By BRIAN WITTE
CAMBRIDGE, Md. - As a challenging legislative session looms in Maryland, Democratic and Republican leaders appealed to local officials Friday to be part of the process, while comments from leaders in the two parties suggest there will be plenty of fighting in Annapolis in a year when tax increases will be debated.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, speaking at the winter conference of the Maryland Association of Counties, continued to criticize Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's PlanMaryland, a long-term plan for development in the state that Republicans say infringes on local governments. Pipkin also attacked rising tolls and talk of a gas tax increase, which he says will have a disproportionate effect on rural residents, who drive more.
"We're going to fight this year about that," said Pipkin, the Senate minority leader who has referred to the policies as an attack on rural Maryland. "We want MACO. We're going to fight for our future. We want MACO as our partner."
Pipkin pointed to the unequal distribution of the proceeds of an increase in the alcohol tax last year, which directed most of the $47.5 million to urban and suburban areas.
But House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, noted that large amounts of school construction money have been flowing to rural parts of the state for years, even though Republicans have voted against the state's capital budget. He also pointed out that Republicans voted against the 50 percent increase in the state's sales tax on alcohol last year.
"If you didn't want the tax, don't ask for school construction money," Busch said. "You know, those who work get fed."
The speaker added: "When we go back to Annapolis, my job and the president of the Senate's job is to cobble 71 votes and 24 votes together. We can't let what happened in Washington D.C. happen here on the local level. We've got to move Maryland forward."
Meanwhile, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, talked about plans for a comprehensive legislation to expand gambling. Miller said he hopes to expand slot machine gambling to include table games and increasing the amount of money that casino developers can receive. Developers now receive about a third of the total revenue, an amount lower than in neighboring states. Miller also talked about plans to push for allowing a sixth casino in Prince George's County near the nation's capital and Virginia. Maryland currently allows for five casinos, and two have opened so far. None of the five locations is in Prince George's. Earlier this week in an interview with The Associated Press, Miller mentioned Prince George's National Harbor as a potential site.
"Politics is like war. You hold on to your own, but you take from somebody else," Miller said. "This site would be within a mile from Washington, D.C. It will be within a mile from Virginia, you see, and so people would come from those areas and we would receive their money."
Miller also said he will revive the perennially contentious issue of shifting some pension costs to the counties. Maryland is one of only a few states where state government currently pays all teacher pensions costs, which now add up to about $1 billion a year.
"It's something that's not sustainable right now," the Senate president said.
Miller and Busch also said local school systems must honor state and local funding partnerships to pay for schools. Some counties have been looking to dodge the state's maintenance of effort law, which requires local governments to invest a certain amount in schools each year.
Joe Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer who was on the panel, told local officials that the administration has been listening to concerns about legislation aimed at reducing septic tank pollution, a proposal that stalled in last year's session after Democrats and Republicans in rural areas expressed concerns.
"I think you will see on the septics proposal a different construct then you did last time," Bryce said. "Why? Because MACO and others expressed concerns. We sat down. We tried to listen."
Bryce also answered Pipkin's criticism about the state's policy on Marcellus Shale drilling by underscoring health concerns that have arisen in neighboring states that moved quickly to allow drilling.
"So it's not a matter of not wanting to do things like that that will provide economic growth in certain regions of the state, it's a matter of doing it right, and I don't think that there's a need to apologize for trying to take the right approach, even if it takes a bit longer," Bryce said.