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Md. Lawmakers Outline Session Priorities

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CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) — A Maryland court ruling requiring poor defendants to have an attorney at initial bail hearings is expected to be a significant issue in the upcoming legislative session, along with a challenging budget situation, debate about raising the minimum wage and revisiting contentious stormwater management fees, leading lawmakers said Friday.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, speaking on a panel at a conference of the Maryland Association of Counties, expressed frustration at the ruling by the state’s highest court this year that will require attention by lawmakers without a way of appealing the decision.

“It’s a very expensive proposition, and they did not stay their decision,” Miller, D-Calvert, said, noting a potential price tag of about $40 million to provide the additional legal counsel with no money budgeted for the change.

Jeanne Hitchcock, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s legislative aide, said the financial ramifications are so significant that lawmakers likely will work on reforms to the bail review system.

“I mean, that has an incredible fiscal impact in the state, and I don’t know how we’re going to wind up getting out of that — if at all — but I do know this: that there probably has to be some sort of legislative relief,” Hitchcock said.

A task force studying the state’s bail review system submitted recommendations on Thursday. One recommendation includes replacing secured bonds with a three-tiered risk assessment to rank defendants on their public safety risk and likelihood of appearing in court. Another would create a statewide pretrial service agency to supervise released defendants.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said debate about raising the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 also will be a top issue when the Legislature convenes Jan. 8. The speaker noted that Montgomery County and Prince George’s County — two of the state’s largest jurisdictions — already have raised it to $11.50 by 2017. Busch said leading lawmakers realize an increase of that magnitude won’t find support in all Maryland counties, but he said the state may look at setting a baseline wage.

“So that will be one of the primary issues, I think, that come forth,” Busch said.

Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the House minority leader, said the House GOP members will be supporting a 10 percent cut in income taxes for all state residents who pay taxes. Kipke said a variety of tax increases in recent years has prompted business and residents to leave Maryland for nearby states where taxes are lower.

“Maryland exists in a competitive environment for tax dollars, and it’s very easy for people to move those tax dollars out of our state,” Kipke said.

Sen. David Brinkley, the Senate minority leader who was not on the panel but spoke to reporters afterward, said Maryland continues to dig itself into a competitive disadvantage when it comes to the private sector.

“There needs to be tax relief for those people who have small businesses,” said Brinkley, R-Frederick.

Miller also said lawmakers will be revisiting stormwater management fees, which have been dubbed the “rain tax” by opponents. Miller said the fees in Maryland’s largest jurisdictions are not uniform in different counties and need to be examined further.

Hitchcock said the state budget will present challenges due to the gridlock in Washington that led to a federal government shutdown, which affected many federal workers who live in Maryland. However, she said this week’s budget agreement will help bring stability.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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