By JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Citing a raft of legislation nearing passage in the General Assembly that they said would take the state in the wrong direction, House Republicans on Wednesday warned about what they called a "leftward tilt" in the state government.
Members of the House Republican Caucus told a press conference they found "deplorable" bills that would "loosen laws" on ex-felons, drug offenders and illegal immigrants. The Republicans said they were also "disturbed" by what they called the state's inaction in addressing next year's projected $1.3 billion structural deficit.
"When we go back to our districts, and I think when you ask the people in the state of Maryland the priorities that they expect us to work on, clearly our constituents think something is out of whack," said Delegate Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, the minority whip.
But Delegate Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, the house speaker, denied allegations by Republicans that a "liberal lurch" in the General Assembly is a mismatch for the state.
"I think Maryland is one of the most progressive states in the country. ... I don't think we want to model ourselves after Alabama and Arkansas and Mississippi," Busch said. "I think we want to be in a collaborative effort with states like Connecticut, New York, Massachussets. We are not a Dixiecrat state any more."
The Republican leaders said they were particularly disturbed by four bills that seem to be headed for passage in the last week of the session.
One would shorten the time ex-felons must wait before they regain their right to vote, a second would repeal mandatory minimum prison sentences for repeat drug offenders and a third would extend tuition breaks for illegal immigrants.
A fourth bill Republicans opposed would circumvent the Electoral College by granting the state's electoral votes to the national popular vote winner instead of the winner of Maryland's own general election.
Republican leaders said that these bills would make Maryland a "friendly" place for a variety of convicted felons and illegal immigrants. And they said the tuition bill would make Maryland a "target" for illegal immigrants and place a strain on the state's resources.
In a request certain to be rejected, the Republican leaders said they would call upon Gov. Martin O'Malley to veto this legislation if it makes it to his desk.
House Majority Leader Delegate Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery, defended the bills.
He said that illegal immigrants who pay taxes and earn high marks in high school should be given an opportunity to advance themselves in higher education. And he said ex-felons, working and living in society, who pay taxes and have served their prison time should be allowed to vote. And Busch said the laws being considered aren't so much partisan as they are about "equity."
O'Malley's spokesman also dismissed the idea the legislature has a bias to the left.
"During this session we've made progress on a number of issues on the environment, health care, education, transportation and public safety. These issues are neither Democratic nor Republican. They're Maryland issues," said spokesman Sasha Leonhardt.
The Republican leaders said they also found fault with the state's response to the fiscal deficit.
"I think the fact that we have failed to act this year as a legislative body to make progress on those pending fiscal matters is deplorable," said House Majority Leader, Delegate Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert. "No significant action has been taken to fix our structural deficit this year. We're basically resting on the laurels of the reserves that we put away under the previous administration." The O'Malley administration has long rejected taking any quick action to resolve the looming structural deficit. And while the Republicans have called for cutting back spending on social initiatives, the O'Malley administration has said that it's committed to fully funding education and health care programs.