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April 21, 2008

General Assembly Journal 2008 Volume 10

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week, we spent some time considering the end of the General Assembly session. The conclusion: Rest easy Marylanders, the legislature has gone home for the year.


So, how did Gov. Martin O'Malley do in his sophomore year? Depends on whether you work for a union, how much wealth you've accumulated, or how dependent you are on the government for your care and feeding.


If you're a union member, this was a great year. If you fall into that mystical income category that allows everyone else to call you a millionaire, this past session wasn't so good.


The computer services sales tax, enacted in the rush of the special session last fall, was removed from the budget before it could even be implemented. The $200-$250 million that tax was expected to generate was replaced by a surcharge on the highest income bracket in our state tax code. That makes we’re groundbreakers, the first state in the nation to enact a "millionaires tax.” Others will follow; they were just waiting for someone to be the first.


Technology-based businesses across the state inundated legislators with emails, citing the ease by which these companies can change locations and cross state lines to avoid predatory taxation. Even Governor O'Malley, an early advocate for the tax, shifted positions and argued for the replacement of the "tech tax" with some other revenue source.


So why pick on the millionaires? Well, for starters, it's an easy political argument. There aren't that many of them (approximately 6,000 statewide, 130 in Frederick County), and they're not typically people who will complain about paying a little more tax. That doesn't mean they like it, or think it's fair; it’s just that they'd rather get on with their business.


The more sinister aspect of adding tax burden to the highest income bracket is the whole idea of economic discrimination. Representatives of poorer jurisdictions know that the folks they work for will think it's fair to hit the wallets of "fat cats." This whole Robin Hood-type scenario ignores the fact that the wealthy already pay a disproportionally high amount of the tax burden.


So people making over a million dollars annually will now have a new tax rate, 6.25%. If there's any good news here, it's that the whole mess is scheduled to expire after three years.


Following the big battles over electricity generation and rate-setting that occurred at the end of the Ehrlich Administration, and in considering the campaign promises of Governor O'Malley, this looked like the year for major power regulation legislation. One might even have anticipated the introduction of utility re-regulation, looking back on the whole Baltimore Gas & Electric/Constellation Energy debacle.


No major changes were in the cards, though. It wasn't for lack of effort, though. Governor O'Malley and his personally appointed Public Service Commission have been fighting with BG&E for a year, and the fight seemed to result in a series of charges/counter-charges and lawsuit threats.


In order to avoid a protracted legal battle, the PSC developed a settlement package, one that required the involvement of the legislature. In retrospect, a tragic mistake, involving the legislature that is.


After a 90-day battle over the structure and scope of that settlement, BG&E escapes with the commitment to pay every BG&E rate-payer a one-time credit of $170. In exchange, they will be reimbursed for the dismantling of the original Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Reactor, which, in a stroke of financing genius, is almost exactly the amount they need to fund Reactor Number 2 on the same site.


Sadly, we Allegheny Power customers are facing a dramatic rate increase in January 2009. There will be no hue and cry, no brave knights on white horses riding to our rescue. All the hullabaloo, such as it is, for the BG&E customers is merely because a majority of the legislature represents those areas. There won't be a similar effort extended on our behalf, I can assure you.


Inmates serving out their sentence on Maryland's Death Row were granted another reprieve, thanks to Governor O'Malley. First, when he was sworn in two years ago, he announced that he would not obey Maryland law and draft the execution procedures. He said we should await the U.S. Supreme Court's decision regarding the "humanity" of lethal injection, and made clear his own personal opposition to the death penalty.


The Supreme Court ruled on the case last week. lethal injection procedures do not meet the standard of cruel and unusual punishment. So Governor O'Malley no longer has that pole to lean on.


This year legislative attempts to force Governor O'Malley to do his job, and bills designed to end the use of the death penalty, died in the process. What emerged was supposed to be a compromise, a Commission to Study the Death Penalty in Maryland.


The commission is a hoax, a fabrication of death penalty opponents, who recognize that a clear percentage of Marylanders support the use of a death statute for certain crimes. This commission will be populated with 19 people, a number of whom come from specific agencies or interest areas. Governor O'Malley will personally choose 14 of the 19, including the chairman of the commission.


Does anyone really think he'll be balanced and ensure both proponents and opponents will have a place at the table? I, for one, do not!


Governor O'Malley got his "tough on crime" bill. The bill to require the mandatory collection of DNA evidence passed both chambers, but only after it was substantially watered down by the Legislative Black Caucus. Its members were concerned that it granted too much power to use those samples in inappropriate ways, so provisions were added to require the destruction of the samples if the accused was acquitted, and controls on how the samples would be documented and stored.


The O'Malley Administration sought a series of highway safety bills, including speed cameras in work and school zones. That bill died on Sine Die. Frederick's Board of Aldermen was excited about having that authority. They'll now have to wait a while longer. The infamous cell phone/texting while driving bill failed again, now a record of at least 10 years. The argument, again this year, is that distracted driving laws already exist, no reason to add another law to the books.


Congressman Albert Wynn (D., 4th) lost his primary to Donna Edwards back in February. After a little wound-licking, Representative Wynn decided to slide through the Capitol Hill revolving door and join the lobbying corps, probably because he got a glimpse of some of the paychecks of his former colleagues.


Representative Wynn announced his decision to retire early, leaving his seat in June. That would mean the good people of the 4th District, primarily located in Prince George’s County, would be without a voice in the final days of the Congress this fall.


Governor O'Malley recognizing the political benefit of having Ms. Edwards get a leg up on the Congress that convenes in January, sought approval of the legislature for a $1 million special General Election, bypassing the normal election in November. O'Malley understands that a GOP challenger in this district is little more than a distraction, so why not get his candidate into office sooner.


Representative Wynn rubbed many traditional Democrats the wrong way some of the time, anyway. He's a little too independent for some.


Next time, we'll look at the last few administration bills, and we'll score the Frederick Delegation work.


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