With Democratic lawmakers in Maryland largely unaffected by the Republican tide that swept the rest of the country, and no one facing re-election for another four years, the General Assembly is looking forward to a busy legislative session.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature will spend much of the 90-day session that begins Wednesday in Annapolis grappling with the $13 billion state operating budget — and the $1.6 billion gap in it.
But they'll also take up hundreds of policy issues, some of them so contentious that they could end up on the ballot during next year's presidential election.
Stalling revenues and a growing deficit are prompting talk of raising taxes. Maryland lawmakers will consider a range of legislation on immigration, from an Arizona-style crackdown to offers of in-state tuition for students without papers. The prospects for legal recognition of gay marriage appear to have improved. And with just two of five approved slots locations open, legislators are likely to tweak the state's gambling program.
The gas tax
Maryland hasn't raised its 23.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax in nearly two decades. The state Transportation Trust Fund, which the tariff supports, is dwindling.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is among the leaders in Annapolis who support raising the gas tax. Opposition is expected from Republicans, and the question of what to do with the new revenue could provoke fights even among supporters.
Miller and other Democratic legislators say a gas tax increase would enable them to stop diverting money from the general sales tax to the transportation fund. Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry described such a move as "just a behind-the-door way of adding more money to the general fund."
But Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, hinted that a gas increase would go toward day-to-day state operations.
"As we have in the past, we can borrow from the Transportation Trust Fund," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
More than two years after Maryland voters passed a measure legalizing slot-machine gambling, three of the state's five approved casino locations remain undeveloped, and lawmakers are expected to review proposals to make the program more enticing to developers.
Some gambling revenue is designated to prop up the state's beleaguered horse racing industry — which also could be the subject of legislation this year.
Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has revealed a bid to buy the closed Rosecroft racetrack in Prince George's County in a proposal that includes puting slots there.
When slots-enabling legislation passed in 2007, Prince George's leaders objected to gambling, so none of the five state sites is located in the county. Miller, who represents part of Prince George's, expects the state Senate to back new slots locations and hopes local leaders will be receptive.
"When they see these budget cuts and no tax increases, I hope people would be broad-minded enough to realize that change is important," he said.
Voters would get the final say.
Other possible fixes include allowing more entertainment and dining options at the casinos, and reducing the state's 67 percent take of slots profits to attract bids for the licenses in Baltimore and at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland, sites that have failed to attract qualified bidders.
And a plan to legalize table games, debated last year, could be raised again.
"People are going to want to push for full gaming," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "There's a lot on the table when it comes to gaming."
The future looks a shade brighter for same-sex couples who want to be married in Maryland. Democratic gains in the state Senate, and the election calendar, give sympathetic (but nervous) lawmakers reason to push for gay marriage sooner rather than later.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has gained two votes in favor of gay marriage, changing a key dynamic, according to Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality Maryland.
"We've been stuck in the Senate committee," she said. Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, is trying to broker a compromise, saying that he'll introduce a bill to allow civil unions.
Miller opposes gay marriage but said he would oppose any attempt to filibuster the issue if it gets to the Senate floor.
While the Senate moved to the left after the November elections, the House of Delegates added six Republican members. By Meneses-Sheets' count, the new House committee assignments leave gay-marriage advocates one vote short of passage.
"We're in a position where we're fighting for those last few votes," she said.
Opponents of gay marriage say the numbers don't add up for passage in either chamber.
"It is so hard to predict how people in the end are going to vote," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "Undoing an institution that has been the foundation of our society is something people will think long and hard about doing."
The Assembly probably would not have the last word on the issue: A bill that passes this year or the next would be tossed to the electorate as a ballot initiative in 2012. President Barack Obama will likely be on the ballot then, along with Maryland's congressional delegation, but state lawmakers do not have to worry about re-election until 2014.
Vulnerable members in the Democratic-heavy body would prefer not to share a ballot with an issue that, in other states, has driven up conservative turnout. Or, as Busch put it: "The legislature will be less enthusiastic about putting something on the ballot if they are up for re-election."
With a decade's worth of congressional efforts to overhaul immigration having ground to a halt, state legislatures across the country are attempting to take matters into their own hands.
In Maryland, Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, has promised 16 bills that would crack down on illegal immigrants. At the other end of the debate, Sen.-elect Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, is drafting legislation that would help immigrants receive in-state tuition. Miller said the proposal might be limited to community colleges.
