Capital tones down the roar

State lawmakers enjoying a break from usual battling

General Assembly

March 18, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

As the General Assembly enters the final three weeks of its annual session, lawmakers still must decide whether to expand government health care for Maryland's poorest residents, to raise taxes, to OK an impact fee to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, to regulate ground rents, and to ban smoking in restaurants and bars.

But this year's last-minute frenzy is coming without much of the usual high-stakes politicking or fierce debate.

Lawmakers from both parties say that's fine with them.

This year has shaped up as a breather between a four-year period of skirmishes between the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and the Republican governor, and next year's battles over taxes, budget cuts and slot machines. Legislators face a looming $1.3 billion budget shortfall that is certain to dominate the 2008 session.

"There was a level of tension before, and it's not there now," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican.

The calm isn't for a lack of contentious issues. But on some of them -- such as the smoking ban and death penalty repeal, questions that also aren't breaking cleanly along party lines -- legislative leaders have taken a wait-and-see approach, holding off on debates and votes unless a consensus emerges.

For example, now that a Senate committee has rejected a death penalty repeal, it appears unlikely that the House of Delegates will take up the issue, though it might have enough support to pass there. The reasoning is that there's no point in forcing legislators to take tough votes on a bill that has no chance of becoming law.

"You've got to look at the endgame before you bring the bill out onto the floor," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Are the votes there?"

The few major initiatives that have made it through the General Assembly have passed with a broad consensus. Bills requiring stricter emissions standards for automobiles -- so-called "clean cars" -- and prohibiting new ground rents in response to reports of abuses in Baltimore, for example, got strong, bipartisan support.

In his first two months, Gov. Martin O'Malley has taken stands on major issues such as the death penalty repeal and the statewide smoking ban.

O'Malley said he remains hopeful that his first legislative session will be a productive one.

"Usually at this point in the session, people are itching to see the legislature get something done," O'Malley said in an interview last week with Maryland Public Television. "The last 30 days are when most of the progress happens."

It appears, though, that it might be another year before O'Malley and lawmakers make progress on closing the projected $1.3 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that begins in July 2008. That has stalled Democratic lawmakers' efforts to expand government health care coverage and clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The structural deficit is a constant topic of conversation in Annapolis this year, but because O'Malley asked for time to develop a plan to tackle the problem, lawmakers have engaged in almost no sustained debates about taxes, slot machine gambling, spending cuts or other fiscal issues.

"It's a crisis unimpeded by plans, as we used to say in the Navy," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican.

The budget has exposed some differences between the parties and between the House and Senate over how and when to deal with fiscal issues.

Republican delegates tried last week to make deep cuts in O'Malley's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 in hopes of forestalling the need for tax increases next year. But their proposal would have resulted in higher tuition at state universities, less funding for K-12 education and reductions to other politically popular programs.

Outnumbered Republicans said they appreciated the chance to have a debate and to air their point of view, but ultimately it didn't matter. Their measure was easily defeated, with a few Republicans joining all of the Democrats to reject it.

"Now they smile at us when they vote against us, so that's nice," Bates said.

But Democrats are far from united on budget issues, a division that could be the determining factor in what legislation passes this year and next.

House leaders, worried that the budget debate next year will be so all-encompassing that it will crowd out other issues, are pushing for significant health care and environmental legislation this year.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee, is working to build a consensus behind legislation that would enact fees on new development -- more for building outside of designated growth areas -- to pay for the bay cleanup. The O'Malley administration supports the idea.

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