Budget, Major Initiatives Being Debated as Legislative Session Enters Final Weekend

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – Legislation on the budget, a teacher pension shift, casino gambling, wind farming and transportation infrastructure funding all were in limbo Friday, as the General Assembly prepared to wrap up for 2012.

With the legislative session set to end Monday, legislators plan to put in overtime on Saturday as they attempt to tackle these issues — the largest being the state’s budget.

“You know we don’t have a budget folks,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to the Senate on Thursday. “Conferees are having a very difficult time.”

While the budget conference committee, comprised of delegates and senators, was close to reaching consensus on budget cuts, the two chambers remained far apart on new revenues, said David Juppe, manager of the operating budget division of the Department of Legislative Services.

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore, submitted a compromise proposal in conference on Thursday afternoon that would generate $309 million in revenue for FY 2013 without raising income taxes on those making $100,000 or less – a sticking point in the House.

Earlier in the week, O’Malley seemed optimistic that the House and Senate would reach a compromise on the budget.

“The most productive days of most legislative sessions are the last three or four. So if there’s the will to get it done, we will have time to get it done,” O’Malley said.

Though House and Senate members intend to shift the normal costs of teacher pensions from the state to the counties, joint committees haven’t been able to reach a consensus on how to help counties offset the costs.

The House’s plan, a three-year cost shift that would allow local governments to raise income taxes for pension relief, is at odds with the Senate’s proposal for a four-year shift that would rely primarily on closing tax loopholes and increasing state aid to make up the difference.

Both plans would get the state “at about the same place by 2016,” said Warren Deschenaux, director of the Office of Policy Analysis.

Currently, the state government pays for 100 percent of teacher pensions. However, retirement costs have risen significantly over the past decade, and lawmakers say counties need to help share the costs with the state.

A bill that would legalize table games statewide and bring a sixth gambling site to Prince George’s County has stalled.

The Prince George’s delegation met briefly Friday morning but did not formally address the bill.

It must first pass a subcommittee vote before it can be voted on by the full committee and the full House.

“If nobody is even talking about it I think that means it will die a slow death,” said Delegate elvin Stukes, D-Baltimore, and member of both committees.

Despite passing 88-47 in the House of Delegates, the offshore wind bill is stalled in the Senate.

It has yet to come out of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the committee is waiting for Sen. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, before taking a vote.

Middleton also said O’Malley has been speaking with members of his committee throughout the week on the bill.

The offshore wind bill is one of O’Malley’s major proposals this year.

But the increases residents would see to monthly utility bills have been a major concern for legislators since the bill was first introduced last year.

Opponents of the bill are also worried about the significant costs to get into the offshore wind industry, but proponents argue the cost will be beneficial in the long run because prices of other energy sources are likely to increase.

O’Malley’s proposed gas tax has yet to be voted on in committee, but there has been some talk of a special session to address Maryland’s need for transportation infrastructure funding. The 6 percent sales tax on gas would be phased in over three years, but is unpopular among members of both parties.

O’Malley has also floated the idea of a 1-cent increase in the general sales tax to pay for transportation infrastructure.

By Mike Bock, Aaron Carter, Mali Krantz, Dave Nyczepir and Ellen Stodola.