O’Malley raising money for referendum fight

Gov. Martin O’Malley took less than 18 hours to celebrate his signing of legislation legalizing gay marriage, and now turns his attention toward fundraising to battle opponents who have promised to petition the issue to referendum this fall.

“The reality is, there are enough people who oppose equality, that the future of marriage equality is in jeopardy,” O’Malley wrote in an e-mail to constituents. “Make no doubt about it, this issue will go to referendum and the other side will have the money and resources to fight against it.”

The e-mail pleads with supporters to donate money to battle same-sex marriage opponents. Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of state minority advocacy groups formed in 2011, is collecting the contributions. Supporters previously said they expected to spend up to $500,000 protecting the law.

To force a voter referendum, opponents of gay marriage must gather nearly 56,000 signatures. The Maryland Marriage Alliance is spearheading the opposition.

Derek McCoy, the group’s director, told the Associated Press that state religious leaders are being counted on to reach that number. McCoy hoped church goers would begin signing the petition as early as Sunday.

Maryland Democrats channel Beyoncé

Maryland’s Democratic congressional delegation sounded many of the same themes at the party’s annual pre-General Assembly session pep rally. They spoke of investments in the future, the state’s strength in education and all that’s at stake in the 2012 election.

Oh, and you can add Beyoncé to that list.

“Have you heard that song by Beyoncé?” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger asked the crowd.

“I’m a survivor, keep on survivin’,” he sang, using the Beyoncé-led Destiny’s Child hit “Survivor” to communicate the attitude of Congressional Democrats.

“I’ll give up my day job and my job will be singing Beyoncé,” said Ruppersberger.

The congressman was at the podium, in part, to introduce colleague Rep. Elijah Cummings, who appeared to be in lockstep with the Ruppersberger’s choice of music.

“I, too, am a fan of Beyoncé,” he said.

But Cummings chose a different song from the Beyoncé catalog, settling on “I Was Here.”

“It’s a very powerful song,” he said, and returned to its lyrics when he introduced House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

When Hoyer “looks back on his career,” Cummings said, “he’ll be able to borrow some words from Beyoncé and say ‘I was here, I made a difference.”

That was the last we heard of Beyoncé at the Democrats’ event, but Hoyer did refer to House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller as “the beer brothers.”

Ulman: Broadband will set Maryland apart

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman traveled to Palo Alto., Calif., last month to speak with tech industry executives and venture capitalists and came back confident Maryland has something special to offer.

He said this week at the Maryland Municipal League conference that no other area has the type of fiber-optic broadband network now being installed around the state.

“This is the only place where you can get 2,000 schools on one network,” Ulman said.

Using a $115 million stimulus grant, the state is installing 1,300 miles of fiber that will connect schools, police stations, libraries, community colleges, hospitals and other anchor institutions. The project will save governments money on IT costs, said Ulman, who is overseeing the effort in Central Maryland.

But Ulman said the network will also be a sort of testing ground for developers of applications for government agencies. They will be able to tap into the network and be connected to dozens or even hundreds of potential customers.

“We think this is another piece that will lure app developers to Maryland, a real economic development opportunity,” he said.

Engineering on the project is underway in every jurisdiction in the state, and actual construction is happening in Anne Arundel, Baltimore Howard and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City.

The project faces a August 2013 due date, or the feds get their unspent dollars back.

Garagiola to launch U.S. House run

State Sen. Rob Garagiola is making it official.

The Montgomery County Democrat will begin his campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday at the BlackRock Center for Arts in Germantown.

The announcement Friday said Garagiola, who is now the Senate majority leader (the second ranking Democrat in the chamber), will “protect seniors living on Medicare and Social Security” and push “an aggressive jobs agenda.”

Garagiola, who has been a major proponent of raising transportation revenues in the state through a higher gas tax and other means, will run in a revamped 6th Congressional District that now includes western Montgomery County and southern Frederick County.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican, has has held that seat since 1993.

Garagiola, who has long been discussed as a candidate for the 6th, picked up endorsements earlier this week from 17 state lawmakers.

Garagiola’s support comes from four state senators — Jennie Forehand, Nancy King and Karen Montgomery, all of Montgomery County, and Sen. Ron Young, of Frederick and Washington counties.

He also picked up endorsements from 13 delegates, including House Majority Leader Kumar Barve and three Western Maryland Democrats: Galen Clagett, John Donoghue and Kevin Kelly.

Poll shows support for Maryland offshore wind power

A majority of Marylanders are willing to shell out more for electricity to buy power from offshore wind farms, according to a poll released Monday by a coalition of environmental groups.

