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Budget Deficit, Health Care Set Agenda for Fresh-Faced Assembly

'Huge learning curve' lies ahead for new members, who will face difficult decisions in the next few months.

New faces will line the halls of the Maryland General Assembly when it began Jan. 10. November's elections ushered in 11 new state senators and 34 new delegates, meaning nearly one quarter of Maryland's legislators are freshmen. With a newly elected first-term governor heading up the executive branch, Maryland is starting to see the effects of a large dose of new political blood.

"There will be some enormous changes with the changing of the guard," said Del. Bill Bronrott (D-16). "There will be a lot of new challenges, but a lot of old challenges as well."

The predominately Democratic legislature will grapple with many different issues during its 90-day session, from improving health care to issues of growth and transportation that were hot-button election issues, and perhaps eliminating the death penalty. All of these issues will play out against the backdrop of a looming budget deficit that will be the dominant issue before the assembly in 2007.

"There's going to be a huge learning curve for a lot of folks," said Sen. Robert Garagiola (D-15). "Some of them will learn quickly how things work and hit the ground running; for others it will take them a lot of the session to get it together."

The Budget

Maryland is facing a $400 million budget shortfall in the upcoming 2008 fiscal year, and while legislators generally are optimistic that that problem will be solved without too much rancor, larger problems — and projected deficits — may lie ahead.

"We're going to be able to get through this year a lot easier than next year," said Garagiola. A 'rainy day fund' will help the state get through this year's budget pinch, Garagiola said, but addressing budget shortfalls in coming years is likely to require intensive labor and could include a tax hike.

"Obviously none of us want to do that," said Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-15). "Increasing taxes is nobody's first option."

"I don't think we're going to see any significant push to raise taxes for 2008," said Bronrott, but that may change in future years. Bronrott said there is an estimated $6 billion deficit over the next four years, and changes to the current tax code could be in the works.

Unlike the federal government, the State of Maryland is constitutionally bound to balance its budget each year, so even running a short-term deficit to get through a rough patch is not an option.

"We haven't really had a tax overhaul since the 1960's," Garagiola said. "Virginia rolled up their sleeves a few years ago to fix their [taxation] system and we didn't do that under the Ehrlich administration." Under the Maryland constitution, the governor must propose any and all versions of the state's budget and the Maryland General Assembly can only approve or cut specific items from the governor's budget. Under Ehrlich, "money was just shifted from one pot to another," Garagiola said, creating short-term solutions for an impending problem.

"Everything's got to be on the table," said Del. Brian Feldman (D-15), including raising income taxes for the state's residents in future years, though Feldman agreed with Garagiola that an increase in taxes for the coming year is unlikely.

Garagiola said that the assembly will form a blue ribbon panel that will examine all of the state's sources of revenue as well as examining how the state spends its money. The panel "will ask tough questions — are certain programs outdated? Do certain programs need to be phased out?" Garagiola said. The panel will be charged with making recommendations on the best to tackle the approaching budget crisis.

Health Care

Finding ways to provide affordable health care to more Marylanders was a major issue on the campaign trail in 2006 and will likely be a major issue before assembly over the next three months.

"Seven hundred thousand people in Maryland do not have health insurance and another seven hundred thousand are underinsured," said Bronrott. "When something catastrophic happens to these people they are in very big trouble."

Garagiola, Frosh, Feldman, Dumais and Bronrott will all be co-sponsoring a variety of health care initiatives designed to make health care more affordable, particularly for low-income residents.

The assembly is likely to discuss providing universal health care, but the cost of such a program will likely derail the idea, said Garagiola. Consequently, most proposals will likely focus on how to provide coverage for those who can least afford it.

Garagiola hopes to see legislation that would provide coverage for all state citizens whose incomes are at or below the poverty level. Currently the state provides coverage to those residents who make only $6,000 per year, or about 40 percent of the poverty level, said Garagiola.

Any proposal that would provide a significant increase in the health care coverage provided to Marylanders who can not afford to purchase it for themselves would demand a source of revenue. To that end, an increase in the cigarette tax — perhaps as much as one dollar — is likely to be a hot topic. Such an increase would provide a source or revenue that could be used at least in part to fund a variety of health care initiatives throughout the state, said Feldman.

Voting Reform

One of the first bills to be debated in the assembly concerned voting reform. The electronic voting machines used throughout Maryland have raised concerns about the lack of a paper trail in the case of a recount, Feldman said, and new machines could be in the works.

"At first we thought we were being on the cutting edge," Feldman said, but the use of electronic machines has raised concerns of voting fraud committed by computer hackers. "We need to make sure the results are accurate and that people have confidence in the results — it’s really the cornerstone of a democracy."

A potential change to the state constitution could also be in store that would allow early voting beginning during the weekend preceding elections, said Garagiola.

"A lot of people I saw [at the polls] were there on their lunch breaks and waiting in lines and then just left because they didn't have time," said Garagiola.

