- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Maryland General Assembly officially begins its 90-day session today, with the state’s budget promising to be the focal point.

Gov.-elect Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who campaigned on promises to improve education, transportation and health care, will have little financial room and even less time to rectify the fiscal 2008 budget, which is due two days after his inauguration next Wednesday.

Spending outpaces revenues, analysts say, which will deplete state funds and leave Mr. O’Malley few options outside of raising taxes.

By law, the state cannot have an unbalanced budget.

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

Mr. O’Malley said he would forgo any significant fiscal changes for a few months, which would rule out deep spending cuts and tax increases during the legislative session.

Mr. O’Malley said he does not plan to introduce higher taxes and has not endorsed proposals to increase Maryland’s 23.5-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline or the cigarette tax from $1 to $2 a pack. However, he has been careful not to commit either way.

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

The state’s budget woes likely will reignite debate about slots legislation.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, has championed legalization of slot-machine gambling, a top priority of Mr. Ehrlich’s that was blocked for four years by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

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

Early voting also is likely to be a hot-button 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 both the House of Delegates 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 homosexual 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 said 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 pursue a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex unions.

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