One of McDonough's measures would explicitly prohibit colleges from giving in-state tuition to immigrants. Another measure would require proof of citizenship to vote. All of the proposals, McDonough said, have been approved in other states.
"What's important to me is the rule of law, the citizenship we have and its value," McDonough said. "This is a sanctuary state, and it's getting worse."
In previous sessions, lobbyist Vincent DeMarco has led a group of disabled people around the state capital pushing for a dime-a-drink tax on alcoholic beverages that would benefit their health care. The General Assembly last increased the tax on wine in 1972; the levy on distilled spirits hasn't risen since 1955.
The tax portion of the concept is gaining momentum, but it is unclear that the disabled would benefit.
Miller said DeMarco "needs to be realistic" about where revenue from a higher levy on alcohol taxes would go. "If we raise it, it'll be because it's the right thing to do," Miller said.
In the House, Hixson said she's interested in raising the tax, but when asked whether the revenue would be dedicated to the disabled, she said: "We will not be doing that."
An increase in the tax on alcohol could add $207 million to the general fund, according to a legislative analysis.
The state's alcohol lobby contends that the sour economy is already hurting bars and liquor stores. They view the idea as a tax on the sort of struggling small businesses that O'Malley has pledged to protect.
Lovers of hard-to-find wines are already toasting the 2011 session, because House and Senate leaders say they are likely to pass legislation allowing wine to be sold by mail in Maryland.
But there is a dispute brewing over who would be allowed to ship wine into the state. Many agree that vineyards should be permitted to mail cases of wine, but the alcohol lobby wants to draw the line there and prohibit liquor stores from mailing. Such an arrangement would keep many wine-of-the-month clubs beyond the reach of Marylanders.
"I think there will probably be a bill," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the issue. "Will it be the bill [advocates] want? We do want to accommodate the constituents. … We don't want to put the retailers in Maryland out of business."
Conway was far less enthusiastic about changing the state's corkage rules to allow Marylanders to take their own wine to more restaurants.
"That is crazy," she said. "It doesn't make sense to me."
Drunken or distracted driving
Heading the list of transportation-related issues expected to come before the legislature is a proposal to require those convicted of drunken driving to install devices to prevent them from starting their vehicles if they have consumed alcohol.
MADD Maryland and other advocates vow to renew a struggle that went down to the final hours of the 2010 legislative session before a bill that would have made the so-called ignition interlock devices mandatory for even first-time offenders died in the House Judiciary Committee.
While the issue is returning, so is the lawmaker most responsible for the legislation's demise last year. Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. pushed for a compromise that would have required interlock devices for first-time offenders only if they were found to have a blood-alcohol level higher than the legal limit of .08 percent, but could not persuade MADD to go along.
MADD appears no more interested in cutting a deal this year.
"Not all compromise is progress," said Caroline Cash, executive director of MADD Maryland.
Cash said advocates could seek to use the issue of interlock devices to address what they see as a weakness in drunken-driving laws: the ability of suspects to refuse to be tested. She said advocates might propose to make ignition interlock installation mandatory for those who refuse tests.
Lawmakers could also tighten rules restricting the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while behind the wheel. Del. James E. Malone Jr., the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on highway safety, said legislators will seek to close a loophole in the state's texting-while-driving ban that allows motorists to read messages.
He said the committee might also consider whether the cell phone ban adopted last year as a secondary offense — which is insufficient in itself to trigger a traffic stop — should be made a primary offense.
But Robert McKinney, president of the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation, which pushed for the cell phone measure, said the organization is leaning toward waiting another year to give Marylanders time to get used to the law.
Look for sparks over offshore wind energy and Marcellus shale gas drilling. Environmentalists hope to boost prospects for wind turbines off Maryland's coast by requiring utilities to agree to buy electricity from them. State law requires utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2022, and the O'Malley administration has made developing offshore wind a priority.
But securing financing for such costly projects is a major hurdle, so advocates want the General Assembly to require utilities to guarantee offshore wind power a market by signing 25-year contracts to buy 3 percent of their electricity from the turbines. Labor leaders are expected to join environmentalists in this push, pointing to state estimates that a one-gigawatt project could support up to 4,000 manufacturing and construction jobs while being built, with 800 permanent jobs needed to run the facility.
Hundreds of property owners in Allegany and Garrett counties have signed leases to allow drilling for natural gas in shale deposits on their land for a share of whatever fuel is found. The state Department of the Environment has been considering a request to drill for shale gas in Garrett County for more than a year, and more requests are likely if state regulators give it a green light.
Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, has vowed to seek a legislative moratorium on drilling until state regulations are strengthened to prevent exploration for gas from polluting streams and contaminating residents' wells, as has been alleged in other states. Western Maryland legislators have signaled that they'll oppose such a move.
Efforts to accelerate cleanup of the bay are likely to be handicapped this year by the state budget crisis, but some lawmakers hope to reduce pollution by limiting homeowners' use of fertilizer.
Lawn services are regulated to reduce runoff, and the nutrient content of fertilizer sold in home-and-garden stores has been slashed through voluntary agreement with the industry. But proponents say there is room for further reductions by spelling out when and how fertilizer can be applied by individuals — barring application when it's raining or during late fall, for instance.
Environmentalists, who could receive support from unlikely allies in the building industry, also plan to renew efforts to make Maryland's communities deal with their runoff. Advocates intend to revive a bill that died last year that would require all Maryland counties and municipalities to raise funds for retrofitting storm drains, installing rain gardens and other measures to capture and filter rainwater that flushes pollution into streams and, ultimately, the bay.
All of the state's localities have the authority to levy storm-water pollution fees, but only a few do. The costs of retrofitting storm drains and reducing runoff in communities statewide is estimated at $10 billion to $20 billion. The O'Malley administration did not support the bill last year, and it died in the Senate amid opposition from local officials. The administration has indicated it would support mandating storm-water fees in a year or two if localities fail to act to fund pollution-control measures.
Scaling back the state's ballooning pension costs is among O'Malley's priorities. He hasn't said how he will do it, but he has taken some options off the table.
He opposes the idea of creating a 401(k)-style retirement arrangement. "Rather than privatize the system, I think we have to make a sustainable defined benefit for the long term," O'Malley said.
He also won't propose shifting the costs of teacher pensions to local governments — at least this year. That announcement won him a standing ovation from anxious local leaders at a pre-session meeting with the Maryland Association of Counties, but he could just be delaying the pain: He said he wants to tackle systematic changes before having a "conversation" about making a shift.
A pension sustainability commission chaired by Democratic former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has proposed several ideas: increasing the number of years before an employee becomes eligible for a pension and health care; pegging cost-of-living increases to investment returns rather than inflation; and reducing other benefits.
Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has vowed to fight "tooth and nail" against any proposed changes to the package of benefits for retired state workers.
The state teachers union is pushing the idea of delaying — Annapolis-speak for killing — wholesale changes to the plan. David Helfman, executive director of the Maryland State Education Association, called the pension commission's work "offensive" and "rushed." He said lawmakers who support reducing benefits would hear "loud and clear" from his members.
Fresh from the November elections, a group of lawmakers and election lawyers convened by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is proposing 25 changes to the state's campaign finance rules.
The panel is calling for tighter state regulations on giving by political slates and limited-liability corporations, two-oft criticized ways employed by donors to circumvent the intent of contribution limits.
Members of political slates may transfer unlimited amounts of money to one another. The so-called LLC loophole enables donors to evade limits by giving through multiple limited-liability corporations.
Gansler's panel is also recommending that lawmakers take a look at the limits of $4,000 per candidate per election cycle and $10,000 per donor per cycle, which have remained unchanged since 1991.
Busch has said he believes legislators will make another run at campaign finance reform in the coming session. But both Busch and Miller have been cool to Gansler's panel because they were not consulted about which lawmakers to include.
Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.
Other issues on the agenda
Health exchange: Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown will lead O'Malley administration efforts to create a framework for a health insurance exchange, a step necessary before the federal health care overhaul can be carried out in the state.
Abortion: The recent high-profile case of New Jersey Dr. Steven C. Brigham performing illegal abortions in Maryland opens the door for tighter regulations. Also, the arrival of Dr. LeRoy H. Carhart, a specialist in late-term abortions, sparked outrage from abortion opponents.
Charter schools: Look for efforts to make it easier to open charter schools, including erasing a requirement that local school boards sign off on their creation charters.
Invest Maryland: O'Malley will push a bill to create a $100 million venture capital fund for investment in high-tech and biotech companies. The money would come from insurance companies paying taxes in advance at a discount.
Redistricting: Busch and Miller say the task of redrawing the state's eight congressional and 188 legislative districts based on the 2010 Census will wait until after the session. They expect a brief special session next summer.