By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
6:20 PM EDT, April 6, 2013
This time last year, the Maryland General Assembly was mired in anger and confusion.
The House and Senate were feuding over taxes and casino gambling. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch were butting heads. Lawmakers were heading into the final day without even having passed the budget — the one task with which they are charged in the state constitution. It took two special sessions to clean up the mess.
This year, legislators will begin the session's final day Monday having already passed an array of landmark legislation — repealing Maryland's death penalty, adopting one of the nation's toughest gun laws, raising the gas tax for the first time in two decades and signing off on a $1 billion plan to rebuild Baltimore's crumbling schools. In the process, the Assembly gave Gov. Martin O'Malley virtually everything he sought.
"It's like last year we had the Keystone Kops, and this year we have a model of efficiency," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Though O'Malley disagrees, some legislators say the governor earned his victories this year by sticking closer to home and courting senators and delegates more intensively than in the past. Legislative leaders — like O'Malley, Democrats — went out of their way to get things done and avoid a repeat of last year.
And the resolution of the gambling question, with table games and a new casino ratified by voters last fall, removed an irritant in the relations of the governor and presiding officers. "It's like having a pebble removed from your shoe," O'Malley said.
But equally important were forces outside the State House — which varied for each issue — that propelled the Assembly to action.
Intervention by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People provided momentum for death penalty repeal, a measure that fell short four years ago. The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., provided a chilling impetus for gun-control measures. And a sweeping transportation initiative in Virginia put pressure on Maryland to follow suit, so as not to lose ground in the competition for economic development.
Republicans warned that Democrats may face backlash at the ballot box, and the National Rifle Association and other groups vowed to fight back.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican, says that from guns to gas taxes to the death penalty, the state has taken the wrong road as O'Malley has positioned himself for a possible run for president.
"All of them really are concocted and designed to help advance his political career on the national stage," O'Donnell said.
John T. Willis, a State House veteran from the Glendening administration and a political scientist, says a more harmonious atmosphere clearly helped contribute to the Democrats' success in pushing through their agenda.
"It really has been an extraordinary session," said Willis, professor of government and public policy at the University of Baltimore. "I think it ranks right up there among the most productive sessions in the last several generations."
Raising the gas tax
A decision in February by Virginia's legislature was a key factor in creating a climate in which raising Maryland's tax on gasoline came to be seen as imperative.
Last year, with billions of dollars of road and transit projects on hold because of a lack of money, O'Malley proposed a revenue package built around a sales tax on gasoline. It went nowhere.
This year, O'Malley opened the session with a call for more funding for transportation — but offered no specific plan until he, Busch and Miller could reach a consensus.
Busch said the governor took the right approach. "He was very smart to let things bubble up in the legislature."
In late February, the GOP-controlled Virginia legislature adopted an $880 million transportation revenue package, which included tax increases, that was backed by the state's Republican governor. Virginia's decision to raise money for transportation projects put pressure on Maryland to respond because the two states frequently compete when employers are deciding where to locate in the Washington area. And the FBI is looking at both as it considers relocating its headquarters.
Last month, O'Malley and the two presiding officers agreed on a plan to phase in an increase in Maryland gas taxes — starting with a 4-cents-a-gallon rise July 1 and potentially reaching 20 cents in 2016.
"When the three of us are on the same page ... it's a pretty formidable coalition," O'Malley said.
Most rural legislators opposed the bill amid complaints about the state's spending on mass transit. But with the support of lawmakers from the Washington and Baltimore areas, Miller and Busch muscled the measure through. With other changes, including a $3.50 increase in the vehicle registration fee and higher Maryland Transit Administration fares, the overall package is expected to yield $734 million a year for transportation projects when fully phased in.
There was little the Republican minority could do to stop the juggernaut except deliver angry speeches and warn of electoral consequences. O'Donnell predicted that Democrats would "rue the day" they voted to raise the gas tax.
Miller said he's not worried that the 27 members of his chamber who voted for the tax increase will be punished by the voters.
"The public does not like it, but they realize it had to happen," he said.
