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Session opening with big agenda

The Baltimore Sun

Just seven weeks after legislators ended a rancorous special session, the General Assembly returns to Annapolis today for another three months debating issues ranging from home foreclosures to immigration - and maybe refighting some of the budget battles they settled in November.

The death penalty and same-sex marriage could ignite protracted debates this spring. But the next few weeks are almost certain to be overshadowed by lingering fallout from the special session, when legislators, often working into the wee hours, adopted a package of tax increases and budget cuts. Lawmakers still need to trim nearly $300 million in spending, and a campaign is under way to overturn a computer services tax that was a central piece of the special session's budget-balancing package.

All that comes during a political season that could prove a major distraction for lawmakers. The presidential primary schedule might find Gov. Martin O'Malley and others stumping for candidates, and two sitting state Senate Republicans will continue a heated campaign against a congressional incumbent - and each other. To top it off, a judge has yet to rule on a Republican lawsuit seeking to negate the outcome of the tax package passed in November.

Legislators say they're returning to Annapolis in an unsettled mood, and a running joke among many members of both parties is that they shouldn't have to come back for another 21 days, the exact duration of the special session.

"They were kidding, of course, but many true things are said in jest," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.

In a telling sign this week, much of the talk in Annapolis has centered not on the next 90 days but on the special session, with lawmakers on both sides trying to cast the partisan-fueled budget-balancing session in the light most favorable to their party.

Democrats sounded a jubilant note at an annual luncheon yesterday, where speakers drew the loudest applause and ovations talking about the presidential primaries and their confidence about their party's chances for victory in November.

Talk of the 2008 session was rare, and when it came, vague.

O'Malley gave a passing mention to the three policy areas that seem likely to form the focus of his agenda this time around: energy, cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay and public safety reforms.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he believed that lawmakers would provide at least $300 million in school construction and $60 million in capital funds for community colleges, and cap higher education tuition increases at 3 percent.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller used his remarks mostly to praise O'Malley and attack Republicans for their partisanship.

All three men highlighted diverse priorities in interviews this week. O'Malley's focused on the agenda he mentioned at yesterday's luncheon, Busch centered on home mortgage reform, and Miller discussed the need for budget cuts and tweaks of the legislation passed in the special session.

Legislators from both parties said the November session put them behind schedule, noting that they had little time to decide what areas they would focus on, much less to draft and file bills.

"I'm going through a bunch of folders right now trying to decide what I'll be looking at this session, and normally, I would have done that weeks ago," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip from Washington County. "The second year of everyone's term here is usually marked by a lot of heavy lifting, policywise, but I don't see that happening now, because so much energy and debate and discussion was completed during the special session."

Others said having the budget out of the way would make policy decisions easier this time around.

"The issues before us won't require the same amount of heavy lifting that we had in the special session, that's for sure," Busch said in an interview in his State House office. "It's not that they're any less important, ... but a lot of issues need to be addressed, and I think [lawmakers] will respond to what's in the best interests of their constituents."

Another question that looms over the session is what role Republicans will play. Key Republican leaders have yet to say whether they will continue to attempt to play the spoiler for the Democratic-dominated Assembly or take on a more conciliatory tone, as they did before last year's special session.

After failing to stop $1.3 billion in tax increases despite a concerted effort to vote together, some Republicans have taken a gleeful approach both to the lawsuit and the potential repeal of one of the tax increases, a $200 million-a-year measure that expanded the state's sales tax to the computer services industry, such as on Web design and repairs.

A Carroll County judge is expected to rule soon on a Republican lawsuit seeking to overturn the taxes and other measures passed during the special session. Republicans claim that the Senate violated a provision of the Maryland Constitution by adjourning for more than three days without gaining sufficient consent from the House.

"It's very exciting with the lawsuit and people being upset over the computer tax and the fact that all the taxes are now being felt," said state Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "We're probably still going to be reeling from what happened, but so much has happened in the interim that we're starting out with a bang."

Another complicating factor for Republicans is the primary for the 1st Congressional District seat, in which Sens. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County and E.J. Pipkin of the Eastern Shore are challenging incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. In a sign that congressional and Annapolis politics could intersect, Pipkin announced yesterday that he would introduce a package of legislation cracking down on illegal immigration, a hot issue in the primary.

Whether the session will be lethargic or the animosity of the special session will return in the next three months is hard to predict. Sessions are often dominated by unexpected issues - BGE rates, for example, were on no one's agenda two years ago, but they went on to dominate the 2006 session. The death penalty and same-sex marriage could overshadow other issues in the next three months, but lawmakers have been predicting for years that those issues would be subject to fierce debate only to see them fizzle.

Regardless, the General Assembly is almost certain to pass hundreds of bills, as it does every year, the vast majority of them without any controversy whatsoever. Some legislators held out hope that consensus on public safety and other issues could move Annapolis beyond November's divisiveness.

