- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. wants the fall’s special General Assembly session to include discussions on transportation funding needs, rising pension costs and the state’s $1.1-billion structural deficit.

Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s Democrat, wrote the suggestion in a May 9 letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, obtained Wednesday by The Washington Times.

State legislators have already suggested using the fall redistricting session to discuss ways to generate $800 million in new revenue for transportation, but the idea of carving out time for the deficit and pension costs had not been widely discussed.

O’Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said he was not surprised by the request and that the governor is willing to work with legislators to accomplish Mr. Miller’s goals. However, he said it is too early to definitively lay out a plan for the session.

“We’ve done a fair amount toward those goals already,” he said. “The smart way to do it and the prudent way to do it is incrementally and responsibly.”

The General Assembly last met for a special session in 2007, when it approved $1.4 billion in new taxes to help close a $1.7-billion structural deficit.

This year, legislators have already suggested raising the state’s gas or sales taxes to fund transportation.

In his letter, Mr. Miller proposes seeking more fee increases to eliminate the state’s $1.1-billion structural deficit and further shifting pension costs onto local governments to save the state’s underfunded pension system.

Business leaders have asked legislators to avoid tax discussions during the session, out of fear they could lead to new taxes on businesses during the shorter, faster-paced special session.

The assembly passed a $34-billion budget in April that reduced the formerly $2-billion structural deficit by 44 percent.

The state, which has long paid the entirety of teacher benefits, is expected to dole out more than $1 billion in teacher benefits next year - more than double its payout six years ago.

The assembly voted this session to reduce state costs by increasing teacher contributions and pushing $17 million in administrative costs onto the 23 counties and Baltimore city, but Mr. Miller and other legislators maintain that expanded cost-sharing is the only long-term solution.

“If the local governments paid the full pension costs for teachers … our structural deficit would be completely resolved,” Mr. Miller says in the letter.

Mr. Miller makes his suggestion for additional fees as legislators are dealing with backlash over a possible gas-tax increase as gas prices exceed $4 a gallon.