EYE ON ANNAPOLIS • BY DAVE NYCZEPIR, CNS
Maryland’s 430th General Assembly session convened Wednesday, promising more than a few tough votes in the coming weeks as Gov. Martin O’Malley’s agenda may call for raising the state’s sales or gas taxes.
A tax increase would generate the revenue needed to fund many of O’Malley’s job creation initiatives and help address the $1 billion budget deficit the legislature faces in its $14 billion operating budget.
Controversial same-sex marriage and wind-farming bills are also on the General Assembly’s agenda this session.
O’Malley is toying with the idea of raising the state sales tax by 1 cent to 7 cents, but will consult with General Assembly leaders before deciding, said the governor during an interview with WEAA 88.9 Wednesday morning.
Also on the table is the much talked about 15-cent increase to the gas tax.
“We’ll be rolling these proposals out over the next few days,” said O’Malley, of the possible revenue-raising alternatives.
While legislators braced for the proposed tax increases, some said they wouldn’t be well-received.
“I think it will be a year of cutting,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said at the WEAA taping.
Though O’Malley said finding money to renovate roads and fund school construction is essential for job creation, some legislators argue tax hikes are counterproductive.
“The worst thing you can do is raise taxes,” House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, said. “That’s a job killer.”
In his brief speech before the House of Delegates on opening day, O’Malley praised Maryland for creating 27,000 new jobs last year.
The governor hopes to continue this trend by proposing more than $370 million in school construction funding and renovations in the budget for fiscal 2013, which he said will create approximately 12,000 jobs.
With job creation being the governor’s primary focus, Delegate Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, hopes to ensure that these new jobs are unavailable to illegal immigrants with legislation requiring verification of citizenship upon hiring.
“I want those jobs, new jobs, to go to American citizens,” McDonough said.
Legislators will also contend with two hot-button environmental issues this session — fracking and wind farming.
Hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — which involves extracting natural gas from rocks, is already in use in nearby states. An advisory commission released a set of recommendations Dec. 31.
Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett, a fracking supporter, said he thought there would be a push to pass some sort of bill this year.
Wind farm supporters turned out for a rally in front of the State House an hour before the General Assembly’s official opening.
Addressing the crowd, Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, a leading supporter of a wind farm bill that faltered last session, called for a “culture change” in the state’s approach to energy production.
“It’s time for Maryland to be in the forefront with wind energy,” Pinsky said. “We have to change the old and move to the new in order to have a future.”
With O’Malley expected to introduce a new same-sex marriage bill, delegates are organizing early to gain four or five votes to push the legislation through the House, where it stalled last session.
Last year, O’Malley said he would sign same-sex marriage legislation if it reached his desk. This year he has promised to actively fight for the legislation, giving supporters hope his influence could make the difference.
“It’s having the governor and the [House] speaker have persuasive conversations, and, if necessary, a little strong-arming never hurt,” said Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery.
But opponents, including religious groups and others, are preparing to fight the bill again this year.
Capital News Service’s Mike Bock, Elizabeth McLellan, Kelsey Miller, Ellen Stodola and Amanda Yeager contributed to this story.