Jan 02, 2012, 04:01AM

Legislative Wish List

Martin O'Malley's political career, as well as Maryland's future, depend on his performance when the General Assembly convenes on January 11th.

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Living in Maryland is about to get more expensive. Baltimore City is broke and needs help. The city’s had two successive years of revenue shortfalls, $65 million last year and $125 million the year before. This year’s budget hole is yet to be revealed but you can bet it’ll be the size of a major archeological dig. Montgomery County, the state and the nation’s wealthiest, is short-of-change by $135 million and begging for damage control. Prince George’s County is coming up short by $100 million. And Baltimore County is cutting 200 jobs to avoid a $15 million negative budget. Those are Maryland’s four largest jurisdictions and they all want some form of state assistance or hold-harmless action when the General Assembly convenes on January 11. But guess what? The state’s in the red, too, by the boringly repetitious annual structural deficit of $1 billion, despite billions in spending cuts and many more billions in tax increases.

But that’s only the beginning of what’s ahead when the Democratic-controlled legislature meets and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) presents his legislative wish list. O’Malley has already declaimed his epiphany on same-sex marriage after watching from the sidelines last year as the combustible issue faltered by a few votes in the House of Delegates after passing the Senate. He hopes this year that with his endorsement and executive muscle, Maryland will become the seventh state to legalize gay marriage. O’Malley and the Assembly’s leadership—Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel)—will also be pushing for an increase in the state gasoline tax, now 23.5 cents of the average price of $3.25 a gallon. There are different figures and formulas in the mix but the generally suggested increase is about 21 cents a gallon although a commission has recommended a 15-cent jump.

The pitch will be that the gas tax increase is all about job creation and infrastructure improvement. But the truth is that the uber-expensive Inter-County Connecter, linking MoCo and PeeGee, has just about depleted the transportation fund. And now Montgomery County wants a mass transit line at a cost of $1.2 billion and Baltimore City has its heart set on a $2 billion East-West subway route from Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex. Is this to replace the East-West Expressway and the road to nowhere that was deep-sixed? To add to the misery, the state has borrowed billions from the Transportation Trust Fund to balance the state’s operating budget. That money, by law, must be repaid.

O’Malley has said he’s interested in other taxes, too, specifically an increase in the $3.50 monthly flush tax on homeowners, as a way of upgrading Maryland’s system of sewage treatment plants. On the environmental menu, O’Malley intends to renew his push for wind power and for controls on septic systems in rural areas. The O’Malley Administration has been accused of instigating cultural and economic warfare between urban and rural areas of Maryland because of the septic system plan.

An expansion of slot machine gambling into Prince George’s County will be the price tag Miller will demand in exchange for a $600 million teaching hospital that the county wants as a glittery status symbol. Such a costly ornament could be viewed as redundant. There are already two teaching hospitals in Baltimore and several just across the PeeGee boarder in the District of Columbia. The need for another is probably no more than a feel-good gesture toward PeeGee. Under pressure from black church leaders and other commercial interests, PeeGee has resisted slot machines since they became a campaign issue in 2002. Now Miller wants to install them at Rosecroft Raceway, which has been purchased by Penn National, also the owner and operator of Hollywood Casino in Cecil County. PeeGee Executive Rushern Baker (D) has said he might reconsider the county’s position on slots in exchange for the hospital. The slots issue would be subject to a referendum in November to make necessary changes in the constitution. Other franchise holders, though, specifically David Cordish, who won the Arundel Mills location, will resist any expansion in PeeGee as unintended competition.

The Assembly will also take up the issue of legislative reapportionment, an exercise in legalized bodysnatching that occurs every 10 years to adjust the terrain for population shifts. The map is already drawn and the consequences are publicly known: The city loses representation and PeeGee gains seats, further diminishing the city’s influence in the State House. And the losers are usually those legislators with the least amount of service and therefore the fewest friends and allies to defend them and their districts. Here is how it works: The governor presents the re-drawn map on the session’s first day, Jan. 11. Even though the map is pre-designed, the legislature can make adjustments or leave it untouched. If there are no major changes, the new map automatically becomes law on the 45th day of the session and in November, voters will be voting from new congressional and legislative districts. Otherwise the reapportionment plan heads to the courts.

Baltimore officials will meet with the city’s legislative delegation on Jan. 9 to present a list of their needs and wants. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has already indicated that she’ll ask the City Council for an increase in the bottle tax from two to five cents to be used for school repairs and construction. Adding to the city’s chronic money problems is the sharp plunge in real estate values and the accompanying decrease in property taxes. And not the least significant reason is that one-third of the city’s residents pay no taxes at all. Another little-known fact is that 42 percent of all center-city property—colleges, hospitals, churches, schools—are non-profits and therefore tax exempt. Joblessness is also contributing to a loss in payroll taxes as it is, too, at the state level. In the last quarter, the state saw a decline of $71 million in income tax collections. The local piggyback taxes decline proportionately.

The true cost of a legislative session to the taxpayers is never really known until the final supplemental budgets, both operating and capital, are submitted in the waning days of the 90-day meeting. It is in those documents that the payoffs and rewards are contained for those legislators and delegations that have proven their loyalty through their votes for Administration programs and projects. The rewards usually come in the form of bricks-and-mortar projects and pet programs that faithful lawmakers can translate into votes and support back home in their districts.

This will be a tricky session for O’Malley to maneuver. Not only does he have difficult money and social issues to deal with at home, but he has just been elected to an unusual second one-year term as chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association. His job as chairman is to raise funds and help elect other Democratic governors. There are 11 governorships up for grabs this year, eight of them now controlled by Democrats. In addition, the presidential primary election in Maryland has been shifted from March to April 3 to break out of the pack and to give it more visibility. This means that O’Malley and the legislature will be bogged down in the final week of the session when work-days extend from early morning often until midnight, leaving little time to flush out the voters in a thrilling denouement to a foregone conclusion.

The four major subdivisions contain more than half the state’s population and constitute the cluster around I-95 that is the heart of the Democratic party in Maryland. How they are treated by the governor and the General Assembly can often affect their level of enthusiasm in elections and toward their elected officials. O’Malley is playing a delicate dual role, a leader in his own state and a political ambassador to other states in his position as head of the DGA. How he fares in his own state could influence the way he is viewed in others as he broadens his audience and spreads his ambitions. With this difficult session, O’Malley’s future in politics could be defined and determined.


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