- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland General Assembly started its session yesterday, with lawmakers buzzing about the state’s tightening budget and proposed tax increases.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he saw no reason to resort to new taxes to balance the state budget.

The structural deficit is projected at more than $1 billion a year, totaling about $5.8 billion in the next four years.

Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s Democrat who has rejected a suggestion to increase the cigarette tax from $1 a pack to $2, said no new taxes should be imposed this year. He said increases on the gasoline tax and similar proposals would be “very tough politically” to accomplish.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, agreed. “We will be able to meet our needs” without new taxes, he said.

The fiscal 2008 budget is due two days after Martin O’Malley is inaugurated as governor on Wednesday.

Spending outpaces revenues, analysts say, which will eventually drain state funds and leave Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, few options outside of increasing taxes.

By law, the state cannot have an unbalanced budget.

Mr. O’Malley said he would be open to tax proposals but will not introduce new taxes during the General Assembly session.

“Don’t get too far ahead of me this week before I can get settled in,” he said jokingly during a brief address to the House.

Outgoing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has increased state sales and income taxes during his term. Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, lost his re-election bid in November.

One source of revenue likely to resurface during the 90-day session is slot-machine gambling — an issue that has divided the House and Senate for four years.

Mr. Miller has pushed for the legislation, a top priority of Mr. Ehrlich’s that was blocked for four years by Mr. Busch.

Mr. O’Malley has said he favors a limited number of slots at racetracks but does not see them as a revenue source.

As governor, Mr. O’Malley will further strengthen the Maryland Democratic Party, which holds a sizable advantage in the Senate and the House. The Senate has 32 Democrats and 15 Republicans, and the House has 106 Democrats and 35 Republicans.

Mr. Busch called for unity and bipartisanship in both chambers.

“Many of us wear our political affiliation on our sleeves,” he said. “As we go forth from this day on, I believe the most important title that any of us can carry in this chamber is that we are Marylanders.”

Mr. Busch called health care a key issue for the state. The goal in the next three years is to cut in half the number of state residents without health insurance, he said.

“Even with the great assets that [Maryland] has in health care, 750,000 Marylanders go without health coverage today — 14 percent of our population,” Mr. Busch said.

Early voting also promises to be a hot issue.

Democrats have passed bills permitting Maryland residents to vote 10 days before an election, even overriding a veto by Mr. Ehrlich. But Maryland’s highest court ruled that early voting is illegal under the state constitution.

A constitutional amendment to bring early voting to Maryland would require a three-fifths vote to pass the House and the Senate.

A proposal to add a paper record to the state’s Diebold Election Systems electronic voting machines has received bipartisan support.

The issue of same-sex “marriage” is likely to generate a more heated debate. The General Assembly last year rejected an amendment banning same-sex unions.

The seven-member Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, will issue a ruling this month on a Baltimore Circuit Court decision that stated traditional marriage is not a “legitimate state interest” if it discriminates against homosexuals.

If the Court of Appeals upholds the decision, conservatives in the House and Senate likely will again pursue a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex unions.

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