The survey’s respondents were asked, “Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘I would be willing to pay $2 more per month on my electric bill if a greater percentage of my electricity came from clean, local offshore wind farms, instead of coming from coal, oil, and gas?’”

Nearly 62 percent agreed (39.1 percent strongly, 22.6 percent somewhat) and 34.3 percent disagreed (10.4 percent somewhat and 23.9 percent strongly).

Don’t worry if these poll numbers don’t stick with you the first time around. You’ll hear them a lot in the run-up to and all throughout the 2012 General Assembly session. Continue reading

More on the Maryland transportation funding puzzle

Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, the chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, had a frank assessment Wednesday of the General Assembly’s record on the gasoline tax.

“We just didn’t do our job,” he said.

The excise tax on gasoline has been 23.5 cents per gallon since 1992, and before that, gas tax hikes were a regular occurrence in Annapolis as lawmakers tried to keep the revenue stream growing with inflation. (The tax isn’t indexed.)

Kasemeyer expanded on his statement after the hearing Wednesday on transportation revenue options. He said the legislature has avoided many “unpleasant” tax and fee increases over the years, a pattern that backs lawmakers into a corner and forces big increases on the public. The alternative — steady, regular increases — would be better, he said.

“These kinds of fees and taxes and tolling, as long as you know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, there’s an acceptance,” Kasemeyer said.

Some other tidbits I couldn’t shoehorn into my story on the hearing
Continue reading

Bowling shoes and bridal gowns, get’em tax free

Maryland’s much ballyhooed tax-free shopping week starts Sunday, and with all the coverage leading up to its kickoff, I had assumed it was all about back-to-school shopping.

Then I stumbled across the list of exempt items. You can find it here, on the comptroller’s website. And if you want to full story on the tax free week, check out Alissa Gulin’s piece here.

The tax free stuff includes the following items, as long as they’re under $100:

  • Antique clothing
  • Arm warmers
  • Belts, with or without buckles (buckles sold separately are not exempt)
  • Bowling shirts and shoes (not rented)
  • Bridal gowns, sold or rented
  • Costumes
  • Cowboy boots
  • Dry cleaning services
  • Fishing vests
  • Fur coats
  • Golf clothing
  • Lingerie
  • Tuxedos

Md. trade mission – hotel rooms and great dirt walls

The price of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s trip to Asia this month is slowly trickling out from the state agencies that participated, but the governor’s detractors aren’t yet satisfied.

The Department of Business and Economic Development released a $144,086 tab for the trip Friday that included the governor and four other state employees.

House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, who requested a full accounting of the trip, called that figure “clearly a low-ball estimate.”

“It’s ludicrous to mislead the taxpayers of Maryland at a time when people can’t pay their bills,” he said.

O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, said the trips can be worthwhile, but joked the governor’s entourage of more than 70 state officials, educators and business leaders was “great for the economy of Southeast Asia.”

The trip took the delegation through China, South Korea and Vietnam, and the businesspeople on the trip paid their own way.

“Could the same things have been accomplished with a smaller delegation? Why 16 to 20 academics?” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell also questioned the DBED figures. For instance, the department covered the costs for five people, but listed six hotel rooms in each country.

DBED spokeswoman Karen Glenn Hood explained Tuesday morning the sixth hotel room was for Secretary of State John McDonough. The rest of McDonough’s expenses were covered by his office, she said.

Mike Violette, president of Washington Labs Ltd., was one of the business representatives on the trip. He was looking to drum up business for his electronics testing business.

“Certainly, I rarely get a police motorcade. So that was pretty cool,” he said. “In Washington, I’m usually on the outside watching that stuff.”

He said the trip helped strengthen his relationships with Asian companies, particularly in South Korea, which he visited for the first time while on the trade mission.

“It certainly was a great conversation starter, being part of the [delegation],” Violette said. “We’re pretty well functioning in China and we’ve already done work in Vietnam to open things up, but it did reinforce the message there.”

The trip also helped strengthen ties in Maryland.

“Being on a trip like this, everyone is sharing some common experiences,” Violette said. “By day three, everybody has mapped each other out, the ice is broken, and you have some friendships started. And then you start to see some possible synergies on the domestic level.”

One of those shared experiences came on the way to the Great Wall. The tour bus came upon a mound of dirt in the middle of the road and, when fully loaded, couldn’t make it over. The group had to pile out and watch as the bus worked its way over the obstacle. Violette blogged about the experience here. And here are his posts on Vietnam and South Korea.

