O'Malley's agenda: Gun crime, pension reform, economic development

Gov. Martin O'Malley is joining Baltimore officials in calling for tougher penalties for gun crimes and in seeking to criminalize child neglect.

In his legislative agenda released Monday, O'Malley said he is also pursuing pension reform, environmental protection and economic development during the 2011 General Assembly session.

The former Baltimore mayor, a Democrat, wants to reduce the number of credits a person convicted of a gun crime can receive for good behavior in prison. O'Malley wants to "close a loophole" by requiring that individuals convicted of committing a violent crime with a long gun, such as a rifle or shotgun, serve at least five years without parole — a penalty that now applies only to those who use a handgun.

Similar proposals in past years have faced a tough audience in the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which hear testimony on crime legislation and have been reluctant to add mandatory sentences or to restrict the prison system's ability to release offenders early.

"The fact that the governor is focused on this issue bodes well for the city in terms of being more successful this year," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Also on O'Malley's agenda: making child neglect a criminal offense.

"According to Maryland's child advocacy community, Maryland is the only state without a statute criminalizing child neglect," the governor wrote in his description of the proposed legislation.

But child and family advocates are divided on whether such a statute would be helpful.

Melissa Rock, child welfare director of Advocates for Children and Youth, which prefers intervention and education over punishment, called criminalizing child neglect "a bad idea." She said her group will work to defeat the bill.

"Families need parents to be home with their children and to be taught the skills they're lacking," she said.

Julie Drake, chief of the family violence division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said "sometimes you need the criminal justice system to motivate parents to get the help they need."

Prosecutors now use "a patchwork of less serious statutes to fill in the gaps" caused by not having a child -neglect statute, she said.

A similar proposal last year advanced in the Senate and House of Delegates, but did not gain final passage.

It would have prohibited "a parent or person who has permanent or temporary care, custody or supervisory responsibility for a minor from neglecting the minor in a manner that causes substantial risk of mental or physical injury or actual mental injury to the minor," according to a legislative analysis.

Violators would have faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

O'Malley's agenda for the year — his fifth as governor — includes 15 or so bills. In the past, he has sponsored big-ticket policy issues such as a repeal of the death penalty, an effort that failed in 2009.

In addition to the public safety proposals, his agenda this year focuses on the economy, health care and the environment. Pension reform, previewed Friday when the governor unveiled his budget, is one major element. Another is the creation of a $100 million venture capital fund called Invest Maryland.

Similar programs in other states have been criticized as expensive and ineffective, but O'Malley's plan differs in a few key areas: Maryland would invest in companies with expectations of recouping its entire principal investment — plus 80 percent of the profits.

Another measure O'Malley will push this session would require power companies to buy electricity from wind turbines off Maryland's coast. The idea excites environmentalists, who believe it will help make Maryland a center for wind energy. No turbines exist in Maryland waters, but President Barack Obama has pledged to expedite the permitting process.

On pension reform, O'Malley laid out a plan to shore up the state's sagging pension system by reducing benefits for new employees and requiring current workers to pay more into the program. It would save the state an estimated $100 million next year, but has drawn criticism from the leadership of state workers' unions.

Employees who want to keep their current benefits would need to boost their contribution to 7 percent of their salary from 5 percent. New employees would wait longer before becoming eligible for benefits and work longer before retiring. Health benefits would change, too: Employees would have to pay more for prescription drugs.

The changes would not affect lawmakers, who have a separate pension plan. The governor's proposal directs a commission to examine the plan for elected officials.

And Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown once again will lead a health care effort: His role this session will be to push a proposal that creates the framework for insurance exchanges, a prerequisite for enacting the health care overhaul.

Also Monday, lawmakers received a lengthy analysis of O'Malley's budget proposal.

"Unfortunately the job of getting the budget structurally in balance is not finished," legislative analyst John Rohrer told lawmakers.

Rohrer gave O'Malley credit for chopping a third of the costs that lead to recurring deficit projections. That puts the governor in compliance with a goal set by the Spending Affordability Committee, a bipartisan group that advises the governor on the budget.

But legislative analysts used the word "magic" to describe how the governor comes up with $240 million of the funds used to close a budget hole.

Also, they signaled discomfort with O'Malley's reliance on about $46 million of federal low-income assistance that might not materialize. Heavy reliance on bonding programs that used to be funded with cash means that over the next six years debt service is set to double, analysts said.

Rohrer made a point of ending the briefing on a positive note.

"We still have cash for a rainy day," he said, noting that the reserve fund has been filled by moving money from the Transportation Trust Fund.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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