Annapolis Report: Finishing Our Work on the Budget

When the General Assembly adjourned in April, there were two major unresolved issues: funding for the budget, and the expansion of gaming. This week, the legislature will resolve the first issue in a brief special session, expected to last three days. Below, I also discuss emergency legislation I drafted to reconcile the unworkable Court of Appeals decision deeming certain dog breed mixes inherently dangerous, resulting in an uncertain, overbroad, and dangerous scope of presumptive liability.

The Governor has reconvened the legislature to take up a revenue package (very similar to the package the legislature ran out of time to pass last month) to offset some of the deep spending cuts set to take effect this July. As I’m sure you recall, last minute gamesmanship on the issue of gaming prevented the legislature from passing the revenue package we had worked tirelessly to negotiate during the legislative session. These $500 million in cuts, referred to as the “doomsday” budget, include deep cuts to Baltimore County, essential services, resources for the developmentally disabled, and education, which would result in a sharp increase in tuition across the state.

When the General Assembly reconvenes this afternoon, we will consider an increase in the state’s income tax for about 16 percent of Maryland residents: individuals making more than $100,000 a year and households making more than $150,000. Increases would range between 0.25 percent to 0.75 percent, depending on income levels. The legislation also would reduce or eliminate personal exemptions for higher-end earners. The compromise is closely modeled on an agreement lawmakers reached in April, but includes more spending cuts than initially proposed.

The new budget plan will prevent 500 state employees from being fired. The stem cell research fund, sustainable communities tax credit, and biotechnology tax credit will receive funding. State scholarship funds will also be reinstated at levels yet to be determined. In the end, while not eliminated, the structural deficit will be substantially decreased.

The compromise budget plan also will include a provision to shift 50 percent of the normal cost of teacher pensions, or $136.6 million, to counties beginning in fiscal 2013. The normal cost of pensions is the amount needed to pay pension liabilities if the system hadn’t been underfunded in the past. The shift is front-loaded, increasing to 100 percent of the total normal costs in fiscal 2016. As the counties are responsible for setting salaries, there is sound policy rationale for this move. The Governor has said this special session will focus exclusively on the budget, but that the expansion of gaming will get its day. He intends to create an advisory group to study the issue in time for a second special session later this summer. Gambling proponents want to add a new casino site in Prince George’s County and legalize table games. The state constitution authorizes five casinos with only slot machines. Any gambling expansion would have to be approved by voters in a referendum, the reason proponents are pushing for consideration of these issues before next year. Before the session ended, the Senate did approve these requests, but the House failed to act on the issue before midnight on Sine Die.

I have been working with the Humane Society to draft an appropriate legislative response to the recent Maryland Court of Appeals decision deeming pit bulls inherently dangerous, Tracey v. Solesky. This overbroad ruling will have terrible consequences: far-reaching presumptive liability for owners and non-owners (property owners) will create great expense and keep dogs with no prior history of misbehavior in already overcrowded shelters. The ruling also applies to pit bull mixes – without any legal definition - resulting in great uncertainty and potential abuse of the vague, overbroad, new legal standard.

Waiting to rectify this decision until the January 2013 session could be disastrous. I hope the bill will be taken up as soon as possible as an emergency measure: either during special session next week or a potential second special session later this summer. Meanwhile, the real possibility of liability for potential incidents is causing landlords to force these dog owners out of their properties, and keeping current and potential dog owners from adopting dogs with pit bull bloodlines. This ruling will further exasperate overcrowding in shelters. Thank you to those of you who have contacted my office with personal stories about how the ruling affects you and your family. Please stay engaged in this effort.