By DAVID SALEH RAUF
ANNAPOLIS (January 13, 2011) The Maryland General Assembly kicked off the first day of the 428th legislative session Wednesday amid a looming budget shortfall that could bring cuts in education funding, and a potential showdown over same-sex marriage that could set the stage for a contentious session.
Make no mistake: The regular 90-day session will be dominated by budget talk and cost-cutting measures intended to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in spending.
Lawmakers returned to Annapolis facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit for fiscal 2012—without the infusion of federal stimulus bucks that helped the state overcome a roughly $2 billion deficit last year.
"Each year there's some sore point in the state of Maryland," said Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr., D-Calvert. "This year it's the budget."
This session, revamping the state's pension system, the merger of two state departments and raising alcohol and gas taxes could be vehicles to help close the gap in the state's $13 billion operating budget. Funding for education will most likely be slashed, as stimulus money that helped the state stay afloat the past two years has dried up, Miller said.
"We got a lot of challenges ahead of us," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from Lusby. "It's going to be quite a trick" to balance the budget.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley already has put in place a voluntary buyout program for state workers in an attempt to save an estimated $40 million.
He also has said he intends to balance the budget without raising taxes or furloughing state employees. O'Malley has furloughed state employees the last three years to trim spending. Ultimately, a series of painful cuts may be unavoidable.
On Wednesday, O'Malley sounded a tone of unity, saying lawmakers need to put aside partisan differences to work through challenges facing the state.
"We often show leadership in areas before the rest of the country ... we need to show that as we grapple with the choices ahead," O'Malley said in a roughly 30-second address to the State House during the legislature's opening ceremony.
Local governments also are bracing for major cuts this year. A continuous cycle of funding cuts has taken its toll on municipalities over the last few years, said Michael Bennett, president-elect of the Maryland Municipal League and Mayor of Aberdeen.
"We lost the highway-user revenue, 90 percent of that in the budget, and we lost 35 percent of state aid for police protection, which has really put a disproportionate hardship on our municipalities," Bennett said.
In addition to the budget, a hodgepodge of hot-button issues—like immigration and same-sex marriage—are poised to take center stage this session.
Delegate Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore County, said he plans to file 16 bills to overhaul the state's immigration laws. On the other side of the issue are Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's, and Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery, who plan to introduce legislation to help some immigrants get in-state tuition.
"We'll be working against that very hard," McDonough said.
The issue that could be the most contentious of the session is same sex-marriage, Miller said. Supporters are hopeful Democratic gains in the Senate could propel the legislation to passage.
As a compromise, supporters of the measure could also introduce a bill to allow civil unions. Either one, Miller said, would be "debated extensively."
"People like myself are opposed to both," he said.
Legislators are also waiting for the governor's cabinet appointments, including a replacement for Secretary of Juvenile Services Donald DeVore, who announced his resignation in November. The agency has been riddled with problems, and some legislators are hoping a new secretary will spark change.
"Someone needs to come in as the secretary and not just apologize for what's going on," said Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. "They need to blow it up. There's a lot that needs to change in that agency."
O'Malley is required to submit his budget to the legislature later this month. Few details have been released, but some specific cuts are expected, lawmakers said.
Aside from education, Medicaid and the environment could see declines in funding. And the costs of teacher pensions, which Miller called a "billion dollar mandate," are also being discussed.
That would come as part of an expected overhaul of the state's pension system, a move O'Malley has signaled will be a priority this session. Last week, O'Malley opposed the idea of passing the cost of teacher pensions to local governments.
A state commission recently proposed that state employees work years longer before becoming eligible for pensions or retiree health care benefits.
In response, about 75 union members wearing green scarves flooded the Capitol Wednesday to voice their discontent with proposed cuts in pensions and health care benefits.
Sue Esty, assistant director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, rallied union workers before the session started with chants and slogans.
"We're here to tell lawmakers we're not going to stand for any more cuts to our pensions," she said. "We want them to know we're going to be watching them as the session transpires."
The Associated Press and Capital News Service reporters Kerry Davis and Holly Nunn contributed to this report.