In Annapolis, a modest appetite

Our view: Progress is modest and measured in a legislative session hampered by economic and political realities

April 12, 2011

Gov. Martin O'Malley drew the ire of some in Annapolis this week when he suggested members of the General Assembly had "choked" on two of his initiatives. But at least the governor has company: Lawmakers seemed to have an especially sensitive gag reflex this year when it came to much of their agenda.

Governors and legislative leaders always find something to crow about after a 90-day session, but for the first year of a four-year gubernatorial term, the pickings are relatively slim. Most significantly, they did trim the state's long-term budget deficit and addressed the state's underfunded pension program without a Wisconsin-like political debacle — but serious fiscal challenges remain.

The new 3 percent sales tax on alcohol will no doubt prove helpful in balancing future state budgets, but the bulk of the revenue this year will actually go to school construction, thanks to some maneuvering in the final hours. Health care advocates who pushed for the "dime-a-drink" tax will have to settle for something that comes closer to a nickel per drink (and with no more than one-third going to the kind of health care-related spending that had motivated the initiative in the first place, and no guarantees at all beyond 2012).

As much as some Democrats vowed not to raise taxes back in January, the alcohol tax and some fee increases await the governor's signature. None are likely to cause taxpayers to march in the streets in tea party fashion — but then, these modest measures don't fix multibillion-dollar problems like the state's underfunded Transportation Trust Fund either.

Surely the biggest disappointment of the past three months was the failure of the same-sex-marriage bill that passed the Senate only to face tougher opposition in the House, generally regarded as the Assembly's more liberal chamber. Meanwhile, the Senate, on the final day, balked at a House-approved measure to protect transgendered individuals from discrimination in housing and employment. Overall, it was a tough year for Maryland's gay, lesbian and transgendered community and their supporters.

Mr. O'Malley's losses — a rejection of his proposals to crack down on septic systems used in new construction and to develop offshore wind energy — were typical of how lawmakers treated most environmental initiatives. Despite concerns about how horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of shale deposits to extract natural gas is causing significant harm in Pennsylvania, lawmakers declined to approve a two-year study of the problem (and a simultaneous moratorium on permits for similar drilling in Maryland).

If there was an overall theme to the session, perhaps it was simply an overabundance of caution. Lawmakers were willing to cut spending (but not too much), raise taxes (a little) and reform pensions but not fix the equally daunting expense of rising state government retiree health care costs between now and 2020. They finally approved direct shipment of wine to consumers, but only from wineries, not from retailers.

The most glaring exception to all this timidity was the legislature's final-day approval of a bill to grant in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants who attended high school in Maryland and can prove their families pay taxes to the state. The bill drew howls from conservative lawmakers but ultimately should bring more economic opportunities for Marylanders.

To be fair, legislators did approve a number of necessary — if not particularly sexy — measures that should also pay dividends for the economy. Concessions made to the race tracks should keep year-round horse racing viable for another year, and Mr. O'Malley got the venture capital fund he wanted, albeit scaled back one-fourth from the $100 million he originally sought.

Perhaps this was the most that could be expected in the midst of a slow economic recovery, high unemployment and a skeptical electorate. Certainly, local governments across the state should be delighted that Annapolis did not hit them harder, particularly with deeper cuts to education (only the administrative costs of teacher pensions and not the full expense of future increases was passed along, for instance).

Grade the 2011 session no higher than a Gentleman's C, and hope for a better report card next year.

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