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State budget woes remain top priority as session nears

A new year brings a new General Assembly session, and as Howard's state legislators prepare for the 90-day session that starts Jan. 11, their primary focus remains on reducing the state's projected $1 billion deficit.

"Fundamentally, the budget is the most significant issue because we set a goal that we would get rid of our deficit in three years," said Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Columbia Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Last year, when the legislature set the goal, the deficit was projected to be $1.7 billion, Kasemeyer said. The legislature reduced the deficit to $1 billion last session and wants to cut that number in half in the upcoming 2012 session.

"If that isn't done, I don't think it will have been a productive session," Kasemeyer said

Del. Guy Guzzone, a Columbia Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, agreed the legislature's commitment to solving its long-term projected deficit problem is a top priority. In making cuts, he said the legislature must "do a good job of projecting things we value most, like public education, public health and public safety."

Public schools (kindergarten through 12th grade) and Medicaid are the biggest budget appropriations, Kasemeyer said, "and I don't envision us cutting either one of those," he said.

Taking the large price-tag items off the table, of course, makes it harder for the legislature to find a half-billion dollars to cut from the budget. That means lawmakers likely will be looking for new revenue sources.

A proposal to raise the state's gas tax is already in the works, but because the revenue would go to the Transportation Trust Fund and not the general fund, Kasemeyer said that won't count toward the deficit solution.

"In a year you may be raising the gas tax, you may have to look at some other revenue sources, too," he said.

One way the legislature has tried to raise revenue in the past is by legalizing slot-machine gambling. Two of the five approved state-contracted casinos already have opened and a third is scheduled to open this summer, but the state is still looking for operators for the other two planned facilities.

Still, some lawmakers are looking to get approval in the 2012 session for additional slot machine locations. Others plan to pursue legislation to authorize table games

Raising revenues questioned

Despite the deficit, not all lawmakers are looking to find new sources of revenues.

"I've got serious issues about raising revenues when they're not following through and handling well the money they already got," said Del. Gail Bates, a West Friendship Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

Bates said raising taxes, including the gas tax, is a bad idea.

"We need to limit spending, not raise taxes," she said, noting she's been saying that for years. "I'm used to getting a lot of arguments, and this year, I'm getting none."

Even legislators who do not sit on committees that directly deal with the budget admit it will be the top issue in 2012.

"I think it's going to be budgetary issues and things that relate to the budget. … I don't think we'll see a whole lot of new policy changes this year," said Del. Liz Bobo, a Columbia Democrat and member of the Environmental Matters Committee.

Bobo said she hopes the legislature will tackle some of the difficult environmental issues it has deferred in past years, particularly related to storm water management.

"The more we put off some of these decisions, the higher the price tag is going to be," she said. "Hopefully, we're going to move beyond seeing environmental issues and economic issues in conflict with each other."

However, Kasemeyer said any legislation that "has a significant cost" to the state is likely to be met with some resistance.

While solving the state's budget woes is the top priority of most state lawmakers, a few other legislative issues also are likely to cause a stir in 2012, including:

• a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. A same-sex marriage bill passed the Senate last year, but was a few supporters short in the House.

• Gov. Martin O'Malley's state legislative redistricting plan. O'Malley will introduce his plan, which will likely only be a tweaked version of the one recently released by his Redistricting Advisory Committee, on the first day of session. The General Assembly will then have 45 days to amend the plan or O'Malley's version will become law. Whatever plan is passed will not take effect until the 2014 election cycle.

• O'Malley's renewed push for legislation promoting offshore wind and legislation banning septic systems in large new developments. Both were met with resistance in 2011, prompting O'Malley to try a less sweeping approach this year.

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