Tough decisions loom in Annapolis

Lawmakers will have to contend with shortfalls, health care and social issues

General Assembly

January 07, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun Reporter

Annapolis is awash in good feelings as the General Assembly prepares to convene this week, with lawmakers saying they are eager for a respite from the intense partisanship that has dominated the state Capitol recently.

But it's easy to envision the honeymoon ending soon.

Despite the losses by Republicans and the inauguration next week of a Democratic governor, the potential for fierce debate remains as the state grapples over the next four years with billion-dollar budget shortfalls and growing pressure to expand health care access. Decisions on social issues such as the death penalty and gay marriage could determine whether Maryland sheds its conservative Democratic past and fully joins the ranks of the nation's most liberal states.

New legislators and new governors typically take some time to feel their way, and many expect this year will be no different.

Nearly a quarter of the seats in each chamber of the General Assembly turned over after last year's election, and the newcomers need time to find their offices, much less affect legislation.

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley has yet to take positions on several of the issues that could spark the most contention, such as a smoking ban in bars and restaurants. But at the same time, he has worked with some success to build a reservoir of goodwill after the tumult of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term.

Ehrlich was unable to get many of his priorities through the legislature and saw dozens of his vetoes overridden in the past two years - moves he took as a personal insult. O'Malley has huddled with top legislators and county government leaders since winning election, assuring them that they will be partners in his administration. He has even made courtesy calls to GOP leaders, impressing those such as House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland.

"Governor O'Malley has come into office, and he's got a lot of political capital," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. "There's a sense of euphoria, even among Republicans, that there's this lack of tension. There's a sense that we can get things done."

Even so, the traditional inclination of lawmakers to put off major issues until the second year of a term appears stronger than usual because of a growing consensus among the Democrats who lead the General Assembly that Maryland should conduct a major overhaul of its tax structure.

No major tax changes have been enacted since the 1960s, and several key lawmakers say they want the system to better reflect the current economy, and generate more revenue for education, health care, transportation and other government programs.

Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have said they support a tax overhaul. Miller has said he thinks changes could be made this year, but most leaders expect the creation of a study commission with an attempt at changes in 2008.

O'Malley has pledged not to seek revenue increases this year but has said he wants a comprehensive solution to a state fiscal structure that has oscillated between boom and bust for years.

A restructuring would involve raising some taxes and cutting others, but the net result would almost certainly be that the state collects more from its residents. One often-discussed idea involves expanding the list of services to which the sales tax is applied, a nod to the state's shift away from a manufacturing-based economy.

The tax reform idea has even gained some currency among traditional tax foes.

"The economy has changed. We recognize it," said Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen T. Snyder. "We would like to see such a study group comprised of tax experts, economists ... not just people saying, `Oh, we've got a $1 billion hole, here's $1 billion in taxes we can raise.'"

O'Malley made a number of potentially expensive promises during the campaign, and he has pointed to looming shortfalls and the need to close them to tamp down expectations for how quickly those pledges will be fulfilled.

This week, for example, he said he still intends to fund a program to give more aid to jurisdictions where the costs of education are greater but said it likely won't happen this year.

"How soon we'll be able to do that is still an open question," he said.

Liberal advocacy groups and business groups alike are pushing this year for a major expansion of health insurance coverage, but that issue, too, could become subsumed by tax reform.

A large coalition is pushing for a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax to fund the expansion of Medicaid, drug treatment and other health programs. Nearly half of the legislature - including a number of influential lawmakers - is backing the proposal, which also got the endorsement this week of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group.

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