State lawmakers anticipate budget talk and more budget talk

January 08, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |
  • Sen.-elect Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington
Sen.-elect Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington

There's common ground within Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly as the 2011 legislative session nears.

Seven of the eight delegation members and soon-to-be members named the state budget as their top concern.

Sen.-elect Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, went a step further for emphasis.

"The three most important issues are budget, budget, budget," he said, borrowing from the "location, location, location" line about real estate success.

With Maryland facing a budget deficit estimated at $1.6 billion, local state lawmakers are bracing for a difficult, financially painful session. Opening day is Wednesday.

Most delegation members said they prefer spending cuts to bridge the budget gap and will fight efforts to make tax increases the solution.

They saluted Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, for saying he won't push for new taxes this year. But some noted that O'Malley might have left the door open for a tax increase if he signs a bill the legislature approves.

Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert/Prince George's, is a leading voice for raising the gas tax to replenish the state's transportation trust fund.

There also is a movement to raise Maryland's alcohol tax to help pay for health care.

There is little support for either tax within the Washington County delegation, which will have six Republicans and two Democrats during the 2011 legislative session.

Sen.-elect Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he expects to see those and other taxation attempts, such as a hike in the minimum wage, considering the "liberal leanings of the legislature."

Shank has pledged to oppose all tax increases and said he'll take O'Malley's anti-tax-increase stance "at his word."

Del.-elect Michael Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, said it will be worth watching whether the General Assembly will follow O'Malley's stance.

Hough will be on the House Appropriations Committee, which helps craft the state budget. He said Maryland's pension fund shortfall will be at the heart of the budget talks.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, called the budget and the pension system issues number "1A and 1B, and both go hand in hand."

"It's gonna be a struggle when we look at the revenue stream that's not there," he said. But raising taxes puts Maryland at a disadvantage compared to other local states, he said.

Other issues

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, was the only local legislator to choose a different topic as most important in 2011 — health care coverage.

He said one of his foremost concerns will be making sure Hagerstown and Washington County are protected in the next budget, but he picked as his top issue the effect on Maryland of the federal health care reform package.

Donoghue, who sits on the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said he will work closely with the state's secretary of health and mental hygiene, the insurance commissioner and other legislators on a framework for a new health care coverage framework in Maryland, as necessitated by the federal reform package.

Donoghue also was the lone delegation member who didn't immediately dismiss a possible tax increase in the 2011 session.

He said he'd hear both sides before making up his mind on any tax proposal, but noted that in the past, a increase in the gas tax helped pay for medical transport helicopters and highway repairs.

While budgetary constraints will be a prime focus for the legislature this year, some lawmakers also are anticipating attempts at change for some social issues.

Shank said there likely will be pressure to legalize same-sex marriage and change the laws governing illegal immigration, abortion and gun ownership. Bills on those topics in the Senate likely would go through Judicial Proceedings, Shank's new committee.

Individual bills

Often, local legislators know of several bills they plan to file — or already have drafted — as the session begins.

This year, the wish list is more tempered.

Shank again will lobby for Justice's Law, which would increase the penalty for first-degree child abuse resulting in death. Three times, the bill has failed in the House while Shank was a delegate.

He said he also will work with the group Help Save Maryland to push for Maryland to adopt E-Verify, in which employers would make sure people legally may work in the United States before hiring them.

Finally, he expects to file a bill adding correctional investigators — who are police officers within the prison system — to a Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, spelling out the rights, procedures and representation connected to their jobs.

Myers, the chairman of Washington County's delegation, said he plans to file at least three bills.

One would give businesses new tax breaks to hire again. A similar bill didn't make it out of committee last year.

A second bill would lessen the requirements for government on certain types of inspections and instead rely on the expertise of private professionals, speeding up building processes.

A third bill would encourage Maryland to more quickly expand its use of virtual classrooms.

Hough said he plans to file a bill that requires government to consider how regulations affect small businesses.

A second bill would address competitive outsourcing — cutting back on government functions already performed by the private sector.

Young had the longest list of potential bills and initiatives among the county's state lawmakers.

His wish list includes:

  • Co-sponsoring a bill focusing on wind power as an energy source.
  • A possible limit on storm water and water quality standards, so they don't unfairly burden local governments, businesses and farmers.
  • Co-sponsoring a bill to curtail human trafficking, in which young girls from China, South America and elsewhere are forced into prostitution as slave labor.
  • Signing on to a "combined reporting" bill, preventing large companies from doing the bulk of their business in one state, but paying taxes in another, to save money.
  • Co-sponsoring a bill to allow wine shipments through the mail in Maryland.
  • Requiring the state to do a long-range transportation plan.
  • Eliminating the tax on retirement income for people older than 70.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, who said everything in this year's session will revolve around the budget, hadn't decided on any individual bills as of the middle of last week.

He said he might consider legislation to make the process of extracting natural resources more efficient, an important issue in the counties he represents.

Del.-elect Neil Parrott, R-Washington, said he was looking forward to co-sponsoring some bills, such as Justice's Law. He also will fight a possible plan to assign partial blame in lawsuits, a concept known as "comparative negligence."

Otherwise, "my goal this year is to learn and to listen," and to help stop bills proposing tax increases, he said.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, who has made the pension shortfall issue one of his priorities, said last week that he didn't have any plans yet for bills.

Lawmakers frequently come up with ideas for bills and file them after the session starts. Late in the session, bills only may be filed by getting permission from certain committees or from the House or Senate as a whole.

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