- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Several high-profile bills remains uncertain as the General Assembly session passes the halfway mark.

Among the undecided bills are those on increasing the tax on cigarettes, giving state unions more bargaining power and imposing a fee on new development to cut pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The past four years, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly wrangled with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. This year, Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, is governor, but party members often have different views about how to address important issues.

With the state facing a structural deficit of more than $1 billion next year, Mr. O’Malley has acknowledged that raising new revenues will likely be needed. However, he, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. are not in full agreement about whether to raise the money through taxes, slot-machine gambling or a combination of the two.

Mr. O’Malley wants first to try to streamline government and cut spending.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, wants to double the cigarette tax to $2 a pack to pay for expanded health care. But Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Miller oppose the measure.

Mr. Miller, Southern Maryland Democrat, wants to legalize slot machines and increase the state’s gas tax by 12 cents a gallon to pay for transportation projects.

Mr. O’Malley is receptive to the tax and supports a limited slots program but wants to delay his decision until next year.

Despite the disagreements, significant environmental legislation is expected to pass. A measure that sets tough emissions standards for new cars sold in Maryland quickly passed the General Assembly, and Mr. O’Malley is expected to sign it when House and Senate lawmakers reconcile differences between their versions.

Other environmental priorities have moved to the top of the legislative agenda. A “green fee” on new development to pay for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, a minor issue when the session started, got endorsements last month from Mr. Busch and Mr. O’Malley.

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