Assembly moved quickly to pass bevy of landmark bills

Gun control, death penalty repeal, higher gas taxes all approved prior to final day

April 06, 2013|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

This time last year, the Maryland General Assembly was mired in anger and confusion.

The House and Senate were feuding over taxes and casino gambling. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch were butting heads. Lawmakers were heading into the final day without even having passed the budget — the one task with which they are charged in the state constitution. It took two special sessions to clean up the mess.

This year, legislators will begin the session's final day Monday having already passed an array of landmark legislation — repealing Maryland's death penalty, adopting one of the nation's toughest gun laws, raising the gas tax for the first time in two decades and signing off on a $1 billion plan to rebuild Baltimore's crumbling schools. In the process, the Assembly gave Gov. Martin O'Malley virtually everything he sought.

"It's like last year we had the Keystone Kops, and this year we have a model of efficiency," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

What happened?

Though O'Malley disagrees, some legislators say the governor earned his victories this year by sticking closer to home and courting senators and delegates more intensively than in the past. Legislative leaders — like O'Malley, Democrats — went out of their way to get things done and avoid a repeat of last year.

And the resolution of the gambling question, with table games and a new casino ratified by voters last fall, removed an irritant in the relations of the governor and presiding officers. "It's like having a pebble removed from your shoe," O'Malley said.

But equally important were forces outside the State House — which varied for each issue — that propelled the Assembly to action.

Intervention by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People provided momentum for death penalty repeal, a measure that fell short four years ago. The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., provided a chilling impetus for gun-control measures. And a sweeping transportation initiative in Virginia put pressure on Maryland to follow suit, so as not to lose ground in the competition for economic development.

Republicans warned that Democrats may face backlash at the ballot box, and the National Rifle Association and other groups vowed to fight back.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican, says that from guns to gas taxes to the death penalty, the state has taken the wrong road as O'Malley has positioned himself for a possible run for president.

"All of them really are concocted and designed to help advance his political career on the national stage," O'Donnell said.

John T. Willis, a State House veteran from the Glendening administration and a political scientist, says a more harmonious atmosphere clearly helped contribute to the Democrats' success in pushing through their agenda.

"It really has been an extraordinary session," said Willis, professor of government and public policy at the University of Baltimore. "I think it ranks right up there among the most productive sessions in the last several generations."

Raising the gas tax

A decision in February by Virginia's legislature was a key factor in creating a climate in which raising Maryland's tax on gasoline came to be seen as imperative.

Last year, with billions of dollars of road and transit projects on hold because of a lack of money, O'Malley proposed a revenue package built around a sales tax on gasoline. It went nowhere.

This year, O'Malley opened the session with a call for more funding for transportation — but offered no specific plan until he, Busch and Miller could reach a consensus.

Busch said the governor took the right approach. "He was very smart to let things bubble up in the legislature."

In late February, the GOP-controlled Virginia legislature adopted an $880 million transportation revenue package, which included tax increases, that was backed by the state's Republican governor. Virginia's decision to raise money for transportation projects put pressure on Maryland to respond because the two states frequently compete when employers are deciding where to locate in the Washington area. And the FBI is looking at both as it considers relocating its headquarters.

Last month, O'Malley and the two presiding officers agreed on a plan to phase in an increase in Maryland gas taxes — starting with a 4-cents-a-gallon rise July 1 and potentially reaching 20 cents in 2016.

"When the three of us are on the same page ... it's a pretty formidable coalition," O'Malley said.

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