- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Maryland and Virginia state legislatures, both of which began their 2005 sessions last week, are poised to tackle a wide variety of hot-button issues, ranging from taxes and the budget to transportation; illegal immigration; homosexual “marriage”; gang violence and school funding.

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich lost one political battle when Democrats in the state Senate and House of Delegates voted to override his veto of medical-malpractice legislation. But the governor was successful in persuading lawmakers to sustain his vetoes of two other badly flawed bills: legislation mandating a $10.50 an hour living wage on state projects and legislation imposing a tax increase in order to limit university tuition hikes.

During this year’s session, Mr. Ehrlich hopes to work with members of the legislature to improve upon the malpractice-insurance bill, which he faulted for failing to put real curbs on frivolous lawsuits. But much of the governor’s time will likely be spent fending off higher taxes and new state spending legislation advocated by Democrats, led by the moderately liberal Senate President Mike Miller and the very liberal House Speaker Michael Busch. Once again, both are likely to push for substantial increases in regulations on business and increases in spending for elementary, secondary and higher education and virtually every form of government social spending — including Medicaid and myriad other social-service programs. Every time Mr. Ehrlich says no, they will try to portray him as a cruel man doing the bidding of the rich and trying to deny Marylanders an education, health care, etc.

Mr. Busch, who since 2003 has blocked efforts by the governor and Mr. Miller to approve the installation of slot machines in Maryland, will likely do so again this year. He’ll get enthusiastic support from advocates of tax increases like Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery Executive Doug Duncan (who will likely vie for the Democratic nomination for governor next year), who seem intent on doing everything they can to push the Democrats farther to the left. Republicans think this may work to their advantage: Buoyed by Mr. Ehrlich’s strong showing in 2002 in places like Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties, GOP lawmakers will likely try to force vulnerable Democrats to cast unpopular votes on everything from tax increases to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and let voters sort things out at the polls next year.

In Virginia, where voters are less than 10 months away from choosing a new governor, General Assembly Republicans are still reeling from last year’s debacle on taxes, where Democratic Gov. Mark Warner split Republican legislators apart. Mr. Warner put together a coalition consisting of virtually every member of the General Assembly’s Democratic minority; the majority of Senate Republicans, led by Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester (who, aside from the governor, has become perhaps the state’s most powerful advocate of higher spending and taxes); and 19 of the 61 Republicans in the House of Delegates, who last year joined to push through a $1.38 billion tax increase. Messrs. Warner and Chichester insisted that, without higher taxes, the solvency of the commonwealth would be in jeopardy. Then, shortly after the legislature left town, Mr. Warner and his administration informed the people of Virginia that the state had a surplus of more than $1 billion. In short, the major argument made for holding on to the windfall by Messrs. Warner and Chichester — that not giving the money back to the taxpayers who earned it in the first place was essential for Virginia to maintain its credit rating — had collapsed. But Messrs. Warner and Chichester and many of their political allies remain strenuously opposed to parting with their windfall from the taxpayers during the coming session, aside from a rollback in grocery taxes proposed by the governor. Another issue that will receive a great deal of attention during this year’s session will be a proposal to give voters the opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment banning homosexual “marriages.”

This year’s session of the General Assembly promises to Act One in a fascinating political year. In November, voters will likely be deciding whether Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, a conservative Republican, or Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, who is moderately liberal, becomes Virginia’s next governor. And, before that, many of the Republican delegates and state senators who voted for the Warner-Chichester tax increase are likely to face stiff primary challenges from anti-tax conservatives.

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