Halfway through the session, much remains to be done

By Len Lazarick

The 2010 session of the Maryland General Assembly is halfway over, with just six weeks left to go. Little of importance has been accomplished, which could be either bad or good depending on your point of view.

There was the blizzard, and then there was the second blizzard. A week of hearings was lost just when the committees were revving up.

Senate President Mike Miller last week complained that bills were still being introduced– 10 of them on Friday – three weeks past the filing deadline. All the late legislation gets referred to the Rules Committee, and senators all last week were lining up like drivers in traffic court to explain why their bills were late and deserved to have a hearing. Not surprisingly, it was usually somebody else’s fault.

Regardless of who was at fault, most of these bills won’t get a hearing for a week or two, so they face an uncertain path. Getting them through committee, two floor votes and over to the House for the same five-step process by April 12 will be chancy.

To say that little has been accomplished disregards the routine bills that have actually passed the House or Senate. The House last week received 31 bills the Senate passed, and the Senate got 33 bills sent over from the House. Most are minor, often proposed by executive departments to jiggle provisions of existing laws, and they elicit scant debate and unanimous roll call votes, with no one in opposition.

There’s not a lot that absolutely has to get done during the 90-day session, except for approval of the state budget. The session gets extended if the legislators don’t enact the spending plan. The budget will technically be in balance based on December official revenue estimates, which will be updated again this much.

Because of the lag time in collections of sales and income taxes, the March estimate will not include the negative economic impact of the blizzards on sales and payrolls.

Next week, we will also get the official state unemployment figures for January. December numbers showed 209,000 Marylanders collecting unemployment benefits. That number had been higher in 2009, but the number of people actually working (2,709,545 according to the state labor department) was the lowest for the year.

On Friday, Senate Finance Chairman Thomas Mac Middleton announced a final compromise on unemployment insurance legislation that was a priority for Gov. Martin O’Malley. But we won’t know until Monday whether business groups will actually be on board to back the compromise, as they took the plan back to their members over the weekend. The compromise looked much like proposals that had been rejected in past weeks.

O’Malley’s proposal for a jobs tax credit did pass the Senate last week with the support of the same business groups. Instead of the $3,000 a business would get if they hired someone from the unemployment rolls, they would now get $5,000 for a new hire, as the Chamber of Commerce had suggested. But the proposed budget of $20 million stays the same, meaning it would at best encourage 4,000 new hires, not 6,000 as proposed. That’s not a lot compared to the 50,000 jobs that were lost in Maryland last year.

The size of this relatively small program emphasizes the problem of an election-year session in which money is scarce, and there have been promises not to pass any new taxes – this year at least – or any programs with a significant price tag.

In the 2002 election year, the legislature passed the massive Thornton public school aid program – without the billions to pay for it. In 2006, the legislature enacted higher pensions for state employees and teachers with a price tag of $1.9 billion over 25 years. Both the pensions and the education aid are a significant source of continuing structural deficits.

There was no long-term plan to pay for either program, but it made no difference in those election years. The painful downturn in revenues makes it near impossible to make such expensive promises this election year.

So the focus will remain on cutting the budget and doing things that look good but cost little – tightening rules for sex offenders, improving anti-gang legislation, promoting greater transparency in the legislative process, and dozens of other measures. The legislature will tread water till the tide again lifts all boats.

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