EYE ON ANNAPOLIS: Into the fray! Local legislators prepare for a new session

EYE ON ANNAPOLIS • BY ED LEVY

January 11, 2012, marks the beginning of the Maryland Legislature’s 430th session.  The legislature has met since 1635, and its annual session now runs 90 days.  Our area’s state senators and delegates from the 19th and 20th Legislative Districts agree that this session will be difficult due to the State’s large budget deficit.

Go to mdelect.net to identify your legislative district.

Although Maryland fared better than most states during the recession, and the legislature has maintained strong Democratic majorities, there will still be a battle to protect existing programs making it more difficult to fund new initiatives.

The Voice interviewed our local legislators to ask them the following:

  1. What are your priorities are for this year’s session?
  2. What other significant issues do you anticipate will be raised.

Responses from the legislators are in alphabetical order with Senators listed before Delegates.

Senator Roger Manno (D-19) believes that the budget shortfall will be the biggest challenge facing the state.  The Senator says we need to fix the budget ASAP while protecting the most vulnerable people and assets.  He notes that we remain one of the few states to maintain a Triple A bond rating, which allows the State to borrow money at a lower rate of interest.

Manno says that the federal government provides about 25 percent of the State’s $34 billion annual budget, and that we could see as much as   $1 billion in additional cuts to the federal contribution.  Maryland has already made the easiest budget cuts, and the legislature may now consider cuts to Medicaid.  Manno calls Medicaid the “mother of all safety nets” and will fight to protect it.

Manno says that Maryland has focused on program cuts and increasing government efficiency, and has not done much to increase revenues since at least 2007.  Senator Manno supports re-institution of the “Millionaires Tax,” which set a higher marginal tax rate for those with the highest incomes.  He will propose legislation that would make this tax increase part of each County’s ‘piggyback’ tax to ensure that the funds will remain in the county where they are raised.

He expects to support a gas tax increase, and combined reporting of corporate income to deter corporations from shifting their profits to lower tax states and countries.  Senator Manno would also support accelerated use of the State’s capital bond authority to stimulate the economy and increase jobs through funding of major infrastructure projects.

Senator Manno strongly supports Marriage Equality.  He says that Marriage Equality is a mainstream civil rights issue, and that last year’s unsuccessful effort to enact continues to ‘painfully gnaw at our conscience.”

Jamie RaskinSenator Jamie Raskin (D-20) will work to ensure that 2012 “will be remembered as the year we made the institution of marriage available to all Maryland citizens.”  He “will be leading the State Senate floor fight for it again this session and hopes to hold or increase (last year’s) margin of victory, so we can send it over to the House of Delegates with a head of steam.”

Senator Raskin also strongly supports a comprehensive review and reform of state ethics laws and rules.  He says that “the recent scandals and allegations of political corruption in different parts of the state demean and demoralize our politics, turning people off.”  Raskin will be pushing for “a Select Committee on Ethics Reform that will make our ethical guidelines strong and clear, our disclosure practices open and transparent, and our sanctions fair, just and meaningful.”

Senator Raskin will also be working to “defend our public schools’ hard-earned title as the best in the country (through) securing the state investment in education and fixing the broken “maintenance of effort” process, and the baffling prospect of our school system being fined $26 million for not having received millions of dollars that it sought.

He will also be introducing “a resolution to send to Congress urging it to pass a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision in which the conservative majority declared a corporation a person for the purposes of political campaign spending.”  He is “hoping to start a movement in the states to call on Congress to pass such an amendment and send it to the states for ratification.”

Senator Raskin will also be introducing two health-care bills: (1) “chemo parity,” to require insurers to cover the costs of chemotherapy for cancer patients whether it is administered in IV or pill form (the latter is not now covered); and (2) a bill to ban the use of indoor tanning equipment, a known carcinogen, by anyone under 18 years of age.

Finally, Raskin states that “we will undoubtedly be debating the Governor’s gas tax proposal, which is a good idea and necessary for the transportation infrastructure, including the Purple Line.”

Delegate Sam Arora (D-19) also believes that the State’s budget deficit will be the largest issue this year.  He cautions that we need to keep in mind that many of our neighbors depend on the support they receive from the state.

Arora is focused on closing tax loopholes to raise revenues and will introduce legislation to eliminate the ability to avoid capital gains taxes through business trusts.  He would support an increase in the gas tax provided that the funds are dedicated to transportation infrastructure projects.

Delegate Arora will introduce the Juvenile Sex Crime Victims Rights Act to require that victims be privately informed about where their juvenile assailant lives, works, and/or goes to school.  Currently, information about underage assailants is not released in any manner.  Arora will also introduce a bill to ban felons from possessing ‘unregulated’ firearms (i.e. rifles and shotguns) extending the current limited ban to forbid felons from possessing any firearm.  He will also work to make it a second degree assault offense to shine a laser pointer into airplane cockpits or motor vehicles.  Arora is further working to increase the penalty for a DUI offense with a minor child in the car.

I asked Delegate Arora for his current views on Marriage Equality since his actions received much scrutiny in 2011.  He told me he is aware that the issue will come up again during this session, and that he will have more to say about the issue during that debate.

Delegate Bonnie Cullison (D-19) will be working to ensure that other delegates are aware that Montgomery County’s needs are greater than in the past due to the greater diversity of our population and its income levels.

