GOP returns, armed with priorities

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's tiny band of Republican lawmakers returned to Annapolis this week in a feisty mood, bulldozed but unbowed.

Despite seeing their filibusters fizzle and their votes fall far short of stopping tax increases, a slot machine gambling referendum and spending cuts in November's special session, Republican leaders say they still think they can make an impact on the direction of the state by looking for compromises on public safety, immigration and other issues.

They're pinning some of their biggest hopes on an effort to repeal a new tax on computer services, which has also become a top priority for some Democrats.

But they're far from giving up their traditional role of antagonists to the majority party. Top Republicans sued to overturn the special session tax increases based on a little-known clause in the state Constitution. They lost in Circuit Court, but they are still pressing their case in public while they contemplate an appeal.

"We are not letting that fight go until every stone is turned over," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, who represents Carroll and Frederick counties.

With the rancor from the special session lingering, many say they were not eager to return so soon to Annapolis for an additional 90 days.

"They were so partisan during the special session, there was some real nastiness and real tough fights," said Del. James King, a first-term Republican from Anne Arundel County. "You probably won't find many legislators really looking forward to coming back to Annapolis."

GOP lawmakers say they hope to work with the Democratic majority to get some things done - particularly limiting state benefits for illegal immigrants.

"I think folks are anxious to get back to normalcy and to work on issues to try to improve things for everybody," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip, representing Howard and Carroll.

Energy is one potential area of cooperation, he suggested. Other GOP priorities include tightening sentencing laws for child sex offenses to prevent early prison releases for good behavior, and barring illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses by requiring applicants to show some official identification.

But Kittleman and other GOP members also say that what was done in the special session is far from settled - and they'll press in Annapolis to roll back the tax increases, particularly the one targeting the computer services industry. Republicans hope to leverage their limited votes - just 14 of 47 in the Senate, 37 out of 141 in the House - by joining with Democrats considering repealing or limiting the tax.

"We still believe that the fight's not over related to tax increases," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican representing the upper Eastern Shore.

And as if to highlight Republicans' fiscal differences with the governor, Kittleman has questioned how much taxpayers paid for Gov. Martin O'Malley's trips to Ireland last year. Many of the governor's expenses were covered by the groups that invited him to Ireland but O'Malley and his security detail still ran up a $17,000 tab.

"My concern is the perception it gives to the citizens of Maryland," he said. "Here we are going through a budget ... the governor's term is 'budget crisis,' while he goes to Ireland."

For all the sparring with Democrats, the GOP has some internal issues of its own, including five members who crossed party lines in the special session to support a slot-machine gambling referendum, and a potentially bruising challenge to Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest by Pipkin and Sen. Andrew P. Harris.

King, one of the five Republican defectors, says he deviated from the party opposition to the slots bill because his constituents want a chance to vote on whether to expand gambling in Maryland.

"At home, I've been very well received," he said, but he's been excoriated by some members of the state GOP.

"It goes against our cause when we try to eat our own and go against each other," King said. "It was very disappointing. ... You've got to have a thick skin."

In the Senate, meanwhile, the two GOP senators vying to unseat Gilchrest say their competition for the Republican congressional nomination in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 12 primary election will not intrude on legislative business in Annapolis.

"We got along fine before; we'll get along fine here," says Harris, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties.

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