Md. thoroughbred talks “limited” so far

Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas was working the State House halls Wednesday, chatting with lawmakers as they filtered out of their morning floor sessions.

Horse racing interests and state officials are hashing out a long-term plan for the industry. Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed to extend the state’s subsidy of operations at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course as the negotiations progress.

Chuckas said Wednesday discussions have been “limited” so far, but the parties are scheduled to meet next week.

“I think everyone wants peace in the valley,” he said. “Everybody wants a long term solution, but there are so many different interests involved.”

Laurel Park increased daily purses by $26,000, or 16 percent, this month thanks to subsidies coming from the state’s share of slot machine revenue at Hollywood Casino Perryville and Casino at Ocean Downs.

Chuckas said it was “too early to tell” what impact that would have on the health of the ailing thoroughbred tracks.

“We’re starting to see a few more horses, a little more quality,” he said. Hopefully, as more gaming facilities come on line, we’ll be able to bump them up again.”

Also on the horse racing front, Del. Justin Ross, D-Prince George’s, introduced a bill Tuesday to require the Maryland Stadium Authority (you know, the guys who oversee Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium) to study the feasibility of building another thoroughbred track in Maryland.

“Maryland is in the horse track business,” Ross said. “The hope is not to replace them (Pimlico and Laurel Park), but there may be a place where it makes more sense. You’ve seen where the growth is, in Frederick County and in Southern Maryland. Those are two options.”

Md. gets straight AAA’s

All three major credit rating agencies reaffirmed Maryland’s AAA bond rating, State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp said Wednesday morning.

The top rating for Maryland’s debt comes as the state prepares to sell $485 million in bonds on March 9.

“Because of the tough choices we’ve made together to create and save jobs and to practice fiscal responsibility, we are able to remain one of only eight states to retain the highest possible Triple A bond rating,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a written statement.

The early March bond sale will include $378.5 million in tax-exempt bonds, and $6.5 million in Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds.

The state will also sell $100 million in debt with priority given to Maryland residents.

“Marylanders get first preference in buying highly desirable, conservative quality bonds while investing in their state — a win-win situation,” Kopp said.

Ehrlich to reveal plans soon

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was one of hundreds of umbrella-toting observers Monday as the man who beat him twice, Gov. Martin O’Malley, wielded the scissors at the ribbon cutting for the Intercounty Connector in Gaithersburg.

Ehrlich, who appeared to be in good spirits Monday, has been relatively quiet since the November election. But that may soon change.

“We’ll have some announcements in the next couple weeks about our future plans,” he said.

Ehrlich attended the event with a handful of former aides, including his transportation secretary, Bob Flanagan. They toasted the ribbon cutting with sparkling cider in clear plastic cups.

“This is the culmination of a lot of hard work for people in my administration,” Ehrlich said.

“Just about every day for four years I called Bobby Flanagan and asked him how my road was coming,” he said. “I used to introduce him as Bob ‘If I don’t build the ICC I’m fired’ Flanagan.”

“That’s true,” Flanagan said.

Ehrlich called the ICC his top transportation priority in 2002, when he was elected the state’s first Republican governor in a generation. It was his administration that settled on the road’s route, and in 2005, the General Assembly approved the financing for the project.

O’Malley lobbies for more rail funding

Gov. Martin O’Malley is hoping Florida’s loss may be Maryland’s gain.

The Sunshine State governor, Rick Scott, announced this week Florida would return $2.4 billion in federal rail funding from the economic stimulus package. On Friday, O’Malley assured Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that should those funds find their way to Maryland, they would be appreciated.

“I believe transportation infrastructure projects including passenger rail offer a path to economic recovery and a stronger, more competitive future,” O’Malley wrote to LaHood.

The funding doesn’t appear destined for the Red and Purple lines, the most prominent of the state’s unfunded transit projects. The state is looking for about $3.5 billion to fund the light rail lines in Baltimore and suburban Washington.

O’Malley said the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail funds could be used on the replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, the addition of track near the BWI MARC station, replacing bridges and upgrading capacity on freight lines.

“Due to Amtrak’s ownership of the majority of the infrastructure on the [Northeast Corridor], the federal responsibility for these improvements is more apparent here than in any other passenger rail corridor in the nation,” O’Malley wrote. “We urge you to reflect that obligation in future federal investment where US DOT has discretion in awarding funding.”

State highways to sell out?

You don’t have to look far to find corporate branding on state property. Think M&T Bank Stadium, 1st Mariner Arena, Comcast Center and Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.

One lawmaker wants to take that a step further. A bill introduced Thursday by Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, D-Prince George’s, would allow companies to buy the naming rights of state highways. The money raised in those deals would go to the Transportation Trust Fund, making this bill probably the most innovative transportation funding effort undertaken this year. Other lawmakers have proposed raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, and applying a 4-cent sales tax to gasoline.

Howard’s bill wouldn’t go so far as to let companies rename the state’s arteries. The bill would only allow the sale for “public relations or advertising” purposes, and wouldn’t allow addresses to change as a result. So you wouldn’t see Constellation Highway, Lockheed Lane, Under Armour Beltway, the Harbor Tunnel brought to you by the Cordish Cos., or Harbor Tunnel Live! for that matter.

But, the sponsors would be able to put up signs up and down their roads, as long as they’re “esthetically appropriate.” And sponsors wouldn’t be limited to corporations – nonprofits and individuals could get in on the game, too. I don’t think you’ll see the Nick Sohr Superhighway anytime soon, though.

Senators told to clear their calendars

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Thursday he expects his chamber to vote on a same-sex marriage bill by next Monday (Feb. 28).

