Donald Fry: The things people say on Opening Day in Annapolis

By Donald C. Fry

Lots of things get said on the opening day of the Maryland General Assembly, so it’s difficult to make serious assumptions about session outcomes based on what leading state lawmakers say on the first day of the session.

Nevertheless, first-day remarks by Governor Martin O’Malley, Senate president Mike Miller, and House Speaker Michael Busch clearly signaled that increasing funding for transportation infrastructure, Chesapeake Bay restoration and education – both in the classroom and in the form of school construction – are key priorities for them this session.

Governor O’Malley generated a flurry of media buzz and subsequent talk-show chatter when, during an opening day radio taping, he mused that a sales tax increase could be a way of straightforwardly raising the magnitude of new revenue needed to address the state’s many fiscal challenges.

“If I had my druthers, I’d rather do the one penny on the sales tax. It gives us flexibility, have that address our operating needs, and then transition that into the sort of revenue stream that allows us to do greater bonding capacity for the transportation. That’s what I’d like to do,” O’Malley told WEAA radio show host Marc Steiner, who had asked him what other ideas he would contemplate, besides the gas tax, to raise new revenue.

The governor made it clear, however, he was thinking out loud and whatever fiscal strategy is developed will be the product of discussions with top legislative leaders and would ultimately require support from a majority of the state House and Senate.

As an aside, think about the furor the governor’s honest answer created. He’s being blasted for putting an option, admittedly unpopular, on the table. Governing is, after all, about problem-solving. That process usually involves considering all of the options.

I don’t know about you, but when making challenging public policy decisions, I would much prefer my elected officials to openly consider all the alternatives available rather than disregard options just because they fear political retribution.

In any case, most in Annapolis do not expect a penny increase on the sales tax to be included in any legislative proposals that are anticipated to be put forth soon by either the governor or legislative leaders.

Transportation and education seemed to be the two top business-related fiscal issues of discussion on Opening Day.

Governor O’Malley, Miller and Busch all agreed that a way must be found to strengthen revenue to the state’s transportation fund – a major priority of most business leaders across the state. But there have been no clear signals as to where the consensus among the three leaders might lie. Miller has reportedly said he thinks a 15-cent increase in the gas tax rate over three years, which was recommended by the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding, is “too much.” A transportation funding proposal from the governor is expected very soon.

“Nothing happens in a vacuum down here,” Busch said. He noted that passage of a gas tax increase would depend largely on strong support among state lawmakers from major central Maryland counties, including Prince George’s, Montgomery, and Howard, and Baltimore City.

Meanwhile, there appears to be solid agreement among leaders in Annapolis that education funding will remain a top priority. Busch said education advocates can expect a full level of funding in accordance with the Thornton Commission recommendations that have driven more than a decade of major state funding increases for K-12 education. But both Miller and Busch expressed frustration that a number of Maryland counties, in receiving increased state education funding, have opted not to maintain an appropriate level of local funding, either keeping local school funding flat or, in some cases, reducing local funding for schools in the face of the General Assembly’s massive ongoing commitment.

Miller suggested state school construction funding should be packaged with adequate local funding for schools and with pension reform in local jurisdictions.

“The fact that the counties continue to set salaries and we (the state) have to pick up the cost of the pension is ridiculous,” he said.

The debate over transportation funding will serve to illustrate a long-running differences between legislative leaders who feel driven by constituent needs to develop funding solutions to meet those needs and critics who instinctively oppose such funding proposals.

“Clearly we need an influx of money to the Transportation Trust Fund,” Miller said, citing long commute times and congestion in the Baltimore and D.C. areas. “It’s an economic development issue. It’s a quality of life issue. It’s a jobs issue. That doesn’t help our General Fund budget, but it’s going to help put people back to work.”

In the debate over transportation funding, the problem is there is backlog of unfunded transportation projects and the some of nation’s worst traffic congestion is in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, Busch said.

“The question is, particularly for the business community, do you need some relief in the Washington suburbs? Do you need some relief in the Baltimore suburbs, and how do you go about accomplishing it?” he said.

About critics, Busch said “you have to ask them: if there’s a need out there, what are they going to support? The question is, are you going to address it, or do you just let it go by the wayside?”

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