, the ability of citizens to challenge environmental permits and the state's regulations on the release of public information.
"It's a very balanced group of legislative initiatives that will benefit our everyday quality of life," the Allegany County Democrat said in an interview yesterday.
A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the governor had not yet reviewed Taylor's legislative package but that most of the proposals are in line with Glendening's positions.
"There may be some specifics where we disagree, but this sounds like a package that is very much in sync and complementary to the package that the governor will be introducing," said spokesman Michael Morrill.
For Taylor and the House leadership, the top bill -- given the designation of House Bill 1 -- involves creating the fiscal commission "that would be charged with evaluating Maryland's revenue and tax structure."
Taylor said such a task force is necessary because recent studies have found huge financial needs in Maryland, including $27 billion in transportation, more than $1 billion annually for public schools and more than $1 billion for various health care programs.
"What we've identified is what we need," Taylor said. "What we haven't identified is how to pay for it. To continue being the responsible state we are ... it seems to me the next logical step is to come up with a revenue strategy that will address all of these identified responsibilities and needs."
The commission would report back to the Assembly by the end of next year with a series of recommendations on taxes and other potential revenue sources, Taylor said.
House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr. said he supported the idea of such a task force -- but suggested it have one additional task. "It would be refreshing for a change to take an equally in-depth look at the way the state is spending the funds we're being given, to look at the expenditure side of the ledger as hard as we look at the revenue side," the Baltimore County Republican said.
The pair of bills that could spark some of the most intense public discussion during the session involve hunting. Taylor is proposing creating a black bear hunting season for Garrett and western Allegany counties, as well as an expanded deer hunting season that would include higher limits and one Sunday during the season.
Taylor insisted that the black bear bill would be easy to pass and noted that 43 other states permit some Sunday hunting.
Steve Palmer, president of the Washington County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, said his group supports black bear hunting but has shied away from backing hunting on a Sunday.
"We feel it's too controversial," Palmer said. "We try to be sympathetic and supportive of others' use of the lands, and we understand that some people feel Sunday hunting would be in the way of that."
Morrill said Glendening would need to take a closer look at the hunting proposals and would only back measures that are "based on the science and research."
Other bills proposed yesterday by the House leadership include:
Clarifying the responsibilities of CareFirst if regulators permit it to convert from a nonprofit to a for-profit company. As a nonprofit organization, the company has provided health insurance for people who have trouble getting coverage, and legislators have said they want to ensure that an "insurer of last resort" would still exist.
Toughening drunken driving laws by increasing the penalties for repeat offenders and prohibiting passengers from drinking alcohol in moving vehicles. Both proposals have failed in past legislative sessions, but they are expected to receive more support because Congress has threatened to force states that don't have such laws to transfer some federal highway construction funds to highway safety programs.
Allowing the public more freedom to challenge environmental permit applications for large industries. By failing to pass such a law in 2001, the state lost its authority to regulate its own air pollution control programs.
Permitting District Court commissioners to issue interim civil orders for protection against domestic violence during hours when the clerk's office is closed.
Clarifying the state's public information act and its ethics law. The public information act changes were sought last year by the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association to end What it considered some common abuses of the law, which is intended to guarantee prompt access to public records.
Both the governor and the Republican leadership expect to announce their legislative packages next month.
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.