Tough choices

Q&A: Amid a nationwide economic slump, Maryland's powerful legislative leaders discuss the hard decisions facing this year's General Assembly, which starts Wednesday

Michael E. Busch

Speaker Of The House

January 11, 2009|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

What is the mood among legislators this year?

I think there's going to be a lot of anxiety coming in to the session. The fact is, they stood up to fund [the public school aid programs of] Thornton or GCEI, or community colleges, or hold [university] tuition level. These are all things that have to be considered for cuts. The research money and everything else. Everything has got to be considered at this stage.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has not ruled out the possibility of layoffs of state workers. Is that an approach that could provide savings, as the state faces a nearly $2 billion revenue gap?

The state has already taken furloughs and I think it's very important in a down economy to try to keep as many people in the workplace as you can. Quite candidly, a lot of these people have done everything right. Paid their mortgage, car insurance, gone to work every day. And then because of what takes place on Wall Street, they end up suffering the consequences.

Why not raise taxes on areas that haven't been touched in decades, like alcohol?

The alcohol tax went up a penny just like everybody else on the sales tax [increase passed in 2007]. The appetite - not only by legislators but also the general public - for any kind of further tax increases is limited.

But it comes down to what cuts you're going to make and how it affects services and county government. If it comes down at the end to a [tax] increase in certain areas in order to continue to fund certain programs, then that's a different story.

Other than the budget, what issues will take the spotlight this year?

The issue of the medevac transportation system and Shock Trauma system will go through a thorough review ... to see if we can improve on the system we have [in light of a recent fatal crash]. You will see us looking into the area of how we treat autism in the state and whether we're utilizing our resources the best we can there. I think we need to do a better job of that.

I think the area of domestic violence will be a key initiative of both the governor and the General Assembly. How to protect innocent people with families where domestic violence does take place. In a down economy, you will see more cases of domestic violence.

We will also have the commission that [looked] at the reimbursement of physicians and how they are reimbursed in the state of Maryland and how that coordinates with the health care system. That will tie into the very detailed [Baltimore Sun] story on how hospitals collect debt owed to them and how that ties into the regulatory structure of the all-payer system.

I believe land use will be an important issue coming before [House Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman] Maggie McIntosh, on areas of pollution in the bay and its tributaries.

What midterm grade would you give Gov. Martin O'Malley?

I'm not in the business of grading other elected officials, but I think the governor has done an admirable job of taking on the tough issues in a straightforward manner. As far as consensus building, he has done a great job. He has bent over backward in many respects to protect counties from cuts. He did that through the entire [2007] special session.

I don't envy him the fact that he had to come into office ... and then run into this national recession caused by the federal government and then try to come back and make cuts to programs that he passionately believes in.

Obviously, the governor would love to be sitting here putting more money into cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. I'm sure he would love to put more funds into education and health care and limiting tuition increases. But unfortunately, the national economy has put a damper on all of that.

Will the Republican minority play a significant role this year?

It's up to the Republicans. We always want and value the input of every member of the House. When you get here, you leave your party affiliation at the door and bring your philosophy. I'm hopeful that the vast majority of things will be solved in very much a bipartisan way.

Any chance we'll see resolution to contentious issues that have long deadlocked the General Assembly, such as a repeal of the death penalty or legalization of same-sex marriage?

Both of those issues lie squarely in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. I personally am a believer that everyone should have the same rights in civil law. And I think the votes in the House are there to repeal the death penalty now that the state has life without parole. But the issues will be determined in the Senate.

Finally, do you see the slots issue returning this session? To spur interest from developers in a tough economy, might the General Assembly revisit the high tax rate imposed on would-be gambling operators?

The legislature will be looking for some guidance from the commission [appointed to hand out gambling licenses in Maryland].

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