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Taxes, gay marriage top O’Malley’s agenda for Maryland assembly

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2012

The 2012 General Assembly session could be Maryland's most hectic in years and the busiest yet for Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is expected to push for same-sex marriage, environmental legislation and a higher gas tax — a stark contrast from last year, when he was accused of devoting too much time to his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Mr. O'Malley, in his second and final term, also has touted job creation as a top goal during the 90-day session, saying he and other leaders of the Democrat-controlled assembly will boost employment and energize economic recovery by putting residents to work on government projects, which they hope will attract private investment.

"Somehow, we have to find a way to make the modern investments that a modern economy requires to create jobs," the Democratic governor said. "We want to put those public oars in the water to drive greater private hiring."

Mr. O'Malley plans to add jobs and improve the state economy by backing legislation to relax some business regulations and provide tax incentives to encourage hiring.

Legislators will look to pass a budget based largely on one to be proposed this month by Mr. O'Malley, who hopes to rebound from a rocky 2011 session in which his offshore-wind proposal was shelved and House leaders unexpectedly failed in the final days of the session to wrangle enough votes to pass the gay-marriage bill.

The governor said he will lean on a "balanced approach" to the budget that could include spending cuts and tax increases.

Democratic lawmakers appear ready to raise the state's 23.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax, which has gone unchanged since 1992 as gas prices have tripled.

A state panel in October recommended that the assembly increase the tax by 15 cents — 5 cents a year for three consecutive years — resulting in an eventual 38.5-cents-a-gallon tax that could bring the state an extra $500 million annually.

State officials have acknowledged that the proposal is extremely unpopular among residents and could lead to protests in Annapolis, but they say tax increases are desperately needed to pay for infrastructure and road and transit projects.

"It's always a tough issue for a lot of legislators, but there's no doubt that the need is there," House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said Monday. "Our main concern is establishing a job market and investing in infrastructure that can benefit cities and counties."

Lawmakers also will consider doubling or tripling the state's so-called "flush tax" — a $30-a-year fee charged to households to help pay for maintenance of state sewage-treatment plants.

An influential committee recommended last month that lawmakers use cuts and revenue increases to reduce the state's structural deficit by at least 50 percent. Although the state is required to pass a balanced budget each year, a gap between anticipated revenue and projected spending has left the state with a $1.1 billion structural deficit. That total was cut from $2 billion during last year's session.

The gay-marriage bill sailed through the Senate last year but was never put to a final House vote, a result of staunch opposition from Republicans and socially conservative Democrats.

Last summer, the governor vowed to take the reins of this year's debate, making the announcement just weeks after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, was widely credited with shepherding his state's successful passage of gay marriage.

This year's bill could be a defining success or failure for Mr. O'Malley, who at times last year received a lukewarm reception from state Democrats who bristled at some of his proposals.

Some lawmakers privately questioned whether the governor was distracted by his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, which required him to attend out-of-state events, lead fundraising efforts and speak out on national politics. Democratic governors elected Mr. O'Malley to the post in December 2010 and re-elected him last month.

In addition to making another attempt at getting the same-sex marriage and offshore-wind bills passed, the governor will make a second try at limiting septic tanks in new housing developments.

Failures this year could deal a major setback to any national ambitions Mr. O'Malley might hold, said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public-policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

"He needs to have a resume and portfolio of legislative accomplishments, and at the moment he lacks that," Mr. Eberly said. "He has to raise his profile, and he has to be more involved, but when you raise your profile and one initiative fails, that will really reflect poorly on you."

Other proposals in the assembly likely will include shifting some teacher pension costs to counties, raising other fees and expanding the state's gambling enterprise by adding a slots casino in Prince George's County or legalizing table games.

State Republicans, who are heavily outnumbered in the House and Senate, have spent months criticizing the anticipated tax increases and contend the governor's "balanced" approach focuses too much on adding revenue rather than eliminating spending.

"Instead of talking about more taxes, maybe the governor should take a good look at what he's doing with our current dollars," said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, who has accused Democrats of using tax increases to funnel money from rural counties into urban areas. "We need to fight the fight and say this is wrong and that this is hurting working families in Maryland."

The assembly is expected to consider more than 2,000 bills during its session, and one of its earliest tasks will be approving a new map of the state's legislative districts.

The session is scheduled to end April 9.

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