I've been busy on other projects, but it's time to get back to posting. The 426th session of the Maryland General Assembly begins on January 14th and runs until April 13th, 2009. The session will be, as always, in the historic State House which is reopening after a $10 million renovation. The Maryland State House has the distinction of being the oldest state house in continuous operation. It served as the U.S. Capitol in 1783-1784. George Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army in the Maryland State House; but enough of that.
For the most part, it's not going to be an enjoyable session. There are a lot of contentious issues and, looming over everything, is the budget, which will have to embody significant cuts from earlier projections. Let's take a look at what's on the table.
First and foremost, of course, is the budget. Tax receipts continue to fall well below projects as the economy stalls and real estate values decline and the Governor has been playing a game of catchup in trying to trim the current budget to match revenues. Next year, of course is looking worse. The state could be looking at a deficit of as much as $1 billion with a general fund budget of about $16 billion (for the fiscal year beginning June 30, 2009.)
Of course, a lot of the projected deficit is not really due to a reduction in revenues, but rather to increases in the budget baseline - what it will cost to keep state services steady. Due to a variety of factors - changes in student enrollment, changes in prison population, changes in the number of medicaid recipients, as well as cost increases, the amount required to provide the same level of services can increase. One of the things the Governor and the General Assembly will have to look at is whether the state can afford to pay those increased costs in the face of stagnant or declining revenue. A list of the 'adjustments' can be found here. Take a look and see what you think.
In any case, it's clear that there are going to be cuts and that some of the cuts inevitably are going to fall on education and on aid to localities. These two items are simply too large a proportion of the total budget to be ignored. We've already heard complaints from Montgomery County and Baltimore City even though the first dime has yet to be cut from the 2010 budget. I'm sure we'll hear much more.
Death Penalty I discussed in a recent post the issue of abolishing the death penalty in Maryland. The commission that was put into place to study the issue and as a handy way to dodge the issue last session has made their report recommending that the death penalty be abolished and the Governor is going to introduce legislation to that effect. While there is a solid majority in the House of Delegates to abolish the death penalty and what appears to be a smaller but viable majority in the Senate to do the same thing, it's not certain that it will pass. Last session in died in a Senate Committee and there's a strong possibility it will happen again.
Speed Cameras This issue will certainly come up again. Following the successful introduction of speed cameras into Montgomery County, legislation to authorize localities around the state to install the devices passed both houses last year, but the bills were slightly different and the measures died in the end-of-year rush. It's almost certain to be resurrected this year and likely to pass, generating waves of complaints from those who feel that speed limits are an affront to their manhood.
Smart Growth After years of fooling around with various kinds of 'smart growth' packages, the state seems to have finally realized that, since almost all zoning and development decisions are made at the local level and not at the state level, tougher legislation is required to override local prerogative if we want to control growth and development. This will be a contentious issue. County governments guard these authorities carefully since real estate developers and contractors are major contributors to local election contests. The state is going to have a tough time here.
Universal Health Care A group of Marylanders is proposing that the state take steps to provide universal health care for Maryland residents. Chances of this $15 billion proposal passing in this session are zero. The state is already struggling with the budget and simply can't afford to add to it at this point. Look for the proponents to keep on pushing, though.
Gasoline Tax No, the Governor is not going to propose an increase to the gasoline tax. Despite the shortfall in the state's transportation fund, there is no appetite for tax increases. Instead, look for a proposal to replace the current cents-per-gallon tax with a tax based on a percentage of the sales tax. That way, when the price of gasoline begins to climb again, the tax will climb along with it. The state argues, with some justification, that as the price of road construction and maintenance increases, the dedicated taxes to support it also needs to increase. This should be interesting.