O’Malley signs wine, casino bills

Tuesday’s bill signing ceremony will be dominated by coverage over the state’s “Dream Act,” which will allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. But, Gov. Martin O’Malley and legislative leaders will also put their pens to new laws regarding casinos, wine and workers’ compensation insurance.

O’Malley, Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. will sign a bill that lawmakers hope will make casino owners play nice. The legislation, SB 383 and HB 868, was prompted by the battles waged by The Cordish Cos. and the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club over the Anne Arundel slots license.

The law will bar licensed casino owners from preventing or delaying the opening of other gambling operations in the state, but stops short of limiting free speech, giving the Maryland Lottery Agency authority to referee disputes between casino owners “to the fullest extent allowed by the First Amendment.”

The General Assembly also sweetened the pot for casino developers considering a bid on the gaming license at Rocky Gap Lodge & Resort. The law – SB 512 – will knock the tax rate on slots proceeds from 67 percent to 50 percent for 10 years, and waive $3 million in license fees. The Video Lottery Facility Location Commission is expected to begin seeking a developer – the third time the state will do so – next month.

Oenophiles will also have something to toast. Lawmakers passed a watered-down version of direct wine shipping legislation this year, allowing in- and out-of-state wineries to ship directly to Maryland consumers, and O’Malley is scheduled to sign SB 248 and HB 1175 today. Supporters of the legislation had hoped to include retailers in the bill, but staunch opposition from the state’s liquor lobby removed retailers from the bill. So, we have likely not seen the last of direct wine shipping legislation.

O’Malley will also sign a bill that will subject the Injured Workers’ Insurance Fund to the state’s 2 percent premium tax.

IWIF has been exempted from the tax as the state’s quasi-public insurer of last resort. But, the company’s business extends well beyond that role. It has 21 percent of the state’s workers’ compensation insurance market and is the largest such insurer in the state, according to legislative analysts.

Md. booze tax break down

As the General Assembly debates a 50 percent increase to the sales tax on alcohol, here’s some background. It’s the comptroller’s fiscal 2010 report on alcohol excise taxes — not the sales tax — which can be helpful in terms of context.

Since the legislature bumped the sales tax across the board from 5 percent to 6 percent, wine and liquor sales continued to increase while beer sales have declined. That tax bump took effect January 2008, halfway through fiscal 2008, where the decline begins, but that could also have something to do with the recession that began a month before. Here’s the data:

FY 2006 FY 2007 FY 2008 FY 2009 FY 2010
Beer $ 9,447,020 $ 9,509,503 $ 9,451,537 $ 9,235,671 $ 9,137,176
Wine $ 4,865,083 $ 5,100,636 $ 5,221,572 $ 5,365,296 $ 5,600,053
Liquor $ 13,669,152 $ 14,165,195 $ 14,334,222 $ 14,707,951 $ 15,163,580

The report also includes a county-by-county breakdown for alcohol consumption. In gallons:

Liquor Beer Wine Total
Worcester 4.94 59.18 5.4 69.52
Cecil 6.86 28.72 3.27 38.85
Garrett 2.18 27.37 2.35 31.9
Queen Anne’s 1.91 25.46 3.45 30.82
Kent 2.18 24.22 3.71 30.11
Talbot 2.39 21.3 5.88 29.57
Allegany 1.73 25.9 1.33 28.96
Anne Arundel 2.09 21.74 3.85 27.68
Dorchester 1.65 23.25 1.86 26.76
Wicomico 1.14 22.6 2.02 25.76
Washington 1.81 22.34 1.58 25.73
Calvert 1.78 20.58 2.5 24.86
Baltimore City 2.14 19.77 2.05 23.96
Caroline 1.34 21.23 1.16 23.73
Carroll 1.43 19.63 2.38 23.44
St. Mary’s 1.5 19.93 1.73 23.16
Frederick 1.6 18.58 2.44 22.62
Harford 1.39 18.07 2.22 21.68
Baltimore County 1.78 17.06 2.6 21.44
Charles 2.09 17.55 1.6 21.24
Prince George’s 1.79 15.84 1.54 19.17
Somerset 1.15 15.63 1.07 17.85
Howard 1.38 13.54 2.82 17.74
Montgomery 0.98 10.1 2.44 13.52

It’s not that those counties at the top of the list are full of bigger drinkers. It could be that they just visit, or pop across the border to pick up a 30-pack or a bottle of liquor. Worcester County is home to Ocean City, which if you’ve been there during the summer, you can see why that county’s numbers are so. And those other counties at the top of the list border jurisdictions with higher alcohol excise taxes — Delaware — and others with more draconian blue laws — Pennsylvania.