Gov. Ends 2nd Session With Some Success Amid Financial Frustrations


ANNAPOLIS (April 9, 2008) - State Circle jumped with the feel of a carnival late into Monday night as legislators, staffers, lobbyists and reporters streamed from one celebration to the next.

But when the last echoes faded from the streets and the traditional confetti settled in the House and Senate, the final legislative tally was a far less exciting set of half-victories for Gov. Martin O'Malley.

O'Malley met with success when legislators passed his package of bills to help homeowners facing foreclosure. At the end of the session the governor also worked out a deal with Constellation Energy to provide rate relief to state residents. He won other legislative battles, too.

But some priorities did not fare as well. The O'Malley-supported Global Warming Solutions Act to limit carbon emissions died in committee in the closing hours of the 2008 session because of fears the move would cost jobs.

Some of the governor's crime-fighting initiatives also were weakened in the face of determined opposition.

"The legislative process is a process of consensus," O'Malley said. "Seeking consensus involves necessarily being able to make compromises in order to advance the points."

The trouble facing O'Malley and the General Assembly was largely the result of an economic downturn that has hit states across the country, including Maryland.

In November legislators began work on closing a $1.7 billion budget gap, and in March the Board of Revenue Estimates announced an expected $333 million revenue shortfall.

In the fall, legislators ramped up taxes in the state to alleviate shortcomings in the budget. But a new tax on computer services proved to be extremely unpopular with voters.

Legislators were also concerned the tax would drive technical businesses, which can operate in any area, to move to neighboring states that don't have such fees.

With time running out in the session and the state's fiscal troubles still looming, lawmakers repealed the measure, which was expected to raise $200 million annually.

The money will now be made up through further budget cuts, a temporary tax increase for people with incomes over $1 million and money from the transportation trust fund.

The fallout from the tax increases also contributed to a significant drop in the governor's popularity. Voters' approval of O'Malley dropped to 37 percent in March, down from 52 percent a year earlier, according to Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

In order to improve his favorability ratings, O'Malley needed to move some of his priority legislation through the General Assembly. Although much of it passed, success was sometimes only possible through widespread amendments that limited the scope of the bills.

O'Malley's bill to expand the state's database of DNA information passed only after an amendment providing for the samples' expungement from the system, and another changing the time of data entry to after indictment.

The adjustments were a conciliatory effort by the governor to gain support for the bill from members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who said the bill was discriminatory and violated Marylanders' Fourth Amendment rights.

The governor's environmental priorities were also hit in the budget reconciliation work.

Despite firm support in both chambers of the legislature, the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund was cut in half in a budget-balancing effort. Also, one of O'Malley's efforts to ease residents' energy costs, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Emission bill, was defeated when it first came to the Senate.

In the final days, however, the bill was amended and passed through the Senate.

The success with rate relief and the creation of the trust fund, even at a reduced level, are moves in the right direction, O'Malley said.

Despite the stresses of the state's finances, the governor was upbeat about the outcome of the session.

The changes made in the legislature are all part of that branch's role in government, said Roy Meyers, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

He said O'Malley first proposed the extra tax on high-income residents during the special session. The new plan also gives O'Malley the freedom to decide what further cuts to make to the budget.

"The governor did quite well in proposing legislation and having a good deal of it enacted with only minor changes," Meyers said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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