Environment, Education Highlight 2007 Session; Budget Deficit Still Looms - Southern Maryland Headline News

Environment, Education Highlight 2007 Session; Budget Deficit Still Looms


By LIZ FARMER, JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD AND TAYA FLORES, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - As Gov. Martin O'Malley sat down to sign more than 100 bills Tuesday afternoon, Maryland legislators reflected on a General Assembly session highlighted by passage of major laws on the environment and education funding. But those on the losing end of their battles said that major problems were left unaddressed.

"I think it started out well, but I think it ended poorly," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard, the minority whip. "It ended with the leaders not making the tough decisions."

Chief among those tough decisions is what to do about the state's structural budget deficit, projected to be about $1.4 billion next year. This year's final budget includes record amounts for school construction and higher education - initiatives O'Malley has pushed since taking office - and does not create new taxes.

However, opinion is mixed on whether the new governor's "wait and see" approach will pay off in the long run.

Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr., D-Calvert, who has repeatedly called for a special session to deal with the structural deficit, said Tuesday that he was pleased with the progress made this year but that the fiscal crisis was real.

"We're going to have to come together to make some tough decisions on revenues," he said after the bill signing ceremony.

"That's a nice word for taxes," he added.

The thought of raising taxes instead of cutting state spending has the Republican leadership uneasy about what's in store for next year's session.

"Taxes are kind of at the heart of our philosophy," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick. "It's what many of us campaigned on. There's been no attempt, at least a successful one, in trying to be disciplined in state spending."

Others say they are pleased with the progress that was made this year and credit the renewed feeling of compromise in Annapolis after what many say had been a rocky prior four years.

"I think the tone you set this session is going to set the way for the next three years," House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, told O'Malley before the bill signing session. Miller also attributed the "good session" to the new governor's personality and predicted that this year would go down in history as the first of four great years.

Among the major disappointments for some Democrats and liberals was the failure of legislation to expand health care access to reduce Maryland's estimated 800,000 uninsured.

"This was supposed to be the year of health care," said Glenn E. Schneider, executive director of Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative. A health care plan that incorporated a $1-a-pack increase on the cigarette tax passed the House with bi-partisan support but did not come to a vote in the Senate. Miller has long opposed the cigarette tax.

"We put health care on the front burner," said Busch, who emphasized that many initiatives do not get passed on the first try. "Whether it was resolved or not is still an issue people are concerned with."

Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, predicts that health care will remain a hot topic in next year's session.

"I think it's going to have a tougher time next year because of the deficit and, again, Mike Miller is going to hold the high cards," Crenson said.

O'Malley was generally successful in pushing through what was his own fairly modest legislative agenda. In his State of the State address, he called for more money for education, measures to protect the environment, public safety reform and initiatives to strengthen the middle class.

The General Assembly approved the governor's budget request for $400 million for school construction, extended by one year the Thornton public education funding program, instituted a tuition freeze for the University System of Maryland and increased funding for community colleges.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary's County, vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, called it a "remarkable" year for education given the financial limitations.

"It's important to keep with the commitment of Thornton funding and leveling off higher education," he said. "You can do all you want for elementary and high schools but if kids can't afford college it doesn't matter."

A slew of environmental bills will become law this year as well, including new car emissions standards, oyster restoration, a ban on harvesting Terrapins and cleaning up storm water runoff.

Maryland also became the first state to require government contractors to pay workers as much as twice the minimum wage. Known as the "living wage" bill, it gained new life during the final weeks of the session due to a last-minute push by O'Malley.

"We've been carrying the ball down the field on that for years and Governor O'Malley pushed it over the goal line," said Sean Dobson, acting director of Progressive Maryland, the main backers of the legislation.

While others applaud the steps made, they say there is still more to be done.

"We need to do more on gang and crime prevention and we're starting to admit we have a problem with truancy, alcohol and recidivism [in schools]," said Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's, who added that he was disappointed with how a Senate committee stalled a vote on the in-state tuition for illegal immigrants bill. Outside Annapolis, O'Malley made bold strides in his closing of the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup two weeks after a guard was killed there, and took quick action on juvenile justice reforms after the death of a student at Bowling Brook, a privately run detention center.

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