"Most of the issues in Annapolis are not partisan issues that easily divide along conservative-liberal lines," said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "Gangs is a perfect example. It was not a huge problem in the past, but it is now. There's no partisan answer to how to get kids to stop joining gangs and committing crimes, but it is a significant issue that needs attention. Most of the issues down there are like that. A lot more should be like that."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

SESSION ISSUES

The budget

The issue: Despite a special legislative session in which Democrats approved $1.3 billion in tax increases, agreed to some spending cuts and put a slot machine gambling referendum on the ballot, Maryland's chronic budget problems are still likely to be a major focus of the session. Legislators left Gov. Martin O'Malley with the task of finding more than $200 million in budget cuts, and he has indicated that he will try to do so without affecting the quality of state services. If the governor or legislators want to create new programs, they'll have to do some major reshuffling of spending priorities to find the cash.

What to watch: O'Malley must submit his budget by Jan. 16. If he doesn't find enough ways to trim the budget, expect difficult debates in the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Taxation Committee over how to hold the spending in line. Republicans will probably push for deeper reductions than Democrats will be willing to swallow.

BRAC

The issue: The federal government's military base realignment process, known as BRAC, is expected to bring 45,000 jobs and 28,000 new families to the state. A commission chaired by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown concluded that the state will need to invest $1.6 billion in transportation in the next five years, plus more for school construction and other infrastructure improvements to prepare for the new residents.

What to watch: The administration is expected to push a few new laws to help pave the way for the influx, including legislation to allow counties flexibility in imposing property taxes on private developments on military bases. Delegations from areas where the impact is expected to be the greatest will probably seek preferential treatment in the allocation of state school construction dollars. More significant could be O'Malley's capital budget, due on Jan. 28. Maryland is near its self-imposed limit for issuing bond debt, so the governor might need to rearrange the state's spending priorities. Legislators have also discussed the possibility of increasing the state's credit limit.

Death penalty

The issue: Maryland's death penalty is in legal limbo. A Court of Appeals ruling more than a year ago found that the state needs to formally adopt its procedures for carrying out lethal injection before any more executions can be carried out. O'Malley, a death penalty foe, has shown no signs of seeking to do that. An attempt to outlaw the death penalty narrowly failed in a Senate committee last year.

What to watch: Legislators, led by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, are expected to make a renewed push to outlaw capital punishment, spurred on by New Jersey's decision to do so last month. The question is how much political capital O'Malley wants to invest in the issue. Last year, he personally testified for the repeal and lobbied key senators in a failed attempt to get it passed. Will he take such a high-profile role again?

Immigration

The issue: Although Maryland has not seen as large an influx of foreigners as some states in recent years, illegal immigration is still a hot political topic. In particular, immigration foes complain that Maryland makes it too easy for illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

What to watch: Two Republican state senators, Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County and E.J. Pipkin from the Eastern Shore, are locked in a primary election battle for Congress, and the potency of illegal immigration as an issue in that campaign could prompt them both to try for more restrictions in Maryland. Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, is also planning to resume his efforts to crack down, but he has so far met with little success.

Gay marriage

The issue: Maryland's highest court ruled last year that the state constitution does not require gay marriage to be legal, but it doesn't prohibit it either. That leaves a state law in effect stipulating that marriage is between a man and a woman.

What to watch: Social conservatives, led by Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican, have been pushing for years to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot prohibiting gay marriage. They are likely to try again. On the other side of the issue, gay rights activists are lobbying for Maryland to enact a civil union statute, essentially granting same-sex couples the same rights as married couples. O'Malley says he would support such a law.

Environment

The issue: The legislature created a new fund to clean up the Chesapeake Bay during the special session but left open the question of how to spend it.

What to watch: Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee, is expected to take the lead on this issue. The money will probably go toward reducing nonpoint source pollution, such as agricultural runoff.

Slots

The issue: Although the legislature decided in the special session to send slot machine gambling to the voters as a constitutional amendment, the issue could still occupy lawmakers' attention as they jockey for position before it is decided in November's general election.

What to watch: This could be Comptroller Peter Franchot's chance to steal the show. Maryland's most prominent slots opponent stayed on the sidelines during the special session, but don't bet on him to stay there for long.

Taxes

The issue: Business groups are marshaling opposition to a new tax on computer services enacted during the special session, arguing that it will be difficult to enforce and will put Maryland companies at a competitive disadvantage.

What to watch: Legislators from Montgomery County - home to much of Maryland's high-tech industry - appear to be wavering in their support for the measure. If they pursue a repeal, legislators will have to come up with another $200 million a year - either through cuts or new taxes.

Mortgages

The issue: The subprime mortgage crisis is expected to land more Maryland residents in foreclosure over the next year. A task force formed by O'Malley has proposed strengthening laws and enforcement against fraud in mortgage transactions and making the state's foreclosure process friendlier to consumers.

What to watch: While the recommendations for legislative fixes came from a task force that included trade groups for lenders and brokers, some business leaders might seek changes to the proposal that they contend has an unfair impact on them. Also, some legislators feel that new regulation should be balanced with the fact that homeowners are partly at fault for signing up for mortgages they ultimately couldn't afford.

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