The Annapolis agenda

January 06, 2008

The good news for members of the General Assembly returning to Annapolis on Wednesday is that their most challenging work is largely behind them. November's deliberations, and particularly the tax increases they approved, went a long way toward addressing the state's projected $1.3 billion deficit. The bad news is that there's some unfinished business - and some difficult issues - still to be tackled in the coming 90-day session.

Leading in the unfinished category are the budget cuts needed to ensure government spending does not outpace the state's economy. Gov. Martin O'Malley recently estimated that about $200 million more in budget reductions will be required above those instituted last year, and meeting that goal, without seriously hampering vital services such as education, public safety and health care for the poor, will not be easy.

In addition, the legislature will have to weigh in on the state's energy future - not only rising costs but also the need to ensure an adequate electrical supply through conservation, new transmission lines and expanded production. Such a re-regulation of electricity is likely to provoke a contentious debate.

Controversial issues such as the death penalty, same-sex marriage and a host of other concerns, from reducing the harmful effects of stormwater runoff to ensuring decent dental care for low-income children, also loom. If lawmakers want the next three months to be regarded as a success, their accomplishments must include:

Education: Maryland needs to spend at least $300 million to refurbish, expand and build schools next year. Lawmakers will also have to decide how to allocate $50 million set aside in November for higher education.

Environment: Another leftover is the money apportioned for the Chesapeake Bay (or "green") fund. Our preference is that the fund be used to reduce polluting runoff from farms, cities and towns.

Budget: We favor a repeal of the ill-considered computer services sales tax approved in November, but concede that would leave a $200 million hole in the budget that couldn't reasonably be filled by spending cuts alone. A better approach would be to raise an alternative tax (one that doesn't disproportionately hurt small businesses that outsource information technology needs) - along with prudent budget reductions.

Public safety: It's time to repeal the death penalty by statute and not merely by circumstance. Meanwhile, the state needs to find the money to truly reform the juvenile justice system with regional detention and treatment centers along the lines of the Victor Cullen Academy.

Foreclosure: The subprime lending mess was aggravated by subpar regulations. That situation needs to be corrected, and on-the-brink homeowners need assistance.

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