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General Assembly faces a busy final day

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers will enter the final day of the 2012 session faced with a long list of unresolved important issues.

Faced with mandatory adjournment at midnight, the long-time presiding officers of both chambers warned their members to be ready for a tough grind on Monday.

“We have not wrapped up the budget, or anything else,” said House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel. “So, it’ll be a long day.”

The state budget and a proposal to expand casino gambling remain at the top of the list of unfinished business. A panel of lawmakers is still trying to reconcile House and Senate budget versions, and a House committee is considering multiple versions of a gambling expansion bill.

Also at stake is an administration-backed bill that would create rules to govern public-private partnerships. The House-passed version contains two controversial amendments that target an ongoing lawsuit involving the proposed State Center development in downtown Baltimore, while the Senate version was passed without any amendments.

Meanwhile, important energy measures have yet to receive even cursory consideration by the Senate. A bill that would guarantee a percentage for offshore wind energy in the state’s renewable energy portfolio and another that would force natural gas companies to pay for a hydraulic fracturing safety study are stuck in committee since being passed in March by the House.

Gov. Martin O’Malley would also like the legislature to find a new funding mechanism for transportation, but none of the governor’s suggestions have been met with much enthusiasm by lawmakers, making any late-hour agreement unlikely to materialize.

Miller: Special session on transportation funding likely

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, said it is more likely that there will be a special session later this year to discuss transportation funding.

“Our infrastructure is declining to the point where people are likening us to Pennsylvania and Virginia,” Miller said. “We can’t go backwards. It’s a quality of life issue, it’s an economic development issue, and we need to replenish the transportation trust fund.”

Transportation aside, it will still be difficult to come to an agreement on the tax increases that are still part of the legislature’s budget package. When asked if the House and Senate could still reconcile those differences by Monday at midnight, Miller said “I think so.”

The biggest sticking point appears to be proposed reductions in income tax exemptions. The Senate wants to reduce exemptions for those making $100,000 or less from $3,200 to $3,000 over a three-year period. Barve, the House majority leader, said that was a “nonstarter” for his group of conferees.

Still, Barve felt it was possible that an agreement could be reached early Monday, giving the legislature plenty of time to pass a budget package before midnight.

Further complicating matters, though, is gambling legislation. The Senate passed a bill Saturday evening that would create sixth state slots license — for Prince George’s County — and also allow table games.

Any Prince George’s casino could not begin operating until July 1, 2015, an apparent attempt to allow other casinos in the state — in Baltimore and at Rocky Gap State Park — to open first, should licenses be awarded for those facilities.

The legislation’s passage would trigger an automatic fall referendum, where voters statewide will have the final say in whether to allow a new casino and table games, like black jack.

‘We hope to be able to resolve it’

The bill differs from previous legislation, apparently dead in a House committee, which included language that reduced the state’s take on slots revenue. That bill also called for Prince George’s County voters to have the final say on whether a gambling facility could be built, a provision removed in the latest Senate version of the bill.

Allowing Prince George’s voters to have the final say would have required a constitutional amendment, requiring a super-majority of 85 delegates to vote for the bill. Without that provision, the House needs only 71 votes to pass the legislation.

Should the new law pass referendum this fall, the General Assembly would have to work out implementation in next year’s legislative session.

Miller, a staunch supporter of putting a casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, said gambling has become tied to the budget negotiations because it is a revenue source for the state.

“The gambling issue solves a number of the state’s fiscal problems,” Miller said.

Should the General Assembly not come to a budget agreement by midnight Monday, that would trigger a 10-day extension of the session. Maryland’s constitution mandates that the legislature pass a budget by session’s end.

“It’s unique in that both the House and Senate positions are positioned different than that proposed by the chief executive,” Miller said. “We’re kind of on our own. … We hope to be able to resolve it.”