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O'Malley lists opening agenda for 2008 session

The Baltimore Sun

On the opening day of the General Assembly session yesterday, Gov. Martin O'Malley laid out an agenda on energy policy, public safety and the environment but predicted little movement on divisive social issues including gay marriage and the death penalty.

O'Malley acknowledged that spending cuts and $1.3 billion in tax increases he pushed through during a November special session to fill a budget gap were "mostly unpopular," but the Democratic governor said yesterday that he doesn't think he has expended too much political capital to get what he wants in Annapolis in his second year in office.

"There's a lot to be done," O'Malley said. "In this state, there's more that unites us than divides us. It's in the arena of compromise that progress is made."

O'Malley plans to lay out the specifics of his legislative agenda in the next week.

He said yesterday that he would seek to expand the use of renewable energy and to update legislation on "critical areas," where development is generally restricted. He said the move was sparked by issues over a proposed 1,300-home development along Kent Island's waterfront last year. O'Malley also said he would invest in energy-efficiency programs and efforts to reduce consumption.

"We need a more predictable future and a more sustainable future," O'Malley said.

Noting that Maryland ranks as one of the most violent states in the nation, O'Malley said he would back public safety initiatives such as an expansion of a DNA database that's used to investigate unsolved crimes and efforts to improve the juvenile justice system. He wants to increase the availability of drug treatment programs and re-entry programs for prisoners before they are released.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said he would work with the legislature to create "revitalization and development" zones to help manage the influx of 28,000 new families to the state under the federal government's military base realignment process, known as BRAC. He said Baltimore would be one area where the state could create incentives for households and businesses to locate, which would allow them to take advantage of the infrastructure.

The state hasn't moved beyond its budget woes despite the special session. The state still has to identify more than $200 million in spending cuts, and differences have arisen among the Democratic leaders over whether the state can afford to continue a tuition freeze at state universities.

O'Malley said yesterday that more needs to be done to make tuition affordable, but Miller said he would not agree to a continued freeze on increases. "We cannot afford that," Miller said. "Those colleges need to raise tuition."

O'Malley is relying on eventual slot machine revenue to solve the state's chronic budget deficits, but it is unclear to what extent he plans to stump on the issue before voters decide whether to legalize that form of gambling in the fall. He said yesterday that he is "sick" of talking about slots.

He also said he would not support full-scale casinos in the state. A task force formed by Mayor Sheila Dixon recently recommended casinos as one of the best ways to reduce Baltimore's property tax rate, which is the highest in the state.

Rancor between Democrats and Republicans was evident yesterday. Republicans have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Senate violated the state Constitution by improperly adjourning during the session. In addition, Republicans plan to seek a repeal of the sales tax being applied to computer services, a measure approved during the special session.

Democrats say the suit is frivolous. But yesterday afternoon, Miller reached out to Republicans and even joked about three of them voting against his reappointment as his chamber's president. He said he was hoping for unanimous support but suspected that speeches from his Democratic colleagues about his leadership during the special session could cost him a few votes.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican who voted against Miller's appointment, said Miller presided over one of the largest tax increases in Maryland's history and violated the state's Constitution by improperly adjourning his chamber during the special session, the crux of the Republican's lawsuit.

"I don't think that's the person I want to be Senate president," Mooney said.

Gridlock is expected over certain issues.

O'Malley said he thinks the death penalty will eventually be abolished but that he doesn't expect action on the issue by the General Assembly this year because the Supreme Court is weighing the legality of execution by lethal injection.

O'Malley appealed to the legislature last year to repeal the death penalty, but the measure failed in a committee vote. There is a de facto moratorium on executions in Maryland because of a court ruling.

Similarly, the legislature is not expected to decide the issue of same-sex marriage, leaders said. Busch and Miller predicted that lawmakers will debate the issue but that neither side will be able to amass a majority vote.

O'Malley supports civil unions, but gay-rights activists say they will not pursue the sanctioning of anything less than marriage. Carrie Evans, director of policy and planning at Equality Maryland, a leading gay rights group, said they plan to introduce a bill that would allow gay couples to marry but also make it clear that religions and clergy would not be compelled to perform or recognize those marriages.

Evans also said her group would push for legislation that would provide some rights for couples, including inheritance and the ability to make medical decisions. Some lawmakers say those proposals have a greater chance of passing during this session.

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