The dome atop the state capital building in Annapolis. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
With Democratic lawmakers in Maryland largely unaffected by the Republican tide that swept the rest of the country, and no one facing re-election for another four years, the General Assembly is looking forward to a busy legislative session.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature will spend much of the 90-day session that begins Wednesday in Annapolis grappling with the $13 billion state operating budget — and the $1.6 billion gap in it.
But they'll also take up hundreds of policy issues, some of them so contentious that they could end up on the ballot during next year's presidential election.
Stalling revenues and a growing deficit are prompting talk of raising taxes. Maryland lawmakers will consider a range of legislation on immigration, from an Arizona-style crackdown to offers of in-state tuition for students without papers. The prospects for legal recognition of gay marriage appear to have improved. And with just two of five approved slots locations open, legislators are likely to tweak the state's gambling program.
The gas tax
Maryland hasn't raised its 23.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax in nearly two decades. The state Transportation Trust Fund, which the tariff supports, is dwindling.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is among the leaders in Annapolis who support raising the gas tax. Opposition is expected from Republicans, and the question of what to do with the new revenue could provoke fights even among supporters.
Miller and other Democratic legislators say a gas tax increase would enable them to stop diverting money from the general sales tax to the transportation fund. Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry described such a move as "just a behind-the-door way of adding more money to the general fund."
But Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, hinted that a gas increase would go toward day-to-day state operations.
"As we have in the past, we can borrow from the Transportation Trust Fund," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
More than two years after Maryland voters passed a measure legalizing slot-machine gambling, three of the state's five approved casino locations remain undeveloped, and lawmakers are expected to review proposals to make the program more enticing to developers.
Some gambling revenue is designated to prop up the state's beleaguered horse racing industry — which also could be the subject of legislation this year.
Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has revealed a bid to buy the closed Rosecroft racetrack in Prince George's County in a proposal that includes puting slots there.
When slots-enabling legislation passed in 2007, Prince George's leaders objected to gambling, so none of the five state sites is located in the county. Miller, who represents part of Prince George's, expects the state Senate to back new slots locations and hopes local leaders will be receptive.
"When they see these budget cuts and no tax increases, I hope people would be broad-minded enough to realize that change is important," he said.
Voters would get the final say.
Other possible fixes include allowing more entertainment and dining options at the casinos, and reducing the state's 67 percent take of slots profits to attract bids for the licenses in Baltimore and at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland, sites that have failed to attract qualified bidders.
And a plan to legalize table games, debated last year, could be raised again.
"People are going to want to push for full gaming," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "There's a lot on the table when it comes to gaming."
The future looks a shade brighter for same-sex couples who want to be married in Maryland. Democratic gains in the state Senate, and the election calendar, give sympathetic (but nervous) lawmakers reason to push for gay marriage sooner rather than later.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has gained two votes in favor of gay marriage, changing a key dynamic, according to Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality Maryland.
"We've been stuck in the Senate committee," she said. Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, is trying to broker a compromise, saying that he'll introduce a bill to allow civil unions.
Miller opposes gay marriage but said he would oppose any attempt to filibuster the issue if it gets to the Senate floor.
While the Senate moved to the left after the November elections, the House of Delegates added six Republican members. By Meneses-Sheets' count, the new House committee assignments leave gay-marriage advocates one vote short of passage.
"We're in a position where we're fighting for those last few votes," she said.
Opponents of gay marriage say the numbers don't add up for passage in either chamber.