Assembly session begins
Wednesday, 16 January 2013 15:26

No budget issues looming; gas tax still being pushed

by Bill Gates

The 2013 session marks a brave new world for the Maryland General Assembly.
    Several of the issues that went unresolved over many previous sessions have been, well, resolved.
    Same-sex marriage has been approved. Illegal immigrants may now qualify to attend public colleges at in-state tuition rates. Gambling has been expanded.
    Heck, even the structural deficit which looked to torment Maryland until the end of time isn’t much of a problem this year.
    The structural deficit, which has consistently hovered around $2 billion in recent years, is now a relatively paltry $200 million.
    And the state budget, which required a special session last summer to avoid a “doomsday” budget of massive cuts, shouldn’t require much to acheive the balance mandated by the the state constitution.
    “For the first time I can remember, we’re in pretty good shape on the budget front,” said Del. John Olszewski Jr. (6th District), the chief of the Baltimore County House delegation.
  

“We’re within $10, 20 million of the budget being balanced already. That’s nothing.”
    Higher-than-expected revenues from corporate taxes and individual taxes have put the state in a good position, finance-wise.
    Which means legislators won’t be pushing for new or increased taxes this session, right?
    Except for an increase in the gasoline tax.
    “There’s still a push to pursue a gas tax increase,” Olszewski said. “The transportation funds needs are pretty great.”
    It’s estimated that, without a new infusion of money, the state transportation fund will be unable to pay for highway maintenance by 2018.
    The state gas tax is currently 23.5 cents per gallon and hasn’t been raised since 1992.
    The 6th District delegation, which also includes delegates Joseph “Sonny” Minnick and Michael Weir Jr. and Sen. Norman R. Stone, are opposed to a tax increase.
    “We can be more creative in funding transportation needs,” Olszewski said.
    Del. Eric Bromwell (8th District), a Baltimore County Democrat, has proposed putting slot machines in BWI Airport and dedicating their revenue to the transportation fund.
    “We also need to safeguard money earmarked for transportation and not allow it to be used for other purposes,” Olszewski said.
    He opposes a gas tax on the grounds it disproportionately hurts people across the state; for example, people with higher incomes are more likely to have cars with better fuel economy.
   
They’re back!
    The resolution of several long-standing issues last session doesn’t mean some old reliables aren’t still on the agenda.
    Once again, Gov. Martin O’Malley seeks to repeal the state death penalty.
    “The governor is pushing this,” Olszewski said, while pointing out a de facto moratorium on the death penalty has been in effect since Gov. O’Malley won’t sign execution orders.
    Olszewski has supported limiting the death penalty to cases where there is definite DNA evidence or a taped confession establishing guilt.
    “But there are some crimes so heinous, we should at least keep the [death penalty] option available,” Olszewski said.
    He also feels repealing the death penalty would rob prosecutors of leverage during trials; i.e., giving  defendents the option to plead down to life in prison in order to avoid the death penalty.
    Speed cameras, which were passed during the session several years ago, will be back after a study by the Baltimore Sun showed that many cameras in Baltimore City were inaccurate and giving drivers undeserved tickets.
    Another pet project of Gov. O’Malley’s, wind farms off the coast of Ocean City, will again be introduced, along with other environmental issues including “fracking” (extracting shale oil through the use of highly-pressurized water) in western Maryland.

Gun control
    “This will be a very busy session,” Olszewski said. “There are plenty more controversial issues to address.”
    Sparked by the shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn., in which 26 people, mostly elementary school-aged children, were shot and killed, there is a push in the state legislature for stricter gun control.
    Legislation introduced by O’Malley would require handgun owners to first pass a training course and provide fingerprints to a police database.
    It also includes a ban on the sale of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
    “We need to do something to prevent the unthinkable carnage that happened in Newtown,” Olszewski said. “But we have to evaluate solutions, not just have knee-jerk reactions.
    “Balance is needed to protect our citizens and recognize the constitutional right to own guns.”
    The governor and other legislators have also suggested making it more difficult to send bills passed by the assembly to referendum after three measures (same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and the state congressional districts) were petitioned to the 2012 ballot.
   
School infrastructure
    A proposal by Baltimore City to help fund repair of the school system’s aging infrastructure looks so promising, Baltimore County may get in on it.
    Baltimore City legislators have proposed the state should commit to a minimum level of funding over the long term, in the range of 20 to 30 years.
    The city would then leverage those funds to underwriters in order to acquire a large bond to finance renovations up front.
    “I’m going to see if Baltimore County can join in and take out a large bond to take care of the backlog of infrastructure issues in our schools,” Olszewski said. “We wouldn’t have to take a piecemeal approach, but could do entire schools at once.”