The Annapolis agenda

Our view : The General Assembly reconvenes this week to confront budget challenges but should not lose sight of a host of other pressing concerns that require action

January 12, 2009

Maryland lawmakers return for their annual 90-day legislative session in Annapolis this Wednesday with some trepidation. The anxiety-prone need only wait one week for the genuine discomfort to begin. That's when Gov. Martin O'Malley must submit his budget for the next fiscal year, and it's shaping up to be a headache and a half.

With the recession having already forced difficult cuts in recent months, the outlook for the immediate future is truly grim. Interest groups are no longer jamming State House hallways in search of new programs but with a goal of merely avoiding a major budget reduction. Mr. O'Malley is almost certain to propose a no-growth budget. That sounds misleadingly simple to achieve - no employee raises, no new initiatives, no expansion of government. But costs can't be frozen so easily, particularly in entitlement programs that must expand with inflation and need. And with the easy budget cuts made, government will have to do less with less.

The challenge then is not merely to spread the pain evenly across state agencies but to recognize and preserve what should be government's highest priorities. At the top of that list should be K-12 public education. But not far behind are programs that soften the economic hardship felt by the poor, the sick and the newly unemployed.

The fiscal storm has arrived with such fury that the governor is going to have to dip into the state's reserve fund and tap some of the hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for so-called rainy days. Future revenues from slot machines can restore the account soon enough.

President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus package should provide some relief as well. Certainly, if the federal government chooses to pick up a higher percentage of the shared costs of Medicaid, for instance, that's less to cut. But such help is far from certain, and it would be best not to count on it yet. Nevertheless, a fiscal 2010 budget cannot be the only bill to pass this session.

Here, in brief, is some of what legislators should be able to accomplish in the next three months:

Death penalty . With the governor's task force's findings in hand, Maryland must repeal capital punishment. The evidence is all too clear: The inequities and opportunities for error are too great while a sentence of life without parole is a workable, more humane alternative.

Higher education . Recent caps on in-state tuition have made state universities more competitive, but the state needs a long-term strategy not only for the University System of Maryland but also for too-often-overlooked community colleges. At minimum, the expiring fund (financed by a portion of corporate taxes) that has helped keep tuition low should be renewed.

Smart Growth. It's time to put teeth in the law and impose statewide standards that limit sprawl and encourage urban redevelopment. State law ought to be made clear: County comprehensive plans should matter despite the unfortunate precedent set by last year's court ruling favoring the planned Terrapin Run mega-development in Western Maryland.

Domestic violence. Lawmakers should keep guns out of the hands of abusive spouses by strengthening protective orders. In cases of permanent protective orders, removing guns from a home ought to be mandatory; with temporary orders, it should be up to a judge to decide.

Public safety. Information on juvenile offenders should be more readily shared by government agencies. Some limits need to be placed on good-time credit for prisoners so that it is no longer a nearly automatic benefit.

Business. The tax credit program that aids developers who are renovating historic buildings should not be allowed to expire or city participation capped - as it's been vital to Baltimore's renaissance. Meanwhile, lawmakers should refrain from raising business-related taxes.

Drunken driving. Taking a cue from a statewide task force, legislators should approve measures to suspend for six months the driver's licenses of those under age 21 convicted of alcohol possession and make it a criminal offense for an adult to provide alcohol to minors.

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