House Speaker Michael Busch says the Pledge of Allegiance before Governor Martin O'Malley delivered his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)
Today is the ninth inning, the fourth quarter, the make-it-or-break day for the Maryland General Assembly.
Monday is the final day of Maryland’s scheduled legislative session and, before midnight, lawmakers must pass a $35 billion budget and vote on an offshore wind energy measure and bills to expand gambling in the state.
Late last week, the Maryland Senate submitted a budget compromise that would raise more than $300 million for the next fiscal year by raising taxes for people making more than $100,000 a year.
The House and Senate are now working out their differences in the spending plan and The Baltimore Sun reports that what separates the two chambers is $58 million dollars -- the difference between the Senate plan to increase taxes for those earning more than $100,000 and the House plan to raise taxes across the board.
If representatives from the two chambers can't negotiate a budget to send to the floor for a vote by late morning, the legislators may not make tonight’s midnight deadline. If this happens, legislators would have to schedule a special session to pass a budget.
But the budget isn’t the only high profile vote on the schedule today.
A bill that would trigger a referendum on a proposal to allow a sixth casino in the state and to expand gambling to allow table games is also expected to head for a vote.
The sixth casino would be along the Potomac River in Prince George County. If the proposed gambling bill is not passed this session, the referendum would not be on the ballots before 2014.
The debate surrounding the gambling bill could get heated today, making it even more difficult to pass the budget by deadline.
The Sun Editorial Board weighed in and wrote that the legislature should drop the question of expanding gambling in Maryland and instead focus on the budget and other crucial matters.
Although there are some genuine issues left to resolve in the debate over the state budget, it is clear that what's really holding things up is the Senate's insistence on moving ahead this year with legislation that could lead to a Prince George's casino. Senators appear intent on getting a referendum to allow a National Harbor casino (and with it, the legalization of table games throughout the state) on the 2012 ballot. Failing to pass a gambling bill before this legislative session ends would mean voters could not approve it until 2014 at the earliest.
That would be no great tragedy. It would give the state time to take measure of the gambling program it has and to make any expansion the product of a considered, deliberative process, not 11th-hour deal making.
* In Virginia budget news, the spending plan is expected to go to the floor for a vote next week.
A majority of House and Senate representatives in the conference committee agreed on a two-year, $85 billion spending, but it is still unclear how the budget will fare on the Senate floor.
The Democrats are still pushing for an additional $300 million to help fund the cost of extending the Metrorail to Dulles International Airport. This was not included in the negotiated budget, and could be a show-stopper for Democrats in the evenly split Senate.
The Roanoke Times Editorial Board wrote that the debate over the Metro and rising toll prices to help mitigate the costs of transportation projects will require state leaders to admit that Virginia needs more money for roads.
McDonnell suggested he'd be willing to consider delaying the tolls. Northern Virginia drivers immediately began caterwauling for relief from tolls being used to pay for a rail line to Dulles International Airport. Those tolls are already in effect at $2.25, and could rise to $4.50 next year.
Some state senators say they won't vote for the budget unless it includes "toll mitigation." The cost to douse discontent in the two regions would top $400 million.
True toll mitigation would require McDonnell to support increased transportation revenues, either through a boost in the gas tax or the sales tax rates, or both. But McDonnell insists that's not necessary.
Whether or not the tolls gum up the state budget, the matter should concern all Virginians. The economy of the commonwealth is dependent on Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. If those regions cannot function properly, everyone will suffer.
Time is drawing short, and lawmakers are not going to pass sweeping transportation reform between now and April 17, when the full Assembly convenes to vote on the deal. Negotiators should work out their differences — split the baby down the middle if they must — and get the job done. Then perhaps the state can start fresh on the comprehensive transportation solution that it so desperately needs.
* Prom season is nearing and nothing spells high school romance like government agencies.
But in Maryland, the Public Service Commission is stepping in to try and make the big night a little safer by recommending prom limos for the teens.
The commission is cracking down on unlicensed limos and encouraging teens and their parents to ensure that they are choosing a licensed limo service.
According to The Washington Examiner, promgoers can check for licensure at each step on the commission's website.
"Prom time is one of the busiest times of year in the limo business, and it's a time as well when people who don't normally use limousines use limousines," Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the commission, told The Washington Examiner. "We want prom night to be special, like it's supposed to be."
* Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli once again sounded off on Obamacare, but this time he defended Solicitor General Donald Verilli…kind of.
The RTD reported that in Cuccinelli’s newsletter, “The Cuccinelli Compass, the attorney general said that Verilli was unfairly being attacked by defenders of the law for poorly arguing the case.
"That's flat-out baloney," Cuccinelli wrote. "The best lawyer in the world can't win a lousy case."