- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers resolved most of their tax and spending issues during the recent special General Assembly session, but their return tomorrow for the annual Assembly session will present a slate of important social issues for them to resolve, including the death penalty, same-sex “marriage” and illegal aliens

Lawmakers will weigh a series of proposals to either expand the definition of marriage to include homosexuals or amend the state constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman.

They also will consider legislation to repeal or reinstitute Maryland’s death penalty, which has been on hold since the state’s highest court deemed the lethal-injection procedure unconstitutional.

And, of course, lawmakers will have the 90-day session to approve the state’s $31 billion budget for fiscal 2008, which starts in July. It is the only mandate they are charged with during the session.

“This first year was a year of transition in many ways, both in terms of putting together a more competent government and also in terms of addressing the huge budget deficit,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who took office in January 2007. “This next year will be a year, I hope, of greater progress.”

Mr. O’Malley said he aims to improve training for the state’s work force, enhance public safety and increase the “sustainability” of the state’s energy resources and improve the environment. However, he has yet to say how he will accomplish those goals.

The governor’s first task will likely be the unfinished business of the special session — $250 million in cuts he still must make to the budget.

“There’s going to be continued wailing and gnashing of teeth,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat.

Mr. O’Malley called the session to resolve a state budget shortfall of at least $1.5 billion and to find money for additional government spending.

During the session, lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Assembly passed a package of tax increases and approved a bill that will let voters decide in November whether to legalize slot-machine gambling, which would be an additional source of revenue for the state.

Mr. O’Malley is repeating his first-year mantra that he wants to make government more efficient, rather than making sweeping budget cuts. “I think we’re going to be sore-pressed to find one or two cuts that add up to $200 million,” he said.

But the senators and delegates who come to Annapolis every January through April could easily drive social issues to the forefront of the session.

Delegate Ronald A. George and Sen. Janet Greenip, Anne Arundel Republicans, will reintroduce legislation to ban illegal aliens from obtaining driver’s licenses in Maryland.

Delegate Victor R. Ramirez, Prince George’s Democrat, is expected to reintroduce legislation to expand in-state-tuition benefits for illegal aliens. And Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, Baltimore Democrat, will again lead a drive to repeal the state’s death penalty.

Just don’t expect any of the social issues — liberal or conservative — to pass during the session.

“Our position is neither will pass,” Mr. Miller said of the marriage and the death-penalty bills.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said only that he is open to debate.

“We won’t change the mind-set of some people in the public, no matter what you do,” he said. “It will play out in the normal course of instances in the General Assembly.”

If Messrs. O’Malley, Miller and Busch agree on any issues, they would likely be improving the state’s energy policy and creating stricter environmental regulations.

Mr. O’Malley wants to increase the state’s energy-generating capacity. He also created a commission that suggested curbing carbon emissions by 25 percent in 2020 and by 90 percent in 2050, which if adopted would be the strictest requirements in the country.

Mr. O’Malley’sthird legislative package is expected to be a moderate political task, compared with the sweeping tax-and-slots package he introduced during the special session.

His first set of bills, introduced at the start of the 2007 session, focused on reducing car emissions, replenishing the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters and freezing in-state college tuition. He left the hard calls of how to close the state’s long-term budget deficit for his second legislative plan, introduced during the special session.

The governor is expected to introduce legislation similar to the recommendations from his Public Service Commission, which last year studied electricity generation in Maryland and recommended locking in wholesale energy rates and building more electricity-generating capacity.

The energy issue has been a politically mixed blessing for Mr. O’Malley.

He rode discontent with pending BGE rate rises into office in 2006, but was unable to deliver on his campaign promise last year to block the rate increases.

Mr. O’Malley’s new push for tougher emission standards and a possible re-regulation of the state’s electric utilities could also help put him at the front of the national debate on the liberal issues and help him begin a run at higher office.

Republican leaders say they will focus on undoing some of the damage wrought during the special session, including attempting to repeal some of the taxes Mr. O’Malley signed into law.

“First and foremost, we’re going to continue to insist on the rule of law,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican.

Republican lawmakers will focus on enacting the REAL ID legislation to bar illegal aliens from obtaining driver’s licenses, as well as requesting the reinstatement of the state’s death penalty, which Mr. O’Malley effectively has blocked by refusing to draft new lethal-injection guidelines.

Victories have been small, though occasionally substantial for Republicans, who are outnumbered 137 to 51 in the Assembly.

One of their biggest successes in the 2007 session was the passage of Jessica’s Law, which cracks down on child-sex offenders. The Republicans could find equal success this year with a push to repeal the expansion of the state sales tax to computer services — seen by many as a last-minute provision slipped in during the frenetic special session — even with opposition from the state’s Democratic leaders.

“I don’t support that,” Mr. O’Malley said. Mr. Miller said a repeal is unlikely to pass the Senate.

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