Maryland lawmakers prefer the final year of a four-year term to be quiet and noncontroversial as they face an election year. The General Assembly session set to begin Wednesday is likely to prove nothing of the sort for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, legislators are expected to struggle to pass a budget. Despite a promise of no growth in general fund spending, the state is facing more than a $1 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year and, after two years of falling tax revenue, will be forced to cut programs that have been cut before.
Even by the standards of recent budget debacles, this could prove daunting, particularly if lawmakers stand by their resolve not to raise taxes. Never mind that many states are facing worse fiscal crises. With Democrats under fire nationally (and a disgraced Baltimore mayor leaving office locally), the last thing Democratic leaders in the General Assembly want is to add more fuel to the anti-incumbent fire between now and this fall.
Leaders in Annapolis would prefer the session to be about job creation and strategies for reducing gang-related violence, two areas of interest to voters where some consensus might be more easily achieved. But there's only one piece of legislation delegates and senators are constitutionally required to pass - a budget - and that may trump less pressing concerns.
Meanwhile, there are a host of contentious issues, ranging from possibly revisiting last year's death penalty reforms to determining how much county governments must spend next year on K-12 public schools, that could create similar havoc for delegates and senators.
Here, in brief, are some of the most pressing items on the legislature's to-do list for the coming 90 days in Annapolis:
• Sex offenders. The kidnapping and killing of Sarah Haley Foxwell, an 11-year-old Salisbury girl, has exposed flaws with the state's system for monitoring sex offenders. The General Assembly should make sure that those listed as dangerous sex offenders in another state get the same designation if they move to Maryland. Lawmakers should shore up information-sharing among local, state and federal agencies and ensure sentences for sex offenders are sufficient.
• K-12 education. If Maryland is to have a shot at winning federal "Race to the top" funds for states that demonstrate a strong commitment to school reform, lawmakers must remove roadblocks that put the state at a competitive disadvantage. Increasing the time teachers must serve before getting tenure from two to at least three years would send an important signal that the state is serious about improving the quality of instruction. Lawmakers also need to lift the current ban on state funding for capital projects at charter schools and support the creation of an independent statewide authority to approve new schools.
• Early childhood education. Last year, lawmakers required the State Department of Education to finalize a plan to gradually expand free pre-kindergarten to all the state's 4-year-olds in order to position Maryland to take advantage of new federal spending from the Early Learning Challenge Fund. Lawmakers should support legislation by Del. Tom Hucker and Sen. Nancy King to ensure the state is fully prepared to compete successfully for a federal grant from this fund.
• Drunken driving. Make it mandatory for judges to order those convicted of driving while intoxicated to install monitoring devices in their cars that test a driver's alcohol level when the car is started and periodically while it is running. States that have mandated so-called ignition interlock have seen a significant decline in alcohol-related highway fatalities, and the death of Johns Hopkins University student Miriam Frankl in a hit-and-run accident should add momentum to the issue this year.
• Medicaid. The fight against Medicaid fraud requires all the tools the state can muster - including the ability to seek punitive damages against those who would commit fraud against the health care insurance program.
• Business. Renew the state's heritage tax credit program that gives developers an incentive to renovate older buildings. The program has proved enormously successful for Baltimore and many other communities with historic structures.
• Alcohol. Allow the state's frozen-for-decades alcohol tax to keep pace with inflation and be increased the equivalent of 10 cents per drink, a potential $200 million boost for a variety of unmet needs, including Medicaid and programs for the developmentally disabled. Meanwhile, wineries should be allowed to ship directly to consumers, whether in state or beyond.
• Campaign finance. After many years of debate, this may be the year to finally approve a voluntary system of public financing of election campaigns for the state legislature, at least on a limited, first-come, first-served basis.