$1billion for city schools
Passage of the school construction plan was driven by events in Baltimore, where the alliance of city schools chief Andrés Alonso and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was essential to its passage.
Baltimore education activists had been pushing for several years for a comprehensive program to rebuild city school buildings, the oldest in the state. Just before last year's session, Alonso unveiled a $2.4 billion plan to float bonds backed with city and state money to pay for a major construction program. But the plan met with a chilly reception in Annapolis for several reasons, including its sheer scale and the fact that Alonso and Rawlings-Blake did not seem to be working together.
This year, the two came in as partners seeking a guaranteed grant of $32 million a year from the state for the next three decades. Early in the session, they won the support of Busch, who knew he would need the votes of city legislators to get a gas tax increase through the House.
Miller, wary of a scheme that he believed would use bonds to pay off other bonds, was skeptical — at one point describing the city's plan as "ridiculous." O'Malley was sympathetic but had concerns about the school system's ability to manage the money.
Busch wouldn't let the matter die. Weeks of negotiations and staff work led to a revised $1 billion plan — with a stronger state role in managing construction — that won the approval of O'Malley and Miller.
In the end, both chambers passed the measure with robust bipartisan support, an outcome that had seemed highly unlikely when the session began. The legislation is expected to finance construction of about 15 new schools and extensive renovations at 35 others.
Ending capital punishment
By winning repeal of the death penalty, O'Malley achieved a goal that had eluded him since he was elected governor in 2006. The last time he made an all-out push was in 2009, when he was forced to settle for a compromise that narrowed the circumstances under which prosecutors could seek capital punishment.
Then, in November, NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous announced that the civil rights organization would mount a sustained effort to end executions in Maryland as part of its long-term strategy to abolish capital punishment nationwide. Jealous met with O'Malley the next month and urged the governor to lead the charge again.
In January, Miller said that despite his personal support for the death penalty, he would guarantee a floor vote if the governor could line up the 24 votes needed in the Senate for repeal. Shortly after, O'Malley put repeal on his agenda.
Backers of the campaign found that the climate had changed since 2009. Polls were showing weaker support for capital punishment, especially when life without parole was presented as an alternative. Several states had ended capital punishment in the intervening years. O'Malley argued that the death penalty was expensive and ineffective.
And some lawmakers who had supported the death penalty in 2009 had rethought their position. Among them was Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who sits on the key Senate committee. When he switched his vote, saying that he was troubled by the possibility of executing the wrong person, the bill made it to the Senate floor.
Opponents described horrific violent crimes that they said clearly warranted punishment by death. But with exonerated former death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth looking on, the Senate voted 27-20 last month to make Maryland the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. The next week, the House agreed, handing O'Malley the first of many victories this session.
Tragedy in Newtown
The governor's gun legislation was the direct outgrowth of tragic news from outside the state — the December massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary by a mentally troubled man armed with an assault-style rifle and equipped with high-capacity magazines.
O'Malley responded by drafting legislation that would bar sales of guns classified as assault weapons as well as magazines that hold more than 10 bullets. The legislation also called for licensing and fingerprinting of handgun purchasers, along with a requirement that some undergo training. Other sections of the bill sought to make it more difficult for seriously mentally ill people to acquire guns.
The proposal met a fierce response from gun-rights advocates, who flooded hearing rooms and mounted some of the largest demonstrations seen in Annapolis in many years. They argued that gun control does not work and infringes upon Second Amendment rights.
The debate in Maryland took place as President Barack Obama was finding little success as he called on Congress to enact similar proposals on the national level. Maryland lawmakers amended O'Malley's bill but left the key provisions intact.
The political climate had changed enough since Newtown that the bill won the support of Miller, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who owns a gun collection.
"I personally didn't like it, but I voted for it, for society and for the state of Maryland," Miller said.
Other O'Malley proposals that have won passage this session laid the groundwork for more public-private partnerships, allow state subsidies to encourage development of an offshore wind power plant and create the rules and infrastructure to implement Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Last week, as it became clear that his agenda was headed for approval, O'Malley felt comfortable enough to joke about it.
"It's an outrage," he said. "We wanted more."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun