By DANIEL LEADERMAN
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 14, 2010) - The Maryland General Assembly kicked off its 427th legislative session Wednesday, a term likely to be dominated by the state's nearly $2 billion budget deficit, as well as legislative efforts to protect citizens from sex offenders.
Lawmakers just need to agree on how to balance the budget, especially with so many reluctant to increase taxes in an election year. In the last year the Board of Public Works has cut more than $1 billion from the operating budget.
"We're facing our California moment, as are many other states," said Delegate Luiz R. S. Simmons, D-Montgomery. The legislature will have to "make some very painful choices ... we should be very careful about imposing any new taxes."
Some lawmakers and advocates are calling for a dime-a-drink tax that would help fund public health initiatives. But legislative leaders including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, are opposed to the idea.
Delegate Paul S. Stull, R-Frederick, said new taxes this year would be political suicide.
"There's too many people out of work, too many foreclosures have taken place ... I don't think you can tax the working man to work your way out of debt," Stull said.
The solution, Stull said, is to create jobs and to "take a hard look at where we might be able to make cuts that hurt the fewest number of people ... that's going to be very difficult."
Delegate Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, said he was aware that tax increases would not be a popular topic in the legislature this session, but didn't see more budget cuts as a viable solution.
"We've cut all the fat off of the bone. More than that, we're cutting into bone," he said.
"We weren't elected to do the right thing only in non-election years," Manno said." If we wait until 2011, it will get worse."
The December murder of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell on the Eastern Shore is also likely to be a key issue this session. Thomas J. Leggs Jr., registered as a sex offender in both Maryland and Delaware, was charged Monday with kidnapping Foxwell.
"As the father of an 11-year-old-girl, it enraged me," Busch said, in his address to the House. "There's got to be better communication between the states when these predators are out on the streets."
Delegate Andrew A. Serafini, D-Washington, said Foxwell's death will affect many issues this session.
"It will be interesting to see how people vote this session considering it is an election year," Serafini said.
Busch said the legislature needs to confront gang violence in Maryland.
"There is no reason to have gangs in our school systems," he said. "We should be just as vigilant as we were with the H1N1 virus."
Busch also emphasized that expanding health care and continuing to fund K-12 education would be priorities for the legislature.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, greeted lawmakers, calling the beginning of the session "the lowest ebb of partisanship in the year, and the highest ebb of citizenship."
Later, O'Malley told reporters that an in-state tuition freeze in effect since he took office and intended to keep college affordable in Maryland, was likely to end this term.
"The former governor made a decision to jack up college tuition," O'Malley told reporters during an afternoon briefing. "We've made a decision to restore affordability ... we're the only state in the country to go four years in a row without increasing state college tuition."
O'Malley said that an end to the tuition freeze wouldn't mean the end of progress on the issue. "If we hold to modest annual increases ... if we can stick to, say, 3 percent increases while other states are doing five and 10, we continue to keep our colleges affordable."
O'Malley is making job creation a central part of his legislative agenda, calling for a $3,000 tax credit for businesses that hire workers who were formerly unemployed.
When asked about a Wednesday evening rally for potential gubernatorial candidate and former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, O'Malley smiled. "Has he announced (his candidacy)?" he said. "I haven't followed who the prime movers are behind this ... everyone's welcome."
The Associated Press and Capital News Service reporters Brady Holt, Adam Kerlin, Rachel Leven and Shauna Miller contributed to this report.