That means a busy week for the Senate next week.

“We’d ask the members to keep their schedules flexible next week,” Miller said. He added the Senate would report for their normal morning sessions, break for committee meetings in the afternoon and return for evening floor sessions to continue the debate. He also said the Senate may return on the weekend.

“I want everyone to have their say, proponents and opponents,” he said.

The Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill this afternoon, following a contentious hearing on the issue last week.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that House leaders are anticipating passage in the Senate.

O’Malley drops wind energy bill

Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced one of his key pieces of energy legislation Friday, a bill that would require utilities to enter into long-term contracts to buy electricity generated by offshore wind turbines.

The state’s utilities would have to combine to buy between 400 megawatts and 600 megawatts of wind power. It’s one-half of O’Malley’s attempt to build from scratch a market for wind power in the state. The governor hopes to spur development of an offshore wind farm by guaranteeing buyers for its products, and will later introduce a bill to lure manufacturers of wind turbine components to the state with tax credits.

“By requiring the utilities to enter into long-term agreements, we can finally shift our focus from short term profit to our state’s long-term energy security,” O’Malley said in a written statement.

The administration estimates construction of a 500 MW wind farm would require 2,000 manufacturing and construction jobs over five years, and 400 permanent jobs beyond that. The farm would generate enough power to power half of the homes in Baltimore City, or 80 percent of the homes on the Eastern Shore, according to the Maryland Energy Administration.

Federal officials are reviewing applications to build wind farms in the 207 square nautical miles designated for wind energy off Maryland’s coast. The MEA expects to see the first turbines spinning there in 2016.

DBED’s Invest Maryland Day back on

The Department of Business and Economic Development’s snowed-out Invest Maryland Day is back on. You’ll find the DBED folks drumming up support for the $100 million venture fund legislation on Feb. 16, from 10 a.m. to noon in the Miller Senate office building.

The bill, SB 180, is up for a hearing at 1 p.m. that day before the Senate Budget & Tax Committee. It’ll be the first chance for lawmakers to really dig into the proposal to sell tax credits to insurance companies to raise the venture capital intended for early stage, high-tech start-ups.

With a price tag of more than $100 million (the tax credits will be auctioned off at a discounted rate so they’ll have to sell more than $100 million worth of credits to raise $100 million) the size of the program may be hard for some lawmakers to support. Among the other work for the budget committee this year is Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to bridge a $1.6 billion budget deficit.

The General Assembly considered a similar idea last year, but it ultimately fizzled in the waning days of the session. Some lawmakers have said the changes made to the legislation by DBED — the bill would allow the state to recoup all of the principal and 80 percent of the profits from investments made with Invest Maryland money by private venture capital firms — have made the proposal more palatable this year.

And it has been at the top of the governor’s list of legislative proposals this year. DBED Secretary Christian Johansson has been lobbying lawmakers throughout the legislative session, working the crowd between the Senate and House chambers before and after their morning meetings.

Garagiola drops transpo funding bill

Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola’s plan to boost transportation funding is in the hopper with 13 cosponsors’ names on it.

Garagiola’s bill would increase the gas tax 10 cents (it has been 23.5 cents since 1992) and bump vehicle registration fees by 50 percent. The bill also includes a constitutional amendment that would prohibit future budgetary raids of the Transportation Trust Fund.

“If we are going to raise revenue for transportation, we need to prevent future transfers from the TTF,” Garagiola, D-Montgomery, said in a written statement. “A Constitutional amendment is needed to ensure that transportation revenues go to transportation needs.”

“It is never easy to raise revenues,” he said, “but we cannot afford not to.”

Garagiola’s cosponsors are all Democrats, and include key names like Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton. There are five members of the Budget and Tax Committee — which will hear the bill — signed on, but they don’t include Chairman Ed Kasemeyer.

Garagiola’s isn’t the only transportation funding bill out there this year. Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, introduced a bill on Friday that would add a 4-cent sales tax to gasoline, and dedicate some of the funding for transit projects in Baltimore city, and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Md. senator eyes new transportation revenues

It’s not too hard to find resistance in the halls of the General Assembly to raising the gas tax. Sure, it’s been at 23 cents per gallon since 1992 and transportation dollars are again likely victims to budgetary belt-tightening, but there’s not much of an appetite for a hike.

So, Sen. Roger Manno has another idea. He introduced a bill Friday that would apply a 4-cent sales tax to gasoline, essentially, as he said, treating the state’s gas pumps like vending machines.

In Prince George’s, Montgomery and Baltimore counties and Baltimore city, the bill would set aside one-quarter of the revenue raised for mass transit projects. Those counties, of course, are awaiting federal and state dollars for the construction of the Red and Purple light rail lines.

“It’s a huge, huge issues for all the residents in those jurisdictions,” Manno said. “We have huge unmet needs in terms of mass transit, and highway user revenues for local governments, and just patching potholes. We’re not doing that right now.”

Manno described his bill as just another option on the menu of transportation funding streams that some lawmakers are considering. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, is signed on to Manno’s bill. And Manno said he backs the legislation being crafted by Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola to raise between $400 million and $600 million for transportation through a variety of mechanisms, including a bump in the gas tax rate.

Garagiola has said his bill will also include a mechanism to protect the Transportation Trust Fund from raids by the governor and General Assembly.

“We need a stable source of transportation funding,” Manno said. “A gas tax is one way to do that. But as new technology comes on line, we’ll have to look at other options.”

Garagiola agreed.

“I think it’s better to have a lot of bills out there to look at,” he said.