- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Maryland General Assembly will reconvene Monday to approve a new congressional map during its special session, but lawmakers are unlikely to take on other legislation despite earlier hints that economic reforms and tax increases would be considered.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, over the weekend unveiled his proposed map of the state’s eight congressional districts, making only slight changes to the one recommended to him by his advisory panel this month.

Lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly are expected to take about a week to approve a new map after months of speculation and criticism, including charges that panel members engaged in gerrymandering and that their map disenfranchises minority voters.

State Republicans have said the panel intentionally reworked the map to unseat Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a 10-term Republican, by removing a conservative section of his 6th Congressional District and replacing it with part of Democrat-dominated Montgomery County.

The governor’s map, released Saturday night, slightly decreases the number of Montgomery County residents who would move from Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s 8th Congressional District and into Mr. Bartlett’s Western Maryland district. It also keeps the panel’s two black-majority districts.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, will introduce his map formally on Monday. Voting maps must be redrawn after each decade’s census to reflect changes in population size and movement.

The General Assembly also will consider maps proposed by other lawmakers, including one by Mr. Bartlett and by a few state GOP lawmakers.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Democrat from the 4th Congressional District, has been among the most critical of the map proposed by the five-member panel, saying party leaders have split districts and diluted the votes of blacks and other minorities in order to unseat Mr. Bartlett. Ms. Edwards, whose district has been significantly reworked, was joined last week by Democratic lawmakers from Montgomery County in expressing similar concerns.

Six Democrats and two Republicans represent the state’s congressional districts.

State officials have ruled out proposals to use the special session to stabilize the state’s finances by increasing taxes, shifting pension costs and passing jobs legislation.

Mr. O’Malley had suggested introducing jobs legislation but ruled it out last week.

“It wouldn’t be fair to roll out a full jobs package for the special session for a week’s worth of meetings,” said O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. “The special session is meant for everyone to vote on [redistricting] and move on.”

Lawmakers now say the session, expected to last just a few days, would not provide enough time to thoroughly vet other, more complex legislation. Some also have acknowledged that certain proposals — including a gas-tax increase — would have been difficult to pass owing to public disapproval.

However, many of the proposals are likely to come up in the 90-day session that starts in January. Lawmakers will spend much of their time this week getting a head start on next year’s potential bills, with briefings, committee hearings and closed-door meetings.

“I don’t think you could really, in a special session, generate the time and data that you would need to pass major bills,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway, Wicomico Democrat.

He said his committee will hear testimony this week on budget issues and the potential need for state transportation funding.

“I think we’ll take a look and probably have some briefings, but we probably won’t get into any specific formulas,” Mr. Conway said. “I think sticking to redistricting in the special session is the correct thing to do.”

Lobbyists and activists are treating the session as a valuable chance to draw lawmakers’ attention and voice opinions on bills expected to be presented in January.

Representatives from the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative have said they will use the session to tout the benefits of a proposed cigarette-tax increase from $2 to $3 a pack.

Members of Maryland’s tea party movement have scheduled a rally for Tuesday in Annapolis to show opposition to gerrymandering and to urge the General Assembly not to raise taxes.

Gay-rights group Equality Maryland is using the session to urge support for a same-sex marriage bill that likely will be one of the highest-profile bills of next year’s session.

The group will ask gay-marriage proponents to call their state lawmakers to ask for support of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition, which is lobbying for the legislation.

“We’re gearing up for next year,” said Patrick Wojahn, board president of the Equality Maryland Foundation. “The legislators are all gathered in one place, and we’re hoping they’ll have time to listen to their constituents.”

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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