Checks, balances rule Md. capital

Democratic leaders split on key issues, how to raise money

General Assembly

March 05, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN REPORTER

Recycling bins are back in the State House. The governor rides in a sport utility vehicle that can burn ethanol. Maryland is about to join a handful of states that mandate low-emission cars, and it is closer than it has been in years to prohibiting smoking in bars, abolishing the death penalty and banning assault weapons.

In ways large and small, Annapolis is showing signs of a leftward tilt just six weeks after Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley succeeded Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

But halfway into the General Assembly session, just how liberal Maryland's new government is remains to be settled. Bills that would raise cigarette taxes to expand health care, impose a fee on new development to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and give state unions greater bargaining power are hardly a sure thing, even with a Democrats in control of the legislature.

Tax increases - likely to be a major topic in Annapolis as lawmakers grapple with expected revenue shortfalls of more than $1 billion a year - have been suggested, but O'Malley has talked about trying first to make state government more cost-efficient.

Even though all of the leaders in Annapolis are Democrats, they often do not agree on how or when to tackle major issues, and some say the State House has an institutional conservatism.

"He's a progressive," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said of O'Malley. "I don't mind being progressive. ... But we've got a lot of institutional memory here. It's a philosophy that we stand on the shoulders of the senators who came before us."

Maryland's constitution gives the governor tremendous power to set the direction of the state, but Assembly rules give the House speaker and Senate president significant authority over the course of legislation.

When all three agree, the government can move rapidly. But former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who is now a lobbyist, said there is usually an institutional tension between the presiding officers that slows things down. That's happening now with the budget, he said, and it's a good thing.

"The governor is taking a very effective, comprehensive and deliberate approach to ... the most fundamental issue facing the Maryland state government right now, which is the structural deficit," Taylor said. "That issue should have been addressed years ago, and I include myself in those who should have done something. ... This governor is approaching it the right way."

O'Malley has acknowledged that raising new revenues - whether through taxes, slot machine gambling or a combination - will likely be part of the solution. But O'Malley said he wants first to try to streamline government and cut spending. "We've gotten pretty good at estimating revenues and spending but not at estimating potential savings," he said.

But on other key issues, O'Malley has lent support to causes that Ehrlich, a former congressman, opposed. O'Malley is lobbying hard to repeal the death penalty, which Ehrlich supported. He supports a ban on assault-type weapons, which Ehrlich opposed.

Ehrlich rejected allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges; O'Malley supports it. Ehrlich didn't want requirements that would force the state to build environmentally friendly buildings, but O'Malley does. O'Malley wants to mandate higher wages for state contractors, a labor-backed proposal that Ehrlich vetoed.

On such issues, O'Malley is holding up a green light where Ehrlich signaled lawmakers to stop. But because of the partisan dynamics in Annapolis, Democratic leaders were often spurred by Ehrlich's resistance. Bills such as an increase in the minimum wage and a requirement that Wal-Mart pay more for employee health care got an added boost because they could be used against Ehrlich in the fall election.

"They could unite for a common enemy," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, the House minority whip from Western Maryland.

With that partisan dynamic removed by O'Malley's victory, the historical checks and balances of the Annapolis power structure have been on full display so far in this legislative session.

O'Malley is pushing for death penalty repeal, but Miller is a co-sponsor of a bill to overturn the de-facto moratorium on executions that the Court of Appeals imposed last year.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch proposed doubling the cigarette tax to $2 a pack to pay for expanded health care. O'Malley and Miller oppose the measure.

Miller wants to legalize slot machines and to enact a 12-cents-a- gallon increase in the gas tax to pay for transportation projects, an idea that would cost the average motorist about $60 a year. Busch opposes both proposals, and while O'Malley is receptive to a gas tax increase and supports a limited slots program, he wants to delay action until next year.

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