NEW FOR TUESDAY: Table Games Bill Dies, As Legislative Session Ends With Many Questions
BERLIN -- The 2012 Maryland General Assembly adjourned at midnight last night with more questions than answers, including no agreement on Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed $35 billion budget, but several issues near and dear to the resort area appear to have been resolved.
Disgust and angst reportedly replaced pomp and circumstance as Sine Die arrived last night with much unfinished business still on the table. Passing a balanced budget is the only official mandate for state lawmakers during the General Assembly session each year and the legislature filed out of the session without approving the governor’s spending plan.
O’Malley’s budget was predicated on a significant amount of new revenue, including, among other things, a tax increase for those making over $100,000, a gas tax hike or an increase in the state’s sales tax. However, state lawmakers shot down much of the governor’s tax increase package, triggering a so-called “doomsday budget,” including budget cuts totaling over $500 million, most of which could come at the expense of K-12 education and higher education.
The governor could call for extending the session for as many as 10 days to attempt to pass a balanced budget without the draconian cuts to education, but early Tuesday O’Malley had not indicated he would do so. It would mark the first time state lawmakers were recalled after the close of the 90-day session in decades.
With the legislature furiously debating the budget as the session deadline neared, several key pieces of legislation were left on the table as the clock struck midnight.
For example, the governor’s Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2012, which would open the door for a vast offshore wind energy farm including as many as 40 turbines churning off the coast of Ocean City, did not pass and was left on the table for the second straight year.
Also close to home, state lawmakers did not pass a bill that would allow table games at approved casinos in Maryland, including the Casino at Ocean Downs, and add a sixth slots venue in Prince George’s County. The bill included language easing many of the restrictions on food and drink giveaways at Ocean Downs along with other amenities, such as live entertainment, fiercely resisted by Ocean City, but the bill failed to pass as the session expired.
However, the legislature did pass a bill providing a $1.2 million subsidy to the Casino at Ocean Downs to offset operating expenses. The funds will be diverted from the horseracing purse account as long as Ocean Downs continues to provide a 40-day live racing meet each year. Local horsemen resisted the legislation because to lessened the purses for the live meet and appeared to run counter to the idea of slots subsidizing the struggling industry.
In another measure close to home, lawmakers approved a doubling of the state’s flush tax from $2.50 to $5 to support Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. However, residents in certain areas of Worcester County, including Ocean City, are exempt from the increase because they are not in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The General Assembly did pass a watered-down version of the governor’s proposed ban on septic systems on new developments, which was met with considerable opposition in rural areas where public sewer service is not readily available. Last year, O’Malley proposed a complete ban on septic systems for new developments, but the bill failed. This year, the governor introduced a less intrusive version and the legislature watered it down further with amendments, allowing local jurisdictions to retain most land-use decisions.
The impact of the so-called “doomsday budget,” including potentially severe cuts in state aid for public education, was uncertain Tuesday morning as the dust settled in Annapolis. Also uncertain is a measure calling for a phased-in shift of the teacher pensions, an issue that will likely be resolved if the governor calls for a special session to work out budget issues. It’s important to note that some of the other issues, including offshore wind and an expansion of gambling, for example, could get a second look if a special session is called.
The situation in Annapolis is currently static with many issues still to be resolved and The Dispatch will continue to provide more definitive information as it becomes available. For a complete wrap-up, see Friday’s print and on-line editions of The Dispatch.