Maryland Republican legislative leaders vowed Tuesday to make tax reduction, including repeal of the so-called "rain tax," their top priority for the 90-day General Assembly session that begins Wednesday.
After a briefing at which GOP lawmakers were told that the state's tax burden is driving affluent taxpayers to move elsewhere, the party's House and Senate leaders said they would push for everything from an across-the-board income tax cut to targeted relief for small businesses.
"We see this as the greatest crisis Maryland faces," said Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader, who represents Anne Arundel County. Tax relief is needed, he added, to keep businesses in the state and ease the cost of living for families.
While more people moved to Maryland than left during the past 25 years, the state lost $7 billion in annual income because residents with higher incomes relocated to other states, said Travis H. Brown, a tax reform advocate from St. Louis who spoke to the GOP lawmakers. He said Florida — a traditional retirement mecca which has no income tax — was the top destination for migrating Marylanders.
Kipke said he plans to introduce a bill that would cut individual income tax rates by 10 percent, a change he contends is "very affordable" for the state. Other GOP lawmakers have tax-relief measures in the works. None could advance in the Assembly without support from majority Democrats, who have said that their top priority is raising the minimum wage.
Warren Deschenaux, chief fiscal analyst for the Department of Legislative Services, suggested that a 10 percent income tax cut, if not offset, would more than double the $460 million revenue shortfall the state faces in balancing its budget for the coming year.
Bills have been pre-filed by Republicans in both chambers to repeal the stormwater management fees that lawmakers required two years ago to be levied by Baltimore and the state's nine largest counties to help pay for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. GOP lawmakers and some Democrats have mocked the fees as a "rain tax" and complained of unfairness in the varying charges that homeowners, businesses and nonprofits must pay. Environmentalists strongly support the fees, which they contend are essential to deal with urban and suburban runoff, the only source of bay pollution that continues to grow.
GOP lawmakers also reviewed problems with Maryland's health insurance exchange and questioned the pace and wisdom of the state's embrace of the nationwide Common Core school curriculum. Sen. David R. Brinkley, the GOP leader of the upper chamber, who represents Frederick and Carroll counties, accused the O'Malley administration of failing to brief the minority party about continuing problems with the health exchange. He called again for a "forensic investigation" of what went wrong.
In the audience during some of the briefing was Harford County Executive David R. Craig, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor. At least one of his rivals, Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, participated in the session.
While Republicans were knee-deep in policy proposals, Maryland Democrats met several blocks away in an Annapolis hotel for a luncheon that was about 90 percent pep rally.
The state's top party leaders, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, half the state's members of the House of Representatives and leaders of the General Assembly, put aside a contentious gubernatorial primary race and cheered their accomplishments over the past seven years.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch hailed fellow Democratic lawmakers as "promise keepers" who delivered improvements in public education and an expansion of Medicaid coverage to 400,000 Marylanders even before the Affordable Care Act.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller delivered a rousing tribute to O'Malley as "the greatest governor in the history of Maryland," saying that he's "entitled to a victory lap after seven years of great progress."
O'Malley, making his last appearance as governor at the annual pre-session party event, said he's not interested in coasting through his final year.
"We're going to raise the minimum wage in Maryland this year," he promised.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County, two of the Democrats running to succeed O'Malley as governor, were in the audience. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler was absent on family business, but his running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George's County, was there to represent the ticket.
Brown said he hopes the three candidates can work together for common goals during the session.
"There's a time and place for everything," Brown said. "This 90-day session is not about the governor's race. It's not about politics."
Ivey said a political truce was in effect at least for the luncheon.
"We are all Democrats after all," she said.