- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2012

After settling the hot-button social topic of same-sex marriage, Maryland’s General Assembly appears poised at the halfway point of its 90-day session to begin tackling its many financial issues, including calls for tax hikes to help trim the state’s $1.1 billion structural deficit.

The Senate is expected this week to begin considering Gov. Martin O'Malley’s proposed $35.8 billion budget, which would use numerous tax increases to trim more than $650 million from the structural gap, which measures expected revenue shortfalls in future years.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has also introduced stand-alone legislation that would phase in a 6 percent sales tax on gas.

The governor’s spending plan has drawn expected criticism from Republicans, but many Democratic lawmakers have acknowledged they will likely look for more cuts and dial back on some of the proposed revenue increases.

“We’re going to have numerous bills to try and prevail on what we need to move the state forward,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat. “We’re not trying to rush anything through here. We’re just trying to move everything in an orderly fashion.”

While some legislators hope for cuts to ease the tax burden on residents still recovering from a recession, Mr. O'Malley has made spending increases a major part of his agenda this session.

The governor has called for a “balanced approach” that includes some cuts but also generous funding of education and infrastructure projects to help drive job creation and maintain the state’s quality of life.

He says his administration has done more than its share of budget cutting since 2007, slashing more than $7.5 billion including this year’s proposed plan.

However, opponents have pointed out that the cuts have come largely by trimming projected increases in agency budgets, rather than reducing year-to-year spending. The state’s overall budget has grown by about $6 million since Mr. O'Malley took office.

“To claim that you’ve made a cut when you’ve only reduced anticipated outlays — Maryland families don’t work that way, and the government shouldn’t work that way,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican. “Any attempt at revenue enhancements is just going up the wrong tree.”

This year, legislators have expressed their most concern about the governor’s proposed gas-tax increase and an income-tax hike on the top 20 percent of earners, which some Democratic leaders say dips too far into the middle class.

Mr. Miller has expressed some support for more gas-tax revenue but has often been critical of the income-tax increases. He said last week that the Senate will consider several alternate budget proposals to the governor’s one including a “doomsday” budget with more than $500 million in cuts and virtually no revenue increases.

Mr. O'Malley has publicly welcomed cooperation from lawmakers in revising the plan to meet the General Assembly’s vision but has warned that deeper cuts could come from education, safety and health — areas where the state spends 80 percent of its money.

Mr. Miller has said the doomsday budget would likely include steep education cuts and go along with the governor’s efforts to push $239 million in state pension costs onto counties.

The General Assembly has until April 2 to pass a budget. This year’s legislation session ends April 9, but could be extended if the House and Senate fail to reach an agreement.

“The nature of the process is for the governor to introduce what he can come up with, and the legislature will see what solutions we prefer,” said Delegate C. William Frick, Montgomery Democrat. “The end result is pretty much always going to be a little different.”