Session opening with big agenda

But fallout from Nov. budget battles likely to cast early shadow

General Assembly

January 09, 2008|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

Just seven weeks after legislators ended a rancorous special session, the General Assembly returns to Annapolis today for another three months debating issues ranging from home foreclosures to immigration - and maybe refighting some of the budget battles they settled in November.

The death penalty and same-sex marriage could ignite protracted debates this spring. But the next few weeks are almost certain to be overshadowed by lingering fallout from the special session, when legislators, often working into the wee hours, adopted a package of tax increases and budget cuts. Lawmakers still need to trim nearly $300 million in spending, and a campaign is under way to overturn a computer services tax that was a central piece of the special session's budget-balancing package.

All that comes during a political season that could prove a major distraction for lawmakers. The presidential primary schedule might find Gov. Martin O'Malley and others stumping for candidates, and two sitting state Senate Republicans will continue a heated campaign against a congressional incumbent - and each other. To top it off, a judge has yet to rule on a Republican lawsuit seeking to negate the outcome of the tax package passed in November.

Legislators say they're returning to Annapolis in an unsettled mood, and a running joke among many members of both parties is that they shouldn't have to come back for another 21 days, the exact duration of the special session.

"They were kidding, of course, but many true things are said in jest," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.

In a telling sign this week, much of the talk in Annapolis has centered not on the next 90 days but on the special session, with lawmakers on both sides trying to cast the partisan-fueled budget-balancing session in the light most favorable to their party.

Democrats sounded a jubilant note at an annual luncheon yesterday, where speakers drew the loudest applause and ovations talking about the presidential primaries and their confidence about their party's chances for victory in November.

Talk of the 2008 session was rare, and when it came, vague.

O'Malley gave a passing mention to the three policy areas that seem likely to form the focus of his agenda this time around: energy, cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay and public safety reforms.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he believed that lawmakers would provide at least $300 million in school construction and $60 million in capital funds for community colleges, and cap higher education tuition increases at 3 percent.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller used his remarks mostly to praise O'Malley and attack Republicans for their partisanship.

All three men highlighted diverse priorities in interviews this week. O'Malley's focused on the agenda he mentioned at yesterday's luncheon, Busch centered on home mortgage reform, and Miller discussed the need for budget cuts and tweaks of the legislation passed in the special session.

Legislators from both parties said the November session put them behind schedule, noting that they had little time to decide what areas they would focus on, much less to draft and file bills.

"I'm going through a bunch of folders right now trying to decide what I'll be looking at this session, and normally, I would have done that weeks ago," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip from Washington County. "The second year of everyone's term here is usually marked by a lot of heavy lifting, policywise, but I don't see that happening now, because so much energy and debate and discussion was completed during the special session."

Others said having the budget out of the way would make policy decisions easier this time around.

"The issues before us won't require the same amount of heavy lifting that we had in the special session, that's for sure," Busch said in an interview in his State House office. "It's not that they're any less important, ... but a lot of issues need to be addressed, and I think [lawmakers] will respond to what's in the best interests of their constituents."

Another question that looms over the session is what role Republicans will play. Key Republican leaders have yet to say whether they will continue to attempt to play the spoiler for the Democratic-dominated Assembly or take on a more conciliatory tone, as they did before last year's special session.

After failing to stop $1.3 billion in tax increases despite a concerted effort to vote together, some Republicans have taken a gleeful approach both to the lawsuit and the potential repeal of one of the tax increases, a $200 million-a-year measure that expanded the state's sales tax to the computer services industry, such as on Web design and repairs.

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