If the budget deficit is closed solely by further program cuts, Cullison believes that the “social safety net will be dissolved.”  She supports combined reporting of corporate earnings to require firms to report their Maryland earnings in Maryland, changing the tax rate structure, and a tax on luxury services.

She will be working to implement President Obama’s Affordable Care Act by establishing Maryland’s health care exchange.  She is looking forward to the state commission’s report on the issue and expects spirited debate.

Cullison is also working to improve accommodations for the disabled in public and retail facilities through enacting a voluntary self-reporting mechanism to inform the disabled of the level and limitations to their access.

She is eagerly awaiting Governor O’Malley’s wind power proposal and hopes the legislation will respond to concerns raised during last year’s legislative debate.

Regarding Marriage Equality, Delegate Cullison sees a need to focus on individual legislators, to respond to their concerns and discuss the real-life impacts of the bill.  She is encouraged by the coalition that has been organized to support Marriage Equality, which includes people with different beliefs, background, and experience.

Delegate Sheila Hixson (D-20), as Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, will be focused on budgetary issues.  She expects to support a gas tax increase, a “user fee to repair bridges and roads,” provided the revenues are dedicated to transportation improvements.

She also will be supporting legislation to remove Montgomery County’s penalty for spending less on education in 2011 than previous years since this ‘Maintenance of Effort’ shortfall was due to lower than expected State funding.  She will also be working to protect Montgomery and other Maryland counties from being assigned responsibility for teacher pensions.

Delegate Hixson is a strong supporter of Marriage Equality and is proud to have sponsored and fought for the state’s first successful gay rights legislation, a seven year battle to ban housing and workplace discrimination during the 1990s.

Delegate Tom Hucker (D-20) is a strong supporter of Marriage Equality and is pleased with the substantial progress made in fighting anti-LGBT discrimination over the last five to six years.

He is the lead sponsor for offshore wind power legislation, which he sees as a good source of renewable non-polluting energy.  Hucker is confident that this year’s proposal will address concerns raised during last year’s debate.

For the third year, he is pursuing legislation to ban the feeding of arsenic-based antibiotics to chickens.  A recent University of Maryland report found that the arsenic ends up as run-off into the Chesapeake Bay, is built up in the soil, and can be found in the chicken we eat.  McDonalds won’t buy chickens fed such antibiotics, and Ralston, the largest feed producer, won’t use them in its products.

Hucker is also working to stem storm water run-off, the largest source of Bay pollution and thought to be responsible for ‘dead zones’ in the Bay.

He is championing legislation to address human trafficking by requiring that truck stops and highway rest stops post information highlighting sources of help.  This bill will supplement the earlier successful effort to have this information posted in hotels and motels.

Hucker believes that it will be very difficult to raise revenue as part of deficit reduction.  He agrees that prior cuts have already hurt essential programs. Delegate Hucker supports combined reporting of corporate profits, and closing existing subsidies for yacht owners, coal companies, and the like.

Delegate Ben Kramer (D-19) wants to address the financial exploitation of senior citizens.  His proposed legislation would require banks and other financial institutions to train their staff to recognize potential exploitation, and to require banks to report their findings to the state.  Delegate Kramer is also pushing for permanent absentee ballots for senior and disabled voters who find it difficult to reach the polls.

He is proposing legislation to allow homeowners to fund their energy efficiency improvements through low-interest financing on their utility bills.  He would provide incentives to utilities through renewable energy tax credits.  Kramer calls this the “best opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Delegate Kramer also wants to create a private right of action for people exposed to secondhand smoke in multi-unit buildings, and would empower health departments to enforce this limitation.

Regarding the budget, he would support a gas tax increase if revenues were solely directed to transportation improvements, including mass transit.

Kramer also supports Marriage Equality and offshore wind development and hopes that this year’s proposal addresses concerns raised last year.

Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-20) is a strong supporter of Marriage Equality and believes the new Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition of labor, progressive and LGBT groups will fight and work for every vote.  She expects the vote again to be very close and urges everyone to get involved by making calls and contacting their legislators.

Delegate Mizeur also believes that the budget (“the only thing we must do by the Maryland Constitution”) will be the center of legislative activity.  With the end of federal stimulus funding, the State must raise revenues.  She supports a gas tax increase dedicated to transportation and infrastructure projects and re-enactment of the Millionaires Tax on the highest income individuals.  She also supports modification of the Maintenance of Effort education funding formula to provide fairness and flexibility.

She is lead sponsor of legislation to delay hydro fracturing drilling (‘fracking’) in the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland to allow regulators to gear up to monitor this controversial procedure.  The legislation would impose a $10 per acre fee to fund oversight activities.

To improve government transparency, Mizeur is also working to eliminate a current $800 fee to access the legislature’s real-time information about its activities.

Mizeur is further supporting legislation to impose a one cent additional sales tax only in Baltimore City dedicated to needed renovation of Baltimore City public schools.  A public-private partnership is being organized to manage and renovate City schools over the next 25 years.  Other jurisdictions have similar problems and this legislation may be a model to address those deficiencies.

Clearly it will be an interesting and challenging legislative session.  Those of us who still believe that government action is needed to solve society’s problems will be closely watching the progress of the above initiatives.  Your state legislators are eager to hear from you, and now during the session is the best time to influence their decisions.

About the Author

Edward Levy
Ed is a native of Bawlmer, Merlin, who has 'temporarily' lived in the DC area since the mid-70s, including the last 31 years in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Interested in travel, politics, public policy, and just about everything else. Enjoys writing for this great progressive community-focused paper.