Education

"I'm continuing to hear from more and more middle class parents how hard it is to pay for college," said Feldman. The cost of attending the University of Maryland has risen more than 40 percent in the last five years, Feldman said, and finding a way to make higher education more affordable for Marylanders will be a priority for the General Assembly.

While the legislature explores a permanent solution, it could impose a freeze on the cost of tuition at the state's colleges and universities "for some time to come," said Feldman.

Meanwhile, the state's elementary, middle, and high schools are expecting a surge in funding. Newly elected governor Martin O'Malley (D) promised $400 million in funds dedicated to school construction throughout the state. Montgomery County Schools requested that they get $134 million of that, said Bronrott, but in the first few days of the assembly O'Malley backed off of that promise.

"I think there is a recognition that the money [in Maryland's operating budget] is finite," said Garagiola.

Montgomery County Schools were unlikely to get all of the $134 million that they had requested, and how much they get now will depend in part on how much O'Malley will try to fund to the whole state.

Additional funds for general operation could be coming to the county's school system as well. In 2002, a sweeping revision was made to how public education was funded throughout the state. One key provision in that legislation was the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which was designed to provide additional compensation to counties based on the cost of living in each county. That provision was never put into effect. O'Malley has indicated that he will do so, said Sen. Brian Frosh (D-16), but this too will be affected by the budget pinch O'Malley is feeling. Montgomery County schools hope to receive as much as $20 million in additional funds for the 2008 fiscal year.

"That would be a big success and a big win for Montgomery County," said Feldman.

Death Penalty

Recent studies have raised concerns across the nation that lethal injection — the method of execution used in Maryland — may not be as humane as originally thought.

A recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals has essentially put a moratorium on Maryland's use of the death penalty, Frosh said.

That decision, said Sara Klemm of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (CASE), found that the protocol for Maryland's death penalty was not adopted in accordance with the state constitution.

Reactivating the death penalty would require either the governor or the assembly to propose new legislation that clarifies the procedures involved, said Frosh.

Frosh said that because O'Malley is not an enthusiastic supporter, it is not likely that he would propose legislation that could put it back into action. Frosh said the assembly would most likely follow his lead and not propose any death penalty legislation, either.

At that point, Frosh said, the matter would be right back where it started — with a de facto moratorium as established by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

It is possible, Dumais said, that the assembly will weigh legislation that would abolish the death penalty altogether. It is unclear if that would have enough support to pass.

According to CASE, five Marylanders have been executed in the last 12 years and six are currently on death row. The most recent execution took place in 2005.

Environment

The Maryland Clean Cars Act would require all new cars sold in Maryland by 2011 to meet the stringent emission requirements currently required in California and recently adopted in several northeastern states. The bill has the support of Bronrott, Frosh, and Garagiola.

"[Supporters of the bill] strongly believe that this proposal is about clean air, a clean bay," said Bronrott. "It's about using existing technology to reduce dangerous greenhouse gases from cars, and it's about time that we do this. This will be very high on the agenda."

A recent initiative passed into law in Montgomery County that will require commercial builders to use so-called green building techniques could go statewide. Building designs and energy efficient appliances that reduce the amount of energy consumed by buildings and reduce their impact on the environment would become common if the trend were to go statewide, and Garagiola and Frosh will co-sponsor such a bill.

Garagiola will introduce legislation that would create an advisory commission that would bring state and local governments together in an effort to protect Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. The Agricultural Reserve is an area of 90,000 acres in the northwestern part of the county that has been preserved from development in an attempt to maintain the rural character and agricultural roots of the county.

"Two years ago we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Reserve," said Garagiola, "but there are questions about how we keep it for another 25 years, especially as we build out Clarksburg and Germantown."

The proposed commission would enact studies and make recommendations to state and local entities on ways to maintain and preserve the treasured space.

Other Issues

* A smoking ban in restaurants similar to that already in effect in Montgomery County and the one recently enacted by D.C. will be debated and appears to have support.

* Legalizing slot machines as a source of state revenue has been debated in the assembly and will be again this year. Slots were pushed strongly by the Ehrlich administration, Frosh said, and without his support and the urging of his Republican allies in the assembly, slots are unlikely to pass.

* Energy costs for private consumers have risen dramatically in Montgomery County and throughout the state in the last four years. Some legislators see this as an adverse result of the deregulation of the local energy industry that was intended to create a free-market environment and would keep costs down.

Frosh said there is growing unhappiness with deregulation among many members of the assembly and there will be discussion of how to curb rates that are still on the rise, including discussion of a return to a regulated industry.

Alternative sources of energy are growing increasingly popular in Maryland and throughout the nation. This has been spurred by the soaring price of electricity generated from fossil fuels and as concern increases about the environmental impact of fossil fuel burning, said Garagiola. There will be efforts by the assembly to expand existing state-funded alternative energy programs and to create more programs that would provide the state's residents access to alternative, or so-called "green" energy.