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O’Malley ready for tough assembly sells

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Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's expected push for a gas-tax increase during the 2012 General Assembly is already facing stiff opposition, but the proposal is just one of several likely tough sells in his legislative agenda for next year.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, readily acknowledges the unpopularity of a proposed 15-cents-a-gallon tax hike during a prolonged economic downturn.

While the governor has yet to say outright that he will sponsor such an increase when the assembly convenes in January, he is taking the lead on legalizing same-sex marriage and a jobs package based largely on increasing infrastructure spending.

"Among the various taxes out there, you'd be sore pressed to find one that's more unpopular than a tax on gasoline," Mr. O'Malley said Monday while speaking at the National Press Club in the District. "Having said that ... you get what you pay for, and we need to have this conversation to figure out what to do."

The defeat of one or more of the initiatives would be disappointing following the governor's legislative agenda during the 2011 assembly session, in which same-sex marriage and his offshore wind-energy program failed.

Despite the headwinds, Mr. O'Malley appears ready to raise the stakes in 2012.

"It's an opportunity for us to come back with something much stronger," O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said. "That's his job. Anything that has the governor as a sponsor or is one of the governor's proposals is supremely important to him."

Beyond opposition to a tax increase or gay marriage, the governor and his legislative agenda also must compete in part with a busy 90-day session that is expected to include votes on a state-level redistricting map and attempts to close an expected $1-billion budget shortfall.

Critics have argued the proposed 15-cent increase on the existing 23.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase would be regressive and could disproportionately hurt low-income and middle-class workers who have long commutes.

The assembly last session considered and then withdrew on a proposed 10-cent increase after persistent protests led by the trucking industry.

Democratic leaders appear ready to lend their support and will have the luxury of pitching their toughest legislation to a Democrat-controlled assembly. However, that does not mean their bills will pass.

Last year, Democrats raised numerous questions about two of Mr. O'Malley's key proposals: the offshore wind plan and septic tank reforms. Both bills were relegated to yearlong studies and could be considered again next year.

Lawmakers also failed to pass gay marriage, probably the session's most-publicized legislation, because of opposition from many moderate and black Democrats in the House.

Democratic officials have expressed concern over whether they'll have enough votes next year for gay marriage or the gas tax — especially in the House, where less tenured delegates could be afraid to upset voters.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Edward J. Kasemeyer, Baltimore County Democrat, has also said legislators could be too busy closing the statewide budget gap to seriously consider a gas-tax increase.

Said Ms. Guillory: "Each legislative session is busy, particularly in the last couple of years when we've had a difficult budget. There's a lot out there, and we have to see exactly what we want to do."

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