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General Assembly Sails Smoothly Toward Finish
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March 20, 2013
Last year’s cantankerous General Assembly has been replaced this session by a cooperative, almost well-oiled legislative machine with top Democratic priorities on target for success. WYPR’s Karen Hosler offers a run-down.
What a difference teamwork makes! The same trio of leaders who last year couldn’t even complete their fundamental job of passing a budget on time, appear likely to reap a rich bounty of political goals.
With more than two weeks to go, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch have repealed the state death penalty, produced a billion dollar plan to rebuild Baltimore’s decrepit schools, and almost finished work on a budget that grants state employees a three percent pay raise.
Plus, House debate is scheduled to begin today on a gas tax proposal that just weeks ago seemed dead in the water.
“Yeah, we’re going to make it happen.”
That was Miller, who for months agitated almost daily for O’Malley and Busch to join him in a transportation tax proposal to upgrade suburban mass transit and repair aged roads and bridges.
“We proposed a slightly different plan, but I think the plan the House is moving on meets with favor from myself and the governor. And I think we’re still in great shape.”
The House transportation bill would apply a sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level starting at one percent in July and rising to two percent by January 2015. That’s a slower increase than what O’Malley originally proposed, but raises the same amount of money after six years: about $830 million annually. The governor’s plan to cut the current 23.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax was shelved.
Speaker Busch said the House rewrite would spare local governments a loss of funds from a cut in the per gallon tax and might be more palatable to motorists.
“I think the fact that it’s phased in, makes it easier on the motoring general public, yes.”
No legislature has raised the gas tax since 1992.
Perhaps almost as controversial is the $1 billion school construction plan for Baltimore City schools.
A House committee spent three hours on hand-wringing debate yesterday before voting 21 to 3 to approve the measure, which would direct an extra $20 million a year in state money to a special construction fund. The fund would also collect $20 million each every year from the city and the city school system.
Baltimore officials hope to borrow up to $1 billion against that fund to rebuild new schools as quickly as possible.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had asked for a state guarantee of $32 million annually, but House Delegation Chairman Curt Anderson was happy with the bill that emerged.
“The billion dollars will mean renovation or, or the building of at least 50 new schools in Baltimore. So, it’s worth it to us to finally get that started.”
Committee members fretted about the city’s history of not maintaining its schools, which have an average age of 40 years.
But Bebe Verdery, an advocate for education reform with the ACLU of Maryland, said the lopsided vote in favor of the bill shows the lawmakers understand that the whole state is affected by the quality of Baltimore schools—even its creepy drinking fountains and restrooms.
“The plan is rather complex and people have to work through all the details to really understand what it means, but I think at the end when all the details were explained they saw this is really a smart investment for the state.”
Delegate Anderson cautions, though, against over confidence.
“It’s not done yet. The hay is not in the barn yet.”
The same could be said for most all the issues. After all, the gun control bills are still awaiting their final shoot-out. I’m Karen Hosler, reporting in Annapolis, for 88.1 WYPR.
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