So much to do: Annapolis Democrats push ambitious agenda

Democratic leaders in Annapolis have compiled a "To Do" list for the next three months that includes raising taxes and changing the definition of marriage. Some also want to close off big chunks of Maryland to development and open even more casinos in the state.

Any one of these proposals would be off-putting to many lawmakers in most years — indeed, some ideas have been passed along like a plate of limp vegetables from one session to the next. But during the 90-day session that begins Wednesday, pressure from many different directions is expected to spur the governor and General Assembly to take action.

To borrow from the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer, it is likely to be a Do it Now! legislative session.

Reasons for that vary but include the lackluster economy, quirks to the electoral calendar and, some suggest, Gov. Martin O'Malley's national political ambitions.

O'Malley has said this is the year for a massive public works program to create jobs — particularly construction positions. The state's employment picture improved in the past three months, but economists still predict that 2012 job growth could be "anemic."

Leaders are looking to the state's backlog of transportation and school construction projects to in effect provide a jobs program. Paying for it is expected to involve raising the state's 23.5-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline. It has been unchanged since 1992.

The proposal could bring to the table allies who normally wouldn't be on the side of a governor seeking to raise revenue. Leading business groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and Greater Baltimore Committee have long argued that the state needs to raise and spend more money to meet its transportation needs and reduce congestion.

The governor has support from the General Assembly's presiding officers. "I'm going to pass a tax increase," Miller said in an interview. "It doesn't poll well, but leaders lead and it's one of the ways we're going to put people back to work."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch called raising the gas tax a "tough initiative," but said he also wants an aggressive capital plan that would put Marylanders to work.

"The question is," Busch said, "is there another revenue source that can replace that? Anything we can do to get people to work in the construction trades will be very helpful."

Lawmakers know they can take advantage of 2012 as a sweet spot of the four-year election cycle: The newly elected rank-and-file became acquainted with each other during their first session last year and are more comfortable now. They may feel the odds are good that they can take unpopular positions and voters will forgive (or forget) by 2014 when senators and delegates are on the ballot again.

This year, "there is more of a probability that taxes will be increased," said Roy Meyers, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. There will be "less interest" for raising taxes as one gets any closer to the next election.

The state is about $400 million short for needed upgrades to 67 sewage plants, creating what Democratic leaders are calling an urgent need to increase the $30 annual "flush tax" — an annual fee that is added to household water bills to pay for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, predicts an increase in the fee will be approved. Over the summer, she led a panel of 28 "stakeholders" including developers, environmentalists, and state and county planners to examine how Maryland would meet clean water mandates. The group recommended raising the flush tax to $90 over three years.

"That has provided us a blueprint for meeting our water quality goals that have been set by EPA," McIntosh said. If the General Assembly doesn't raise the fee, McIntosh signaled she's prepared to send the unpaid bill to local governments.

Another revenue generator that some leaders want addressed now is gambling. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says the state just isn't getting enough money from its current slots casinos, and he wants to see an expansion. Such a change would have to be approved by voters, so supporters need to do it now to get it on the 2012 ballot — or wait for 2014.

Miller would like to see the state allow a sixth gambling casino and wants it to go in his native Prince George's County. He has suggested Rosecroft Raceway or the National Harbor development as two possible sites. Such a change could bring in more revenue to the state, but would encounter resistance from current license holders worried about losing market share.

The Senate president referred to the state's casino owners as "entrepreneurs" and offered them two carrots: a reduction in the 67 percent state tax rate on their revenue and a change in law to permit table games like poker, baccarat and blackjack. "Hopefully we'll come up with a comprehensive bill," Miller said.

Busch, however, dismissed expanding gambling to another site as a "fringe issue" in the session and predicted that his chamber would not focus on it.

Also tied to the election calendar is same-sex marriage. Leaders want to pass it now or shelve it until the next four-year term, which starts in 2015. The reason: The item is so contentious that lawmakers assume it will be petitioned to referendum. They would rather that happen in 2012 and not in 2014 when they're up for re-election.

Governor O'Malley's agenda is expected to include a suite of liberal policies on the environment, including two proposals that failed last year and were reworked over the summer: Curbing the use of septic systems and creating an off-shore wind farm.

"We had a dry run, if you will," Richard Hall, the state planning secretary,said of the initial septic system bill. Lawmakers rejected O'Malley's sweeping proposal to ban septics for virtually all new developments, saying it would effectively halt growth in rural areas. Requiring new projects to have public sewer systems makes them prohibitively expensive, critics said.

Over the summer a task force including lawmakers came up with a more nuanced approach that would split the state into four zones, with some rural areas carrying more stringent restrictions on septics than others. Proponents say the time is right to make a decision, as critics have had their say.

O'Malley has also signaled that he'll make another push this year for an off-shore wind farm in waters near Ocean City. The governor wants to move quickly on wind so Maryland will be in the vanguard of a new industry. He envisions Maryland-based manufacturing jobs one day creating parts for wind farms up and down the East Coast.

Republicans have a different take on the governor's motives. They say the aggressive environmental agenda is part of a broader plan to bolster O'Malley's standing nationally among progressives and to make him a more attractive candidate for president in a 2016 Democratic primary.

"This is about national policy," said state Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin. "The citizens will be paying his taxes when he is running for national office. Some of us are not going to let that happen."

Pipkin, who represents the Upper Eastern Shore, believes O'Malley wants to show liberal opinion leaders across the country that he can pass a state version of their national agenda, getting a Maryland gas tax increase where Democrats in Congress could not, demonstrating "green" credentials by building an off-shore wind farm, and stimulating the economy with public works.

Some Democrats point out that expecting action on leading initiatives for 2012 does not necessarily mean passage. Asking the rank-and-file to make tough vote after tough vote will not be easy.

"How many times can you got to the well to lean on people?" asked Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. " 'I need you for gay marriage,' 'I need you for wind.'

"It will be a phenomenal accomplishment on O'Malley's part if he is even able to get half of it done," Davis said.

Session agenda

Priority legislation in the 90-day General Assembly session that begins Wednesday

Gas tax: A blue ribbon commission recommended a 15-cent increase to the gas tax, which has not been raised since 1992. Senate President Miller has said he'd be more comfortable with a 10-cent increase.

Economic stimulus: Governor O'Malley, House Speaker Busch and Miller have all talked about spurring the state's construction industry with a larger than usual capital budget. A gas tax increase could pay for some of these projects.

Same-sex marriage: O'Malley said he will make legalizing gay nuptials part of his legislative agenda this year. The bill passed in the Senate last year but was pulled from the House floor after a lengthy debate. Maryland would be the seventh state to allow single-sex marriages. Washington, D.C., also allows them.

"Flush tax": A commission on water quality recommended tripling the $30 annual fee Marylanders pay on their water bill. The money would largely go toward upgrades at sewage treatment plants.

Limiting septic systems: O'Malley wants to curb sprawl and pollution into the Chesapeake Bay by making parts of the state off-limits for septic systems. The governor wanted a near ban last year, but has come up with a less sweeping approach this session which would split the state into four zones and allow septics in some rural areas.

Off-shore wind: O'Malley has suggested he will propose a new framework to bring off-shore wind to Maryland. The program would copy incentives for the solar industry and require utilities to provide a set amount of energy created by turbines.

Gambling expansion: Proposals include expanding gambling options to include table games and adding a new casino in Prince George's County.

Legislative redistricting: On the 45th day of the session, late in February, the governor's proposed map for new General Assembly districts becomes law if neither chamber fiddles with it. Though the draft plan has left some members feeling sour, there's little chance that O'Malley's plan will be rewritten.