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Lawmakers to kick-start discussions of issues they'll take up later

Jobs, wind energy, school funding to be aired

By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

12:55 AM EDT, October 15, 2011

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A new congressional map is the focus of next week's special session in Annapolis, but state lawmakers will take the opportunity to discuss proposals the General Assembly will take up in January.

Chief among them are Gov. Martin O'Malley's ideas for stimulating Maryland's economy. The governor is expected to call for an increase in spending on capital projects next year to create construction jobs, while also removing some regulatory hurdles. The Assembly is expected to formally consider the proposal during its regular 90-day session that begins Jan. 11.

"We've all come to the conclusion that the major issue in January will be job creation," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has been pushing for an increase in state-funded public works spending. A briefing on an administration jobs package is set for Tuesday.

Busch also noted that there are "a slew" of other key issues that will be previewed next week. House Democratic committee chairs have set aside time for briefings on the governor's controversial wind energy legislation, county concerns about the education funding law and the process for raising tolls.

"Since we are down here, we're going to be working," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee.

The General Assembly is meeting in special session to approve new boundaries for the state's eight congressional districts. Action is needed now because the map will be used for future elections, starting with the April 3 primary. Lawmakers are not expected to act on other issues, but they have made clear they will talk about them.

Davis requested a briefing on an O'Malley bill that would pave the way for a wind farm off the Eastern Shore. He said members might have warmed to the idea after a poll found that 62 percent of respondents would support a Maryland wind farm, even if it meant paying $2 a month more in electricity bills.

"Clearly, that issue is not going away," said Davis, whose committee declined to act on the governor's initiative last year. "We're going to have to deal with that." He hoped the briefing will "make things smoother" during the regular session."

Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. Middleton had scheduled a wind hearing for next week even before the special session was announced, and said there could be some discussion about a new way of framing the bill.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hixson will have her members review a portion of the state's education funding formula that has proved troublesome for some counties in the last few years — and is on deck for possible change next year.

At issue is a requirement that counties fund K-12 education at consistent levels so that higher state contributions result in a net increase to the schools. Three counties have fallen short, for reasons many lawmakers view as reasonable, and waivers were granted.

Now lawmakers are considering making permanent changes. "Should we take another look at that part of the Thornton Commission?" Hixson said of the law, known by the name of the panel that proposed it. "These bills will be coming up in the full session; we wanted the committee to have a background on it."

Hixson's panel will also examine recent state toll increases with an eye toward changing the process of making hikes. "We're just trying to get background from the departments," she said.

"Is there anything that the can be done to change it? We certainly want to look at the policies," Hixson said.

Rank-and-file members will also take the time to air ideas.

As of Friday afternoon, bill drafters had prepared 74 pieces of legislation on topics not related to redistricting, including transportation, health, gambling, natural resources and the environment.

A cluster of those bills comes from Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, who crafted a legislative package to protect sparsely populated areas. He calls it a "defense to Gov. Martin O'Malley's war on rural Maryland."

Pipkin's package addresses concerns he has with a series of administration proposals, including plans to limit new septic systems and overhaul state zoning rules.

"I'm just trying to get the message out," Pipkin said.

Even if the bills stand little chance in the special session, Pipkin said he wants to weigh in before the administration makes key decisions about a legislative package for the regular session.

"The concrete is going to harden before we get back in January," he said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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