BERLIN — When state lawmakers return to Annapolis for the 2012 General Assembly session next week, they will have much on their plate from continued budget and fiscal concerns to societal issues, and a suddenly veteran Senator Jim Mathias is ready for the battle.
Mathias is hardly a rookie on the eve of what will likely be another tumultuous assembly session. He said this week he will draw from his strong relationships with his constituents, the counties he represents and his colleagues in Annapolis as he prepares for the upcoming session.
“I know what to expect and the way I work best is working together with the counties to try to mitigate some of these issues,” he said. “We went through it last year with the teacher pensions. People want their government to be run more like a business, but they’re not always happy with the results when it is.”
Mathias has not pre-filed any bills and although he will likely introduce or co-sponsor dozens of pieces of legislation, there are no significant standout issues locally going into the session next week.
“I’m working with Wicomico County on an effort to decouple the personal property tax rate from the business tax rate,” he said. “I’ll be working with Worcester County although I’m not sure where they are in terms of their needs. I’m certain I’ll hear from Ocean City on their needs this year.”
Mathias said one of the issues he will continue to push for Worcester County is state funding for the next phase of the Route 113 project.
“That’s at the top of the list for Worcester,” he said. “I’m hoping to find the funding for the next phase. I’ve spoken to the governor about it and he’s well aware of the need, but the bottom line is, there’s no guarantee for the funding.”
Mathias said offshore wind energy development will continue to be a major issue in the upcoming session. He co-sponsored a bill that failed in 2011, but did not put his name on the bill that failed to pass again in 2012. Mathias said the offshore wind issue is naturally important to District 38 for a variety of reasons. “There are a lot of elements to this that need close attention for our district,” he said. “The farmers have expressed concern about some of the surcharges attached to this. Agriculture is a very intense user of electric power.”
Worcester County and Ocean City are clearly on the front lines of the debate, and Mathias said he will work to ensure certain protections are included for the coastal areas in any legislation that comes out regarding offshore wind.
“We have to make sure there are protections included for Ocean City, Worcester County and Assateague,” he said. “It’s in my committee and I’ll be looking closely at any bill to make sure those protections are included.”
Mathias said the state budget will again dominate much of the session, and while the economic climate in Maryland continues to show signs of improvement, there is much work to be done. He pointed out the successes in the state during the ongoing recession.
“I hope our citizens think back to where we were,” he said. “When the worst economic downturn in the post-World War II era started, we were facing a $2 billion structural deficit. By working together, we’ve been able to take that down to about $421 million going into this session while keeping our AAA bond rating, maintaining the best public school system in the country and freezing tuition for higher education. Our challenge now it to get that $421 million down to zero, or at a minimum, cut it in half.”
Mathias said the debate on gun control and mental illness will likely be a significant issue in the upcoming session.
“In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, we expect a debate on the floor about guns and semi-automatic weaponry,” he said. “I think we need to take a closer look at the funding for some of our mental health programs and look at ways of making sure someone with mental health issues doesn’t have access to guns.”
Mathias said stringent changes to the state’s gun control laws alone are likely not the answer.
“We live in a rural area and gun ownership is critical for many of our residents,” he said. “The solution might be taking a closer look at mental health. This is not a time for polarity. We need to find out what we can do from a practical standpoint.”
Mathias said healthcare reform will be another large issue during the upcoming General Assembly session. With a victory by the Obama administration armed with a Supreme Court ruling, the trickle down will likely start hitting the states including Maryland this year.
“We’re going to take a close look at all issues related to health care,” he said. “Maryland is an all-payer state and if you go to the ER without insurance, you will be taken care of. There’s a cost associated with that, and the more affordable we can make health care for all of our citizenry, the more it will help all of us in Maryland.”