With the fast-approaching 2014 midterm elections looming over local politics, the Maryland General Assembly will have a lot on its agenda when it goes into its 434th session Jan. 8.
Last year, the state legislature repealed the death penalty, adjusted campaign finance rules that more closely regulate how much any one entity can give to a campaign and tightened gun regulations. But the budget will be among the top issues in this year’s session.
Gov. Martin O’Malley has until Jan. 15 to introduce a budget bill. Last month, the legislature’s Spending Affordability Committee recommended to the governor that the state budget be allowed a 4 percent growth rate and that new debt limit increase to $1.16 billion. The recommendations amount to a $75 million expansion to the budget.
Maryland currently operates on a $100 million structural deficit; last year’s fiscal data pegged the state’s total outstanding debt at $10.6 billion.
“In recent years we’ve had a troublesome structural deficit,” said Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-11), who named the budget as the General Assembly’s most important issue. “We’ve taken steps to get it under control, but that’s always a very tenuous situation.”
Lawmakers have until the end of March to pass a budget. Other issues they’ll likely address include the decriminalization of marijuana, adjusting the standards of proof that must be met in order to grant a protective order and liabilities surrounding dog-biting incidents, said Zirkin, a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Bail review representation for those provided with public defenders will likely also make the docket, said Zirkin. A recent court decision enforcing part of the Maryland Public Defender Act provides that indigent persons must have counsel representation when they appear before a District Court commissioner for bail hearings.
“It has important constitutional underpinnings,” explained Zirkin, “but also the court decision itself could blow a $50 million hole in our budget.”
On the other side of the aisle, Del. Cathleen Vitale (R-33A), said the biggest issues she foresees revolve around taxes.
“We have kind of a five-year trend on what’s happening with residents leaving and, more importantly, businesses leaving,” said Vitale, who sits on the Environmental Matters Committee. “Instead of people coming to Maryland for all the wonderful things we have, we have a lot of people leaving Maryland because it doesn’t matter. It’s too much.”
Vitale counted the so-called Common Core standards, environmental standards and tweaks to last year’s gun legislation as important issues.
Art Abramson of the Baltimore Jewish Council sees the state’s minimum wage law, the performance of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange and gambling revenues as important issues. His organization is pushing a bill that addresses workplace discrimination, as well as legislation easing restrictions on kosher wine importation.
With November’s elections, any legislation that moves won’t be especially controversial, asserted Vitale. “You’re going to see a lot of tweaking of things. History tells us that in an election year, they try not to find things too controversial.”
Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter