This is “cross-over week” in the General Assembly – an insider’s term for the week before important bill deadlines. Under the rules, each chamber has until Monday, March 28th to send to the other chamber those bills it intends to pass. So, all the House Bills must be passed on to the Senate and vice versa. Bills passed after that date must go to the respective chamber’s Rules Committee – a hurdle to avoid with less than three weeks remaining. Cross-over week means multiple floor sessions and multiple committee voting sessions. The pace is fast and the tension is high.
House Passes $34 Billion Budget
Contrary to what you may read in the Baltimore Sun, the House of Delegates passed a $34 billion budget Thursday night.
General Fund spending in this budget increases by 10.6% over last year. This was largely because of the backfilling to replace Federal Stimulus dollars that are no longer available. Had the necessary reductions been made two years ago, these increases would not have been necessary. But, the Governor and Democratic leadership could not resist the temptation to use that temporary money to fund permanent programs. So, here we are.
The budget was balanced with a combination of tax and fee increases including:
- Doubling the Vehicle Titling Tax from $50 to $100
- Doubling the Vanity Plate Fee from $25 to $50
- Doubling the Land Recording Fees from $20 to $40
- Doubling the Birth Certificate Fees from $12 to $24
- Doubling the Parole Supervision Fee from $25 to $50
- Increasing Nursing Home Tax from 4% to 5.5%
- Increasing Hospital Assessments, adding 2.5% to rates
- Applying a 2% Tax to Insurance Premiums for the Injured Workers Insurance Fund
The unsustainable nature of these spending increases will make the taxes and fees included in this budget a mere preview of things to come.
What is important to remember is there was another option. The House Republican Caucus offered an alternative budget that would have decreased spending and put Maryland on a course to lower taxes and fiscal stability. The Democrats in the House of Delegates rejected this alternative at every turn. So when the time comes for another round of massive tax increases and they tell you there is no choice but more taxes – don’t believe them.
On track for passage today is HB 235 – Human Relations – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – Antidiscrimination. This bill would protect people who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, or people who wish to dress in a manner that is not congruent with the gender they were assigned at birth.
For example a male teacher who wishes to dress as a female must, without the benefit of a sex-change operation, be allowed to dress as a woman in the classroom and cannot be fired or punished for doing so. An amendment to the bill adds that the employee must dress consistently. A man may dress as a woman if he wishes, but he must consistently do so – he cannot switch back and forth.
The bill deals only with housing and employment. In previous years similar bills have been introduced and have included the use of bathrooms and locker rooms, which are not included in the bill this year. Further, the bill would protect transgendered and transsexuals from being discriminated against when renting property. An amendment to the bill allows individuals to refuse a renter based on any criteria, but not to include discriminatory language in an advertisement. For example, if Aunt Martha wants to rent out an apartment that she owns, and a transgender person wants to rent it, she’s free to refuse him if she wishes. She cannot, however, put an advertisement in the newspaper that reads “Apartment for rent. One bedroom, one bath. Furnished. No smoking, no pets, no transgenders.”
This bill has been flying under the media’s radar and may pass so the liberal Democrats in the General Assembly can appease their supporters in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender (GLBT) Community who are still upset with the failure of the Gay Marriage bill.
Same Sex Marriage Update
After a long debate on Friday, the House voted to send SB116, the same sex marriage bill, back to the House Judiciary committee. Even with weeks of pressure and arm twisting by the Democratic leadership to pass this bill, when the time came it was clear that the votes simply were not there. Rather than suffer the embarrassment of having the bill die on the floor, supporters decided it was better to put it back in committee. The issue is not expected to come up again this session.
Maryland’s Budget – Appropriations Committee Sets a Low Bar
The House Appropriations Committee has begun to make preliminary decisions on additional cuts to Maryland’s Budget. According to our Ranking Member on the Committee, Delegate Gail Bates, the Democratic leadership on the Committee has set the stunningly low goal of an additional $120 million in reductions to the Governor’s budget. That is a reduction of less than ½%. There is no doubt that when this budget comes to the House floor, the Democrats on the Committee will pound their chest calling this a socially responsible and fiscally prudent budget.
It is surprising that the Appropriations Committee has set the bar so low, given that their Chairman, Delegate Norm Conway, sent an email to the entire House of Delegates in late January discussing the structural deficit. In his email, he stated “even with the Governor’s current budget proposal, the structural deficit still remains at $1.2 billion for fiscal year 2012”. He also called this “the single most important issue the General Assembly will address this year.” With only $120 million in reductions, this budget is anything but responsible or prudent. In fact, it could put us on the unavoidable path to more tax hikes.
Maryland’s budget problems, while significant, are not unsolvable. As we told you last week, the House Republican Caucus has created a budget plan that would reduce the size of government and allow us to reduce the tax burden on our citizens and businesses. This plan has been rolled into a bill, HB 1294 – The Deficit Reduction and Financing Act and will have a hearing on March 15th.
The O’Malley Administration’s House Bill 1054 – Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act, creates an off-shore wind project to be located in the Atlantic off the coast of Ocean City, MD. During the Governor’s presentation of HB 1054, many Delegates became concerned when no one on the panel of supporters could estimate the project costs to build a 500 Megawatt (MW) offshore wind project.
In 2008 the Maryland Public Service Commission issued the Levitan Report, which came at the cost of millions of dollars and two years of expert study. The analysis determined that building and operating an offshore wind facility was severely uneconomical. Just over two years later the Governor’s administration declared this information to be obsolete. Still not obtaining the findings to support his initiative, the Governor issued an Executive Order requiring DNR to prepare a Long Term Electricity Report due this December. Delegate Hershey questioned the Governor and asked to wait for the results of this report prior to asking Marylanders to commit to a 25 year debt of over $4.6 billion, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
Should the project move forward, each residential ratepayer could expect their average monthly bill to increase for the next 25 years. The House Republican Caucus will closely watch the progress of this proposed off-shore wind farm to ensure Marylanders are not asked to provide financial backing to Governor O’Malley’s pet project in spite of any associated economic considerations.