- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — The 2012 General Assembly is scheduled to close Monday with lawmakers working frantically to approve a budget and decide the fates of hundreds of bills in advance of the session’s adjournment at the stroke of midnight.

It will be a whirlwind day filled with voting and debate on hundreds of bills, including proposals to expand gambling in Maryland and bring offshore-wind energy to the state, both of which have passed one chamber but face stubborn resistance in the other.

House and Senate negotiators also hope to finalize and pass a budget by the deadline and could be forced to work beyond Monday if they fail to do so.

The assembly kicked into high gear last week, holding multiple floor sessions on some days and even going into work Saturday.

The Senate passed a House-endorsed doubling of the $30-a-year flush tax to fund sewage-treatment facilities. The chambers must settle differences between their approved versions of the bill, which would require most homeowners to pay $60 a year.

A budget conference committee also made progress Saturday in ironing out the differences between the House and Senate proposals, as they agreed on a set of income-tax increases.

They still must resolve numerous other differences on issues, including the devaluing of personal tax exemptions and shifting of teacher pension costs to counties.

The approved income-tax increases would target single taxpayers making more than $100,000 annually and couples making more than $150,000 and would raise their tax rates more aggressively than either chamber originally proposed.

Democratic lawmakers hailed the agreement as a compromise between the House’s desire not to raise taxes on lower earners and the Senate’s desire to gain more revenue.

“We’re willing to talk about this,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat. “[The Senate] made a very good-faith proposal, and we’re approaching in the same spirit.”

Negotiators will have to approve a final budget plan, which the House and the Senate will have to vote up or down.

While the budget debate could stretch beyond Monday, all non-budget bills are dead if they don’t pass before midnight.

One of the most notable non-budget bills left on the calendar is a proposal to legalize table games at slots facilities in the state and bring a casino to Prince George’s County.

A Senate-approved bill that would do that appears all but dead in the House Ways and Means Committee, where lawmakers are worried that slots in Prince George’s could take business away from the state’s other five locations — only two of which have opened.

They also argue that the bill provides too little revenue to the state and too much to casino operators.

The bill also has received a lukewarm response, if not outright disapproval, from Gov. Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

In response, the Senate approved a second gambling bill Saturday that would schedule a November referendum on the issue but leave revenue distribution to be decided next year by the assembly.

The bill would, however, strip out a provision requiring majority support from Prince George’s voters for a casino to be built there.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. supports the plan, but said he thinks many opponents are trying to protect their regions without regard for the statewide revenue benefits that a Prince George’s casino could bring.

“There are people that are not so charitable and generous in other parts of the state,” the Prince George’s Democrat said.

Monday also will be the do-or-die date for Mr. O’Malley’s bill to implement offshore-wind energy.

The Democratic governor is championing the cause for a second straight year but still is receiving resistance because wind energy will cause residents’ energy bills to rise.

The proposal passed the House last month, but it is stuck in the 11-member Senate Finance Committee, where the O’Malley administration is lobbying Democrats for support, but is running out of time.

“At the present time, there’s not a majority in the committee to bring the bill to the floor,” Mr. Miller said. “The governor has some work to do.”

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