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Guns, death penalty, roads lead Maryland assembly agenda in a busy week

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Maryland General Assembly is entering one of the busiest stretches of its 90-day session, with lawmakers poised this week to give final approval to a gun control bill, advance legislation abolishing the death penalty and possibly begin considering a transportation funding bill.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, is expected as early as Monday to introduce a bill aimed at funding roads and transit in the wake of the Virginia assembly's passage of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's own transportation package last month.

The proposal, which is expected to include some type of tax increase, would add another item to the governor's progressive agenda which is one of the most liberal in the country and has thus far been well-received by the Democrat-controlled legislature.

"There was sort of every reason to think that the assembly might push back against O'Malley with re-election coming up [in 2014]," said Todd Eberly, director of public policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "Instead, they've got another session in a row now where they are looking at some really weighty issues."

After a 2011 session in which lawmakers failed to pass a same-sex marriage bill and some of Mr. O'Malley's marquee proposals, the governor is closing in on a second-straight year during which he has led passage of most of the big-ticket items on his agenda.

Last year, he helped shepherd passage of a gay marriage bill and a set of tax increases but missed on a proposal to raise the state's gas tax to fund transportation.

This year, Mr. O'Malley has found success with a bill to tighten gun laws by banning assault weapons and requiring residents to obtain a permit before buying a handgun.

The Senate passed its version of the gun bill last week, despite protests from Second Amendment activists and gun owners, and two House committees are expected to send their version to the House floor this week.

The Senate also is expected this week to pass a bill banning the death penalty, sending it to the House. The bill would add Maryland to the 17 states and the District which have abolished capital punishment. Maryland has not executed a prisoner since 2005.

Maryland Democrats have pushed in recent years for social legislation that they say has put Maryland at the forefront of progressive politics.

They have also taken a liberal approach to fiscal policy, passing tax increases and adding spending that they say has allowed the state to weather the economic downturn without cutting from education and important social programs, and could help the state to all but eliminate its structural deficit over the next year.

Unemployment in Maryland stood at 6.6 percent in December, well below the national average of 7.8 percent.

Nonetheless, Republicans argue that tax increases and increased regulations have hamstrung the middle class and business owners and could come back to haunt the state in coming years.

They contend that a prime example is the governor's gun bill, which has drawn protests from many residents and has even led gun manufacturer Beretta to explore moving its U.S. factory out of Prince George's County to another state.

The bill would institute new licensing fees for gun buyers and would include restrictions on purchases by the mentally ill.

"I believe we need to focus more of our time and resources on addressing mental health instead of cracking down on law-abiding gun owners and infringing upon our Constitution's Second Amendment," Sen. Richard F. Colburn, Dorchester Republican, said last week.

Republicans have struggled to halt Mr. O'Malley's legislation thus far this session, but his toughest fight could be over transportation, as he has long been unsuccessful in calling for tax increases -- particularly in the 23.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax -- to fund repairs to the state's aging infrastructure.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat, said last week that he expects the governor to propose a new bill Monday.

Mr. O'Malley met last week with the Senate president and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, to discuss transportation funding, but representatives for the governor have declined to say how close they are to finalizing a bill.

"We're working toward coming up with a plan that everyone can agree upon that gets us where we need to be," O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said.

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