- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2011

ANNAPOLIS | A House battle Monday over a proposed alcohol-tax increase is expected to headline the final day of the 2011 General Assembly session, so far marked byefforts to fix the state budget and gaping shortfall, an unsuccessful bid to legalize same-sex marriage and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s failure to win approval for key initiatives.

Legislators will work until midnight to end the 90-day session, deciding on the alcohol tax and hundreds of other bills, including the Invest Maryland venture-capital program — Mr. O’Malley’s last-standing initiative — and the future of state subsidies for the ailing horse-racing industry.

The alcohol-tax bill, which passed the Senate last month, would increase that state sales tax from 6 percent to 9 percent. The House Ways and Means Committee amended the bill Saturday to implement an immediate, 3-percentage-point increase, replacing the previous plan to impose 1-percentage-point increases in each of the next three years.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, proposed the one-time increase as a way to generate roughly $60 million in extra revenue in the next year.

A companion bill that would have to pass both chambers Monday would dedicate $47.5 million of that first-year revenue to school construction throughout the state. An additional $10 million would go toward programs for the developmentally disabled.

“It puts more money into issues that we need to address right now,” said Delegate Justin Ross, a Prince George’s Democrat and Ways and Means Committee member.

School funds would go to every county, withBaltimorecity and Montgomery and Prince George’scounties each receiving $9 million. Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland counties would share pots of $750,000, $1.25 million and $1.25 million, respectively.

The session’s final month has been marked by debate over whether legislators are doing enough to cut spending and close a nearly $2 billion structural deficit.

The Assembly puts its final approval last week on a $34 billion budget that will cut from state retirement benefits, eliminate hundreds of vacant state jobs and take money from higher education, but still increase overall spending by about $900 million.

While Democrats have praised their work in restructuring the state’s failing pension plan and cutting the shortfall by 40 percent, Republicans have called the progress insufficient, saying it relies too much on new taxes and fees.

“I think we’ve been irresponsible,” said Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, Harford Republican. “Instead of doing the things we need to do to help our citizens, we’re putting a deeper burden on them.”

The Assembly’s first month-and-a-half was dominated by a bill to legalize gay marriage, which surprisingly passed the Senate in February, but died in the more liberal House.

Legislators have not totally abandoned social issues since then, passing a measure last week to allow in-state tuition rates for many illegal immigrants.

In addition, the House passed a bill Saturday to allow Maryland residents who use marijuana for medical reasons to avoid a $100 fine and misdemeanor conviction if a doctor says the drug was being used medicinally. The Senate has already passed a bill, but the House made a change that the Senate would need to adopt Monday to send the bill to Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat.

With such attention paid to economic and social matters, legislators had little time for Mr. O’Malley’s environmentally heavy agenda, rejecting the governor’s proposals this session to implement statewide wind energy and effectively ban septic systems.

The long-term, big-picture proposals failed to gain traction with Democrats or Republicans, who had numerous questions about their cost and feasibility.

“He needs to spend more time in Annapolis working his legislation, rather than going and performing” elsewhere, Mrs. Jacobs said.

Mr. O’Malley could score a much-needed victory Monday if the Senate passes his Invest Maryland program.

The plan has already passed the House and a Senate committee, and would allow $75 million in tax credits for insurance companies who invest in technology startups. The Senate will also consider a bill to limit subsidies for horse-racing tracks.

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