- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — With just a week left in the 2012 General Assembly session, lawmakers have hundreds of bills left to consider. But only a handful of proposals will get most of their attention.

The House and Senate still must approve a joint version of the state budget, which they are required to do before adjourning Monday. Legislators also will consider bills that would implement offshore-wind energy and set up a referendum on whether to allow table games and a new casino in Prince George’s County.

A conference committee of House and Senate representatives got to work Monday on hashing out the dozens of differences between their budget packages. They could finish as early as Wednesday.

Lawmakers addressed some of minor budget discrepancies Monday but were expected to hold off on the chambers’ most notable disagreements, which include competing proposals to raise income taxes and gradually shift half the cost of teacher pensions from the state to the counties.

Last month, the Senate approved across-the-board income-tax hikes while the House opted for a lesser set of increases that would affect only single residents making more than $100,000 a year and couples making more than $150,000.

The House endorsed a more aggressive approach toward shifting pension costs, approving an eventual 50-50 split phased in over three years; the Senate’s proposal would do it over four years.

The sides are expected to reach some sort of middle ground on the tax increases but likely will have to choose between the pension proposals, said Sen. George C. Edwards, adding that he thinks the four-year pension shift would be fairer to counties.

“At some point it was going to happen, so it might as well be now,” said Mr. Edwards, Garrett Republican. “But I think it’s easier for the county to absorb it if you spread it out over a longer period of time.”

As lawmakers work to approve a final budget, the House will debate whether to supplement future revenues by expanding the state’s slots industry to allow table games and include a casino in Prince George’s County.

The House Ways and Means Committee will hear testimony Tuesday on the bill, which passed the Senate last week and would need majority approval in the committee, then three-fifths support on the House floor.

If approved by the assembly, the proposal would go to referendum in November, where it would need majority support from voters statewide and in Prince George’s County to fully take effect.

If county voters reject the bill but statewide voters approve it, table games would be added at the state’s five existing casinos but no Prince George’s facility would be built.

Delegate Jolene Ivey, Prince George’s Democrat and Ways and Means member, said members still have questions about whether a new casino would hurt business at the state’s other sites and that their votes will depend heavily on Tuesday’s testimony.

“I think it could go either way, but it really depends on the answers we get” on Tuesday, she said. “For me, the important thing is that Prince George’s County voters get to have the final say.”

One of the premier bills remaining in the Senate is Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to bring offshore-wind energy to the state. His bill passed the House last week and is now in the Senate Finance Committee.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, and the bill’s Senate co-sponsors are still trying to marshal support from Democrats on the Finance Committee who are worried that the bill will hurt ratepayers by increasing their energy bills by as much as $1.50 a month.

A similar bill that would have allowed larger increases died in House and Senate committees last year, but supporters hope this year’s legislation will be passed into law.

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