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December 28, 2007

Energy, budget and social issues on tap for Md. General Assembly

Filed under: business, finance, mortgage — Tags: , , , , — Snowman @ 11:58 am


Less than two months after a grueling three-week special session over Maryland’s budget deficit, lawmakers face more hard choices when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 9, including on energy policy and following through with $550 million in budget cuts.

Divisive social issues could stir things up even more during the 90-day regular session, as lawmakers consider whether to ban capital punishment and debate legal recognition of same-sex couples.

“It’s going to be a very, very interesting session,” said Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, a Democrat who leads the Senate Finance Committee, where legislation on the effects of energy deregulation will be prominent. “Energy is certainly going to dominate.”

Lawmakers are talking about trying to chart a new course in wake of electricity deregulation, which many say has backfired and led to much higher electric bills. There are also serious questions about how the state will meet rising energy demands with an aging infrastructure, including the possibility of rolling blackouts by 2011 if nothing is done.

The Public Service Commission released a blueprint in December that outlines looming energy supply problems and some possible strategies for addressing them. One of a number of recommendations includes requiring electric utilities to enter into long-term power contracts to increase supply.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has been outspoken about the need to address energy concerns, and the PSC report was compiled to offer ideas about what could be done.

“I believe a lot of members of the General Assembly will be reading over that, and I think you’ll probably see a lot of activity on this energy issue in the upcoming General Assembly,” O’Malley told reporters recently.

Another pressing question is how O’Malley will make $550 million in cuts recommended by the legislature during the special session to help finally tackle the deficit. The cuts have been proposed along with more than $1.3 billion in tax increases. Lawmakers designated about $340 million in recommended cuts to the budget, which the governor will submit in January, leaving about $210 million in reductions that have not yet been specified.

House Speaker Michael Busch said lawmakers have to keep looking for ways to downsize state government, and ironing out a half billion dollars in cuts will be “a major undertaking.”

“The most important thing we still have to address is the budget,” Busch said.

The impending cuts will cause “continued wailing and gnashing of teeth,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller predicted, with plenty of pain to spread around.

“It’s not going to be anything that’s going to decimate government, but certainly all of the big-ticket items, including education, are going to have to take some of the hit,” Miller said.

Then, there are several other hot-button social issues looming.

New Jersey recently became the first state in more than 40 years to abolish capital punishment, raising hopes by death-penalty opponents in Maryland that the state can improve on a similar effort that died in a Senate committee in the last regular session by one vote Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, is planning to reintroduce a measure to replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole.

In the wake of a Court of Appeals ruling throwing out a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the General Assembly also appears to be set for debate about whether to legalize civil marriage for same-sex couples. Delegate Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, has mentioned plans to introduce a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as he has in previous legislative sessions.

Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Maryland’s highest court already gave a “pretty defining decision” on same-sex marriage.

“So, I mean, whatever comes in, obviously the statute has been upheld by the court, so I don’t know that there will be any movement to change that,” Busch said.

Miller, D-Calvert, isn’t predicting any major legislative developments on banning the death penalty or same-sex marriages, given the number of moderate and conservative Democrats in the Senate and House.

“My prediction is that neither will pass, but there will certainly be lively hearings,” Miller said.

Environmental issues also are poised to play a significant role in the session. During the special session, the General Assembly decided to set up a $50 million trust fund to help clean up the polluted Chesapeake Bay. Now, lawmakers have to decide how to spend the money.

“There’s going to be extensive debate over how the money is going to be spent,” Miller said.

The nationwide mortgage crisis also may get some attention. Middleton, D-Charles, said state task forces on mortgage lending could result in legislation, including measures relating to mortgage broker identification and training.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown also is expected to push for legislation to help prepare Maryland for the influx of tens of thousands of jobs from military base realignment. The proposals Brown has mentioned would set aside money for higher education related to high-tech jobs, create special economic development zones and give state and local governments flexibility in negotiating with private developers to receive lump payments in property tax revenue to help pay for infrastructure.

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