General Assembly Opens But Hard Feelings Remain

By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - Residual hard feelings from November's special session cast their shadow over the Maryland General Assembly's proceedings Wednesday and created an atmosphere of tension in the halls.

State senators and delegates returned for their regular 90-day session with a bitter taste in their mouths from the weeks-old battle, which ended with the Democratically controlled legislature passing new taxes and budget cuts meant to close the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall. Republicans have filed suit aiming to overturn the results of the special session.

Legislators now face a more than $200 million budget shortfall that must be addressed during this session, as well as attempts by some members to repeal the computer services tax passed in November. In addition, issues such as gay marriage, the death penalty and health care could drag the General Assembly into bitter debates.

In spite of the tension, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, remained optimistic, even joking that the parties' differences could be solved with a little love and understanding.

"If you see anyone from the other side, talk to them and try to relieve some of the pain from the special session," Miller said, reminding fellow senators that "we are a family - a family of friends."

Others echoed Miller's optimism.

"It should be fairly smooth," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel. He cited budget talks and the amendment of the computer services tax as major issues for the legislative term.

Many Republicans, though, said reversing the special session tax hikes to their previous levels will be a primary goal for the new session. The state's budget will be balanced through the end of June, some argue, making the hikes unnecessary.

Republicans charge that during the special session the Democratic leadership of the Senate violated the state constitution by adjourning for more than three consecutive days without explicit permission from the House, and then falsified documents to hide the transgression.

Democrats said the agreement was made verbally and the written document was unnecessary.

"By God, those who make the rules should follow the rules," said Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick.

Brinkley also equated the tax hike to someone having "their hand in your hip pocket," taking money from residents who have to work to support their families.

A number of legislators specifically want to repeal or amend the computer services tax. Among the objectors at a GOP open house Tuesday evening was Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee member J. Gary Middlebrooks, who also runs a small computer company. He said the computer services tax is not only undesirable but uncalled for and will combine with increases in other expenses like gas and utilities to leave businesses like his no choice but to charge their customers more.

"Look at your gas and electric bill (now)," Middlebrooks said. "Do I need to say any more?"

But DeGrange thought the current $200 million shortfall would consume most of the session's attention, since it directly affects every other bill and grant. Delegate Carolyn Howard, D-Prince George's, said she would be part of the effort to balance the budget which, as she saw it, meant funding for some projects would have to be scaled back.

In a speech to the Senate, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley congratulated the legislature for its work in 2007, and said he looked forward to getting more accomplished together in the future.

"I really do appreciate the work that you have done in this last year," O'Malley said. Earlier, in an interview on WYPR's Marc Steiner Show, O'Malley said that while he is sick of the slot machine issue, he expects it will be approved by voters later this year, according to the Associated Press.

Republicans expressed displeasure over the slot machine debate, saying the use of a referendum is objectionable because the constitution calls for putting revenue decisions in the hands of elected officials.

Across the street from the State House where legislators gathered to start the session, a small group of people in the Thurgood Marshall Memorial plaza held a disorganized protest, complaining about issues as disparate as electrical rates and urban youth discrimination. The protest broke up more than an hour before the legislature started its noon session.

Even security was unwilling to ease the tension on lawmakers. Though he said he can recognize 99 percent of Maryland state legislators by face alone, State House Security Officer J. Wright said he would not hesitate to refuse admission to persons without identification - or subject them to a visitor's entry search.

"If they don't have I.D., I'll send 'em back," Wright said. "Even if I know 'em, I'll send 'em back. For me, it's all about the attitude."

-- Capital News Service reporters Laura Schwartzman and Kate Elizabeth Queram contributed to this story.

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