Death penalty, guns to be hot issues before Maryland lawmakers

Maryland State House
(Gabriella Demczuk / Baltimore Sun Photographer)

As the General Assembly session opens this week, Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders are weighing what to do about the re-emerging issues of gun control and the death penalty as well as a recurring question of how to pay for roads and mass transit.

Lawmakers returning to Annapolis on Wednesday will confront a hefty agenda that also includes fixing problems with speed cameras, rebuilding Baltimore's aging schools, saying yea or nay to offshore wind power and resolving state law on pit bulls.

But 2013 looks as if it will be far less frenetic than last year, when the exhausting 90-day marathon ended in chaos and required two special sessions to get the work done.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he hopes he won't see anything like that again.

"Everybody agrees that you look at Washington and see the dysfunction there, and that's not what we have in Annapolis," he said. Now, he added, "we have to prove it."

While last year's process may not have been pretty, it resolved some contentious issues for the foreseeable future — including same-sex marriage, expanded gambling and raising the so-called "flush tax."

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican, said that despite the comparatively leaner agenda this year, lawmakers will wrestle with some polarizing issues.

And while Republicans enter the session heavily outnumbered in both chambers, they plan to resist any proposals for new gun-control laws or taxes.

"We're ready for the fight. We're always ready for the fight," O'Donnell said.

Lawmakers of both parties will keep a wary eye on budget negotiations in Washington, but they begin the annual session without dire state fiscal news. Recent projections show an uptick in collections from an improving economy and the income tax increase approved last year.

"There's much that still needs to be done as relates to the budget, but we're in a stronger position than we've been in for quite some time," said Matthew D. Gallagher, O'Malley's chief of staff.

One goal regarded as within reach is closing a long-term revenue shortfall that stood at nearly $2 billion three years ago. This year, barring an unpleasant surprise from Washington, the legislature appears poised to reduce that "structural deficit" to about $200 million — a level Assembly budget analysts consider manageable.

"It's like the miracle of Annapolis," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, boasting that the fiscal progress was an unexpected feat for a government controlled by Democrats.

The administration, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch all agree that there will be no need for tax increases this year — except perhaps for transportation, where the backlog of unfinanced projects is in the billions of dollars.

In that arena, which is funded separately from the operating budget, additional revenue is "desperately needed," said Miller, a Calvert County Democrat.

O'Malley also would like more money for transportation, but any move to raise the gas or sales taxes would face fierce resistance. Administration officials say they're still testing the waters to see which proposals — if any — might be palatable to legislators as the economy slowly recovers.

"The gas prices probably eat into people's paychecks more than anything else," said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Miller says lawmakers may need to consider a nontraditional approach in which urban taxpayers, who depend on mass transit, would pay more than rural areas. But Busch says such a system could be seen as unfair. He noted that populous Montgomery County contributes a disproportionate share of non-transportation tax revenue toward such priorities as school construction in poorer, rural counties.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, expressed doubt that lawmakers have the stomach to raise taxes this year no matter how much the money is needed.

"I don't think there's going to be a lot of appetite for issues that will raise the ire of the public," he said.

Aides said the governor hadn't made final decisions about his legislative agenda, but O'Malley has suggested that he has a few more items on his to-do list that he'd like to get done in this next-to-last session of his final term.

They include a bill designed to encourage development of a wind-energy farm off the coast of Ocean City. The measure was the only one of his major green initiatives that failed last year, and approval would cap off his record of environmental legislation.

Last week Miller made a key change in the lineup of the Senate committee where the wind bill stalled last year. He expects the measure to win Senate approval this year.

Meanwhile, the governor has come under strong pressure from NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, among others, to once again lead a charge to repeal the death penalty. Repeal efforts have been stalled since 2009 because of a 6-5 majority in favor of capital punishment in a Senate committee.

Miller said last week that he would see the measure gets a floor vote if O'Malley can line up enough support in the Senate. Busch said that if the Senate passes repeal, the proposal would get a fair hearing in the House. He declined to predict the outcome, though death penalty opponents say they're confident they have the votes.

Meanwhile the issue of gun control could have a higher profile in Annapolis than it has in many years.

O'Malley is considering what aides called a "three-prong" legislative package in response to the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children and six educators. His proposals could include a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, tighter licensing rules and measures to increase school safety.

As the issue has picked up momentum, Democratic legislative leaders have signaled support for banning assault rifles like the Bushmaster semiautomatic used in Newtown, Conn. Miller has said weapons "the size of suitcases" belong on a battlefield and not on Maryland streets. Busch said last week that the central debate is about why anyone needs access to guns with high firepower.

Another issue the Assembly seems certain to take up is speed cameras, the subject of a series of articles in The Baltimore Sun describing flaws in their operation in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Miller predicted that the legislature would make changes to the program, saying, "The abuses cannot be tolerated." But he said laws allowing cameras near schools and in highway work zones would not be scrapped.

"I don't see a backing down from the speed cameras now that they're in place," he said. "And they work. People are slowing down."

Another issue likely to receive high-profile attention this year is Baltimore's proposal for a long-term financial commitment from the state to build new schools — a guarantee of $32 million a year so the city can borrow the money to launch a $2 billion-plus rebuilding program. Baltimore County may seek a similar plan.

Miller said city schools are in great need of repair but expressed skepticism about the proposal. "Dedicating a big portion of money for a prolonged period of time is going to be extremely difficult without a funding source," he said.

Busch said questions remain unanswered. "Whether that's viable or not, I don't know," he said.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from the Upper Shore, promised that his party would press its case vigorously on a range of issues, including gun rights and opposition to the governor's wind bill. But he said the GOP would play a constructive role.

"We are looking to come to the session with solutions to the issues," he said. "We're not coming to the session just to be the party of no."

Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.