Tick tock tick tock…

While the 2011 Session is winding down, the General Assembly’s actions are ramping up.  We wanted to take a break to update you on the status of some of the major issues that have moved this week.
 
 
Spend, Tax, Repeat
 
Again this week, the General Assembly displayed how little self control they have when spending the taxpayer’s money. 
 
As we told you earlier this week, the Capital Budget came to the floor on Tuesday.  The bill is packed full of projects across the state and borrows money to pay for them – money that Maryland will not be able to pay back without increasing in the property tax in the near future.  Republican members offered a series of amendments to reduce the amount of borrowing by 5%, 3%, and 1%.  There was no will among the majority to reduce spending – not even by 1% – and they rejected these amendments.    The bill passed the House 98-41 and the Senate 41-6.
 
In addition to the Capital Budget, final approval was also given to the state’s $34 billion Operating Budget.  In its final form, the Operating Budget leaves a mere $50 million in unspent funds.  The lowest fund balance since 2004 and very little cushion against unforeseen needs or sudden economic problems.  This tiny fund balance was due in large part to the Governor’s submittal of a $62 million supplemental budget – more spending that was submitted to the General Assembly last week.
 
The House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the Senate’s Alcohol Tax on Friday morning.  At the beginning of session, talk about the alcohol tax was linked to increasing funding for the disabled populations.  As the bill came over from the Senate, the bulk of the tax is going to Prince George’s County and Baltimore City Schools.  As we draft this update, deals are being struck to spread the wealth to other jurisdictions to get this bill passed. It seems like a lot like “buying off” votes to us.  The bill could move as early as this afternoon.  We will update you as the bill moves forward.
 
 
Dream a little dream…
  
The bulk of Thursday’s 6 hour floor session centered around debate on Maryland’s “Dream Act” which would allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition.
 
The Republicans offered a variety of amendments to the bill in an effort to improve it somewhat, but none of them were adopted and the bill passed today without amendments.
 
Among the amendments offered were an amendment by Delegate Vitale which would require that the comptroller verify that federal and state tax returns were filed before in-state tuition is granted.  Since people who aren’t in this country legally aren’t able to pay taxes, this amendment would have rendered the bill fairly innocuous.  Minority Leader Delegate O’Donnell offered an amendment that would require an immigrant to have a certified application for permanent residency before being eligible to receive in-state tuition.  Delegate Kipke offered an amendment that would allow counties to opt-out of this program if they wish.  This amendment would have relieved already over strapped counties from the burden of funding in-state tuition for non taxpaying immigrants.
 
After hours of debate on Friday, and additional amendments from Republicans that would limit the amount of money that could be expended on giving slots to illegal immigrants, the bill passed the House 74-66.
 
O’Malley’s Wind Farm Blown Off 
 
Governor O’Malley’s offshore wind proposal HB 1054 was decided by the House and Senate to be studied for the rest of the year. In the final days of session O’Malley increased his “aggressive lobbying efforts from environmentalist and labor unions” but when a number of uncertainties about the bill became apparent, including whether or not the “wind farm would even be built off Maryland’s coast” since the legislation did not specify the location, thus creating the possibility that the site could be located hundreds of miles away, benefiting the local economy of another state. 
 
While the legislation was guaranteed to increase electric bills to Maryland ratepayers in the form of a surcharge, different amounts and totals were never confirmed by the Governor’s office, the Public Service Commission, and the Department of Legislative Services. Governor O’Malley was unable to address these concerns on both the cost of a subsidy and rate increases. While the legislation is being sent to a study over the summer, and is effectively dead for this year, it is likely to reappear in the next legislative session.
 
 
Lock your doors…
  
House Bill 302, sponsored by Delegate Curt Anderson (D, Baltimore City) passed the final hurdle today on its way to the Governor’s desk for signature. Currently, after the Maryland Parole Commission recommends parole for a particular individual, the Governor must approve that parole.  The Governor, in this capacity, acts as the final arbiter on which inmates are released back into the community before their sentences are fully completed.
 
This legislation alters the process to parole a criminal who was sentenced to life imprisonment, making it possible for the inmate to be released without affirmative action by the Governor. Under the new process, if a criminal sentenced to life in prison has served 25 years, and is recommended for parole by the Parole Commission, the Governor has 6 months to write a letter to the commission refusing parole for that inmate. If the Governor doesn’t act one way or the other, the prisoner is granted parole and released. This legislation removes the responsibility of the Governor to consciously and deliberately take action in order to release a potentially violent criminal back into the community.
 
House Republican Caucus members supported efforts to amend the Senate version of the bill in order to deny, rather than grant, parole should the Governor fail to act upon the recommendation of the Commission. This amendment was first approved, but following parliamentary maneuvering, it was ultimately rejected. As the legislative process was completed, the House version moved through the process and was sent to Governor O’Malley for signature or veto. Ironically enough, should the Governor fail to act upon this legislation, it will pass and become law. 
 
Who needs private enterprise when you have state government?
 
Concerns continue to surround the Governor’s Invest Maryland program. First and foremost the bill costs taxpayers $100 million in order to raise $70 million.  Taxpayers lose 30% of their investment before a single dollar is even invested.
 
Republican Delegates brought up a number of concerns on the House floor.   Concerns range from the Administrations authority and the Governor’s influence on appointing members to the authority that oversees the government fund. (Not that this governor would ever think of letting his friends benefit from state projects.)  Amendments were also proposed by Republican Delegates which would have removed government control and guarantee the state will receive 100% return of the original investment. However, these amendments were not taken into consideration and left the plan vulnerable for political influence to control this venture fund.   The bill passed the House 94-43.

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