ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Banning assault weapons, repealing capital punishment and laying the groundwork to develop offshore wind received strong endorsements by Maryland's top state leaders, who were confident they would pass this year as lawmakers convened Wednesday for the first day of the legislative session.
Lawmakers also want to address long-running shortfalls in transportation funding. The challenge on how to find the money will likely be tough work well into the session.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat who supports capital punishment, predicted a repeal would pass in the Senate, perhaps by as many as five votes. Miller also said he believed the measure would clear the General Assembly and be sent to the ballot for voters to decide in the next election.
"I'm confident that it will be on the ballot in 2014, and that the ultimate decision will be made by the people of the state of Maryland," Miller said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said there has been a renewed interest from death penalty opponents to repeal capital punishment.
"It doesn't work," the Democrat said on the Marc Steiner Show on WEAA-FM. "It's expensive, and I believe it should be repealed."
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, also said he supports a repeal.
O'Malley and Miller said they believe a ban on assault weapons will pass, as lawmakers review gun laws and work to take extra precautions in hopes of preventing a massacre like the one that happened in Connecticut last month from happening in Maryland. O'Malley said there's also keen interest in examining links between mental health and public safety, particular relating to firearms.
"You have to make sure you know what you have here in the state and how you can prevent any instance that took place in Newtown from taking place here," the speaker said.
The Senate president made no bones about his confidence that legislation will pass this year to develop offshore wind.
"Wind energy will pass the General Assembly this session," Miller declared on WEAA-FM, noting that it will likely mean a $1.50 increase on monthly electric bills.
The proposal backed by the governor has failed two years in a row. It cleared the House of Delegates, but stalled in the Senate last year. This year, Miller took the unusual step of moving a lawmaker from a Senate committee to help boost the bill's chances of getting to the Senate floor.
A tough, high-stakes battle will play out over how the state will try to address serious shortfalls in transportation funding.
O'Malley, who unsuccessfully pushed to phase in a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline last year, said Maryland needs to raise an additional $700 million to $800 million annually to address a backlog in transportation projects that are in demand more than ever on some of the most congested roads in the nation outside the nation's capital.
However, the governor said it's too early to get into specifics about what he will be proposing this year.
"We're still talking to legislative leaders, and we're working on a number of things, and if we're able to make a stronger and better annual investment in transportation that too will help our employment picture and help us create jobs," O'Malley said.
O'Malley said state officials will be keeping a close eye on Virginia, a neighboring state that also borders the nation's capital, as it works to address serious transportation funding problems there. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed replacing the state's gasoline tax with a sales tax increase.
"There is no way to do it without additional revenues," O'Malley said. "Whether we have the consensus and the will and the smarts to do that remains to be seen."
Miller underscored the importance of transportation infrastructure, as the two states compete for jobs in the shadow of the nation's capital.
"We're well positioned for jobs and this gas tax and moving us forward in terms of transportation would also help us with job creation, economic development," Miller said.
Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, said a gas tax increase alone can't solve Maryland's problem. The senator from western Maryland also said funding for mass transit needs to be separated from funding for roads, a key concern for lawmakers from rural parts of the state.
"So it's probably going to be a mixture _ a potpourri _ of ideas that come out and try to move forward," Brinkley said.
Brinkley also said new revenue for Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund will need to be specifically locked in for transportation projects. Transportation funding has been a key source of plugging budget holes during the recession and its aftermath in Maryland.
"If you're going to have a trust fund, let's reestablish trust to the trust fund," Brinkley said.
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