ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s General Assembly eased into its 2011 session Wednesday with cheerful pomp, hugs and handshakes overshadowed by the towering issues lawmakers will deal with over the next 89 days.
Gov. Martin O’Malley and the leaders of both legislative chambers called for greater cooperation and compromise.
“We have tough choices to make and we’re going to have to make them together,” O’Malley said, addressing the Senate.
Many, however, expect discord to sprout quickly around the state’s challenging fiscal situation and the host of other issues on the legislature’s plate, including gay marriage, implementing the federal health care overhaul and renewable energy legislation.
“You always start with optimism,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s. “But it’s going to be a very difficult session.”
Chief among the issues for lawmakers is the $1.6 billion budget deficit. O’Malley’s administration has revealed few details about the budget he will submit next Friday except to float a handful of potential cost-cutting measures and vow that the spending plan would be balanced through cuts and not tax increases.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, O’Malley said his budget will “help us start moving away from those furloughs” that state employees have been saddled with for the last three years.
“Our budget will be the first word, but it certainly won’t be the last word,” he said.
Indeed, the 188 delegates and senators — they include 30 new House members and 10 new senators — who were sworn in Wednesday have their own ideas about how to cure the state’s fiscal ills.
“In the end, nobody is going to be happy,” said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., who chairs the committee that sets spending guidelines for the governor’s budget, which will take the first crack at the budget this year. “There’s going to be a push to find new sources of revenue. I hope we push back.”
Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, said the General Assembly will have to “take a good stab at the pension issue” this year, including changes to benefits for new employees and a shift of some teacher pension costs to the counties.
“All of it’s going to be on the table,” he said.
The state will also have come up with a framework for the public health insurance exchange mandated under the federal health care overhaul.
“Health care, health care, health care and more health care,” Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said when asked what his panel will deal with this year.
Lawmakers will decide whether the public health insurance exchange is a nonprofit, as the insurance industry has advocated, or a government entity, as public employee unions have called for, or some combination of the two.
Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat who heads the Health and Government Operations Committee, said he is leaning toward the government-run option “at least initially to get it off the ground.”
“There may be an opportunity down the road to move in a different direction,” he said.
O’Malley has said he will stress clean-energy legislation this year, pushing utilities to buy more power from wind farms as his administration has done in prior years with solar power.
Wine will also be on the menu for lawmakers.
Advocates of allowing state residents to receive shipments of wine to their homes believe the strong support they enjoyed last year and a comptroller’s report dispelling many opponents’ worries will lead to a positive result for oenophiles.
“I think we’ve had a breakthrough on this,” Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, said. “There’s an overwhelming sentiment that adults in this state should be treated like adults.”