The Annapolis agenda

January 07, 2007

Maryland Democrats won big at the polls in November, but what does that mean for the future of the state? In three days, the picture will start to become clear as those newly elected lawmakers convene in Annapolis for the annual 90-day General Assembly session. It's certain to be a kinder, gentler place with a Democratic governor set to be sworn into office in 10 days and solid Democratic majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate. But not necessarily that much kinder.

Potentially divisive issues loom, particularly in the areas of taxes and spending. This year, a projected shortfall in the state budget appears to be manageable, but in the long term, it's catastrophic - more than $1 billion annually. Add to that promises made by Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley during the campaign to increase spending on school construction, on land conservation and on higher education, and you have a fiscal nightmare.

Will freshman lawmakers be interested in raising taxes before they've barely warmed their seats? Not likely. Mr. O'Malley has yet to name much of his Cabinet and appears reluctant to push for any major tax increase this year. Conventional wisdom is that the second year of a four-year term is generally the most ambitious for setting new policy.

But that doesn't mean major initiatives won't be considered - and that could begin with a push for slot machines and for a $1-per-pack increase in the state's tobacco tax. The former remains a fundamentally misguided idea that's certain to produce the usual political gridlock (Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wants them badly; House Speaker Michael E. Busch just as strongly does not). But the latter is gaining momentum and could turn out to be the most meaningful issue of the session.

Not only would doubling the cigarette tax help curb smoking, but the revenue it would produce - as much as $200 million or more the first year - would go a long way toward improving access to health care and reducing Medicaid's chunk of the state budget deficit.

Health care and spending aren't the only weighty matters set to be debated in the halls of the State House, of course. Issues from what to do about polluted air and water to the death penalty and the right of same-sex couples to marry (an issue that could be brought to the fore by a pending Court of Appeals decision) also loom. A successful legislative session would include:

Election law: A constitutional amendment is needed to institute early voting in Maryland. Lawmakers face a harder choice in determining what to do about the state's electronic voting machines and the risk of fraud. Either the situation is fixable or the state must switch to a new system.

Education: Mr. O'Malley must provide the $400 million in public school construction funds he promised during the campaign. Less clear is whether lawmakers should endorse the "geographic cost of educating" component that is less helpful to poorer jurisdictions such as Baltimore.

Environment: If Maryland is to get serious about cleaning the air, adopting California-style emissions standards for new cars is the next logical step. The state should expand efforts to enhance the Chesapeake Bay's native oyster population.

Health care: Closing the loophole that allows bars and certain restaurants to be exempt from Maryland's ban on smoking in the workplace should be a top priority.

Legal reform: Documented abuses of Maryland's peculiar tradition of ground rent, especially in Baltimore, require action. That should include phasing out the arcane system entirely. Lawmakers also need to take steps to ensure that at-will state employees who perform their jobs well will not be fired for purely political reasons, a practice that recently generated a great deal of furor.

Public safety: The state should place a temporary moratorium on the death penalty and launch a comprehensive and objective analysis to see if capital punishment has been - and can be - meted out fairly, equitably and humanely in Maryland.

Economic development: Lawmakers must develop a strategy to address the impact of the growth fueled by the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decisions. The state role in planning needs to expand so that neighboring jurisdictions don't make decisions at cross-purposes. Also, restrictions on the Heritage Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit that have unfairly capped Baltimore's participation in this important program should be lifted.

Transportation: The Assembly should begin exploring new revenue sources, including raising the gas tax, to boost the state's depleted transit and highway fund, a move that could help address the impact of BRAC-related growth.

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