So much to do: Annapolis Democrats push ambitious agenda

Lawmakers under pressure from several fronts to act now

January 08, 2012|By Annie Linskey and Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Democratic leaders in Annapolis have compiled a "To Do" list for the next three months that includes raising taxes and changing the definition of marriage. Some also want to close off big chunks of Maryland to development and open even more casinos in the state.

Any one of these proposals would be off-putting to many lawmakers in most years — indeed, some ideas have been passed along like a plate of limp vegetables from one session to the next. But during the 90-day session that begins Wednesday, pressure from many different directions is expected to spur the governor and General Assembly to take action.

To borrow from the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer, it is likely to be a Do it Now! legislative session.

Reasons for that vary but include the lackluster economy, quirks to the electoral calendar and, some suggest, Gov. Martin O'Malley's national political ambitions.

O'Malley has said this is the year for a massive public works program to create jobs — particularly construction positions. The state's employment picture improved in the past three months, but economists still predict that 2012 job growth could be "anemic."

Leaders are looking to the state's backlog of transportation and school construction projects to in effect provide a jobs program. Paying for it is expected to involve raising the state's 23.5-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline. It has been unchanged since 1992.

The proposal could bring to the table allies who normally wouldn't be on the side of a governor seeking to raise revenue. Leading business groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and Greater Baltimore Committee have long argued that the state needs to raise and spend more money to meet its transportation needs and reduce congestion.

The governor has support from the General Assembly's presiding officers. "I'm going to pass a tax increase," Miller said in an interview. "It doesn't poll well, but leaders lead and it's one of the ways we're going to put people back to work."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch called raising the gas tax a "tough initiative," but said he also wants an aggressive capital plan that would put Marylanders to work.

"The question is," Busch said, "is there another revenue source that can replace that? Anything we can do to get people to work in the construction trades will be very helpful."

Lawmakers know they can take advantage of 2012 as a sweet spot of the four-year election cycle: The newly elected rank-and-file became acquainted with each other during their first session last year and are more comfortable now. They may feel the odds are good that they can take unpopular positions and voters will forgive (or forget) by 2014 when senators and delegates are on the ballot again.

This year, "there is more of a probability that taxes will be increased," said Roy Meyers, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. There will be "less interest" for raising taxes as one gets any closer to the next election.

The state is about $400 million short for needed upgrades to 67 sewage plants, creating what Democratic leaders are calling an urgent need to increase the $30 annual "flush tax" — an annual fee that is added to household water bills to pay for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, predicts an increase in the fee will be approved. Over the summer, she led a panel of 28 "stakeholders" including developers, environmentalists, and state and county planners to examine how Maryland would meet clean water mandates. The group recommended raising the flush tax to $90 over three years.

"That has provided us a blueprint for meeting our water quality goals that have been set by EPA," McIntosh said. If the General Assembly doesn't raise the fee, McIntosh signaled she's prepared to send the unpaid bill to local governments.

Another revenue generator that some leaders want addressed now is gambling. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says the state just isn't getting enough money from its current slots casinos, and he wants to see an expansion. Such a change would have to be approved by voters, so supporters need to do it now to get it on the 2012 ballot — or wait for 2014.

Miller would like to see the state allow a sixth gambling casino and wants it to go in his native Prince George's County. He has suggested Rosecroft Raceway or the National Harbor development as two possible sites. Such a change could bring in more revenue to the state, but would encounter resistance from current license holders worried about losing market share.

The Senate president referred to the state's casino owners as "entrepreneurs" and offered them two carrots: a reduction in the 67 percent state tax rate on their revenue and a change in law to permit table games like poker, baccarat and blackjack. "Hopefully we'll come up with a comprehensive bill," Miller said.

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