Wind bill blows through House, sets up Senate action

With lobbyists and business owners sitting in the balcony, the House of Delegates gave approval to offshore wind legislation supported by Gov. Martin O’Malley on Friday, shifting onus to the Senate and setting up the real show for next week.

By an 88-47 vote, the House approved the bill, which would create a carve-out in Maryland’s renewable energy portfolio for wind. By doing so, the bill would guarantee a market for developers who could build wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City.

A Senate version of the bill is held up in committee, but bill proponents — armed with a House bill approval — are rallying the troops for a final push to pass the legislation in both chambers during the last week of the General Assembly.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting global warming,  estimates that at least 500 proponents of windy energy will encircle the State House, hand-in-hand, on Monday night just before 8 p.m. The House will resume session Monday at 6 p.m. and the Senate will reconvene at 8 p.m.

Demonstrators will hold “eco-friendly glow-in-the-dark miniature wind turbines, hand-made banners and signs, and [wear] electric blue t-shirts,” according to Jamie Nolan, communications director for Chesapeake.

On Friday, Del. Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery, joined state business leaders to give the legislation one last push — one that proponents hope will propel momentum for the bill into next week.

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‘Colbert Report’ takes on fracking

Comedian Stephen Colbert took on hydraulic fracturing on the “Colbert Report” Wednesday night, with actor Mark Ruffalo playing the part of concerned citizen and Colbert sticking by what he said America was built on: burning stuff.

Photo: David Shankbone

“We burn things. We burn things better than anyone’s ever burned things,” Colbert said. “America was built on burning things.”

Colbert, who plays a caricatured version of conservative political pundits, argued with Ruffalo on his weeknight Comedy Central television show. Ruffalo is working with Water Defense, a group that opposes hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — because it has been linked to water contamination.

“I saw what it does to families. I saw, these people can’t drink the water that’s coming out of their tap, here in America,” Ruffalo said, trying to make the conversation serious despite Colbert’s satirical persona.

Ruffalo said renewable energy sources were available, and should be put into more widespread use.

“Wind, water and solar. We can do it,” he said.

Colbert, in character, told Ruffalo that he wasn’t interested in renewable energy options.

“In my backyard, I have a giant pool of oil that I set on fire at night,” Colbert said. “And I read by it.”

Colbert injected some humor into a serious regional debate on the controversial drilling technique, as Maryland tries to decide whether to allow fracking in Garrett County and Allegany County, where rock-encased deposits of natural gas — called Marcellus Shale — runs a mile below much of Western Maryland.

HB 1204, which would force gas companies to pay for a study of drilling “best practices,” passed in the House of Delegates last week. Similar legislation, SB 798, still faces consideration in the Senate.

Fry: State should ‘keep an eye’ on adding table games

The head of the state video lottery commission said table games might be a good idea in Maryland but that the commission would take no position on a potential casino in Prince George’s County.

Legislation passed by the Senate (SB 892) would allow the state to create a sixth slots license for Prince George’s County, legalizes table games — like poker and black jack — and decrease the tax rate on slots, putting more money into the pocket of casino owners.

The legislation still must be passed by the House of Delegates and signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Donald C. Fry, chairman of the Video Lottery Location Commission, said it was not the place of the commissioners to weigh in on the creation of any new licenses.

“We haven’t taken a position, and we wouldn’t take  a position, in respect to additional facilities,” Fry said. “Those are public policy decisions for the legislature to make. We are more the implementation body.”

But Fry said the commission does occasionally weigh in on existing law when it becomes apparent the state should consider changes in order to remain competitive. Adding table games to slots parlors in Maryland was one such recommendation.

“When the legislature passed the law in Maryland [allowing slots], we weren’t surrounded by states with tables games, and now we are,” he said. “If we want to maintain an competitive edge, that’s something they need to keep an eye on. …We’re not saying do it.”

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Gingrich campaign stops in Annapolis

Republican presidential primary candidate Newt Gingrich made a stop in Annapolis on  Tuesday, including a brief trip to the Senate floor, a tour of the State House and a bite to eat at Annapolis political institution Chick and Ruth’s Delly.

At Chick and Ruth’s, sandwiches are named after various politicians. Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, does not have a sandwich named after him on the menu. He ate a crab cake, The Baltimore Sun reported.

The morning started with a warm welcome on the floor of the Senate, which is controlled by a Democratic majority. It continued as Gingrich toured the old House of Delegates and Senate chambers in the State House.

He also shook hands with Gov. Martin O’Malley, but couldn’t resist leaving town without getting in a shot at the Democratic governor’s proposal to apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline.

The plan “shows as much political insensitivity as you could imagine,” Gingrich told a gaggle of reporters, which stalked him around the State House and down Main Street.

Gingrich’s stop in Annapolis preceded a trip to Salisbury University, where he held an afternoon campaign rally.

The Eye on Annapolis Podcast

The Eye on Annapolis podcast is back with a look at Saturday’s special session. Daily Record State House reporter Alex Pyles and I discuss two of the weekend’s big bills, one addressing public-private partnerships and the other calling for a review of the state’s tax breaks.

We also look at the bills’ chances in the Senate, as well as the General Assembly’s reservations about the proposed downtown arena and convention center.



‘House of Cards’ holding casting call

Want a job in television? Here’s your shot.

Just a day after “House of Cards” screenwriter Beau Willimon and others testified before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee about the the economic impact — including jobs — that would be created should a film production tax credit be extended, an open casting call for the series was announced.

“House of Cards,” which will be shown by Internet media streaming company Netflix, is holding the call at Stevenson University‘s Inscape Theater on March 24 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The show, which is set in Washington, D.C., is actually being filmed in a 100,000-square foot sound stage in Edgewood, as well as on location in Baltimore City and elsewhere.

The call seeks local folks to play politicians, Capitol Hill staffers and aides, lobbyists and “elegant Washington types.” (Whatever that means.)

The show is also seeking actors to play reporters, which got me thinking: I may be one in real life — but why not play one on TV, too?

Franchot says the Nationals are World Series-bound

The Board of Public Works met for just 10 minutes Wednesday morning — several minutes of which were devoted to Comptroller Peter Franchot singing the praises of the Washington Nationals.

Franchot, who lives in Takoma Park, said he expects that Nationals to make the World Series this year. The team went 80-81 in 2011, finishing in third place, 21.5 games behind the National League East-leading Philadelphia Phillies.

But the Nationals’ record was their best since moving to the District in 2005, and pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Opening Day for the team after he missed most of last season to injury.

While Franchot has high hopes for the Nats, he offered a more tentative prediction of success for the Baltimore Orioles — and he wasn’t immediately certain Buck Showalter was still the team’s manager. The Orioles finished 69-93 in 2011, their 14th consecutive losing season.

The Nationals’ home opener is April 12, though the team plays its first game of the season April 5 in Chicago. Opening Day for the Orioles is April 6 at Camden Yards.

Johansson: ‘The economy is getting better’

If you’re still living in financial fear, you may have appreciated the pep talk given by the secretary of the state’s Department of Business and Economic Development on Tuesday morning.

“Take a deep breath,” Christian S. Johansson said. “The economy is getting better.”

Speaking at a breakfast for The BWI Business Partnership Inc., Johansson lauded the state’s recovery since the recession began in 2008, reminding the audience that Maryland had regained more than 100,000 jobs — about 70 percent of jobs lost in the worst of the recession.

He said a commitment to education and the state’s innovation economy have kept Maryland from sinking to the depths experienced some other states.

“Throughout the recession, Maryland has been one of the best performers in the United States,” Johansson said.

Continued growth will be dependent on the state investing further in innovation and finding ways to foster entrepreneurship and commercialize the research done at institutions like Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and the National Institutes of Health.

Johansson wants Maryland to be responsible for “the next Microsoft, the next Google [or] the next Under Armour” by making it easier for business to do business, through the streamlining or elimination of regulations. Gov. Martin O’Malley has suggested repealing or modifying more than 130 regulatory polices that affect business.

“Maryland’s days, our best days, are still ahead of us,” Johansson said.

Caesars not interested in National Harbor casino

A Caesars Entertainment vice president said the company would not shift its attention to a potential site at National Harbor in Prince George’s County — so long as the company is awarded the video lottery terminal license to build and operate a Harrah’s casino in downtown Baltimore.

Similar legislation in the House of Delegates and the Senate calls for Maryland to add a sixth video lottery terminal license to the state’s arsenal. The license would be used for a casino at the mixed-use commercial and residential development in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

The legislation also calls for table gambling — poker and blackjack, for instance — to be allowed at state casinos. It also increases the percentage of video lottery revenues that are returned to licensees. The rest is collected by the state.

Trevor Busche, vice president of corporate development for Caesars, said the company supports that legislation, even though adding an additional casino in the state would hurt business for any downtown casino, and Maryland Live! at the Arundel Mills mall, which should open in June.

By adding table games and increasing video lottery revenues for the casinos, the bill is made more palatable, he said.

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New tax bracket called ‘disgraceful’

The Democrat-controlled Senate gave its approval to a package of four bills that relate to the state budget, but several senators voiced their disdain for a measure in SB 523, which creates a new tax bracket for individuals earning more than $500,000 annually.

Those making between $500,000 and $1 million a year would be taxed at 5.75 percent from the first dollar earned — costing such individuals and couples about an additional $2,500 a year, the Associated Press reported.

“These tax increases are job killers,” said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore. Business owners will be less likely to set up shop in Maryland because of the high tax rate, taking away potential jobs, he said.

What’s surprising is that a few Democrats — including the Senate’s presiding officer — thought Pipkin might have a point. SB 523 passed, 26-20, but eight Democrats voted against it.

“A lot of my colleagues, my Democrats, didn’t like the additional bracket for $500,000,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George’s. “There may be some truth” to the assertion that the tax could prevent businesses from moving to — or staying in — the state, he added.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, chose not to mince words in his criticism of the tax.

“That provision in that bill is disgraceful,” Zirkin said. “That’s class warfare … Today, I am ashamed to be a Democrat.”