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Monday, January 15, 2007

2007 General Assembly Underway

LGBT community affected by many bills to be considered

By Steve Charing

Senior Political Analyst

The gavel has dropped signaling the beginning of the 2007 Maryland legislative session known as the General Assembly where some thousand bills will be considered. A new positive mood has enveloped Annapolis as the widening margin of Democratic senators and delegates and the inauguration of a Democratic governor offer hope of a less contentious 90-day session than had been witnessed during the past four years.

When Republican Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. began his tenure in Annapolis following his historic victory in the 2002 election, the main topic of discussion during the General Assembly was slots. It dominated the first three years of his term and triggered a polemical battle between him and the legislature.

As a result of the bad blood created by this seemingly endless hostile debate as well as the failure of the then governor to reach out and compromise on other key issues, the Ehrlich administration was hamstrung by the Democrat-dominated assembly. Moreover, many initiatives originating from the legislature were vetoed by the governor, and some were overridden, creating more discontent.

This session should lack that type of drama for two reasons. First, Governor Martin O’Malley is a Democrat who has already made nice with many legislators on both sides of the aisle prior to his inauguration, thus securing a more positive personal relationship. Second, no major, sweeping initiatives are expected to be introduced by the Governor in his first session, as both branches of government will feel each other out the first year. What comes out of this session, though, will be a good barometer on the success of this administration.

While the question of slots may surface again, it will probably be an adjunct to a broad overhaul of the tax structure that is needed to stem a river of red ink to the tune of $1 billion that is forecast for fiscal year 2008 and beyond. But serious action on slots and weighty budget remedies are not expected until next year’s General Assembly.

Nonetheless, important and controversial measures—many affecting the lgbt community—will be considered in this session. Budget and taxes will still be hot topics even if dramatic changes do not occur this year. The environment will get a close look, especially the toughening of emission standards.

We expect to see reform in the archaic ground rent system. And housing, health care, the death penalty and transportation matters will also be brought to the fore as well as myriad other concerns.

The building momentum surrounding a statewide smoking ban is sure to be a significant issue. This affects the lgbt community (among others) and is one that has divided it. On one hand you have bar owners who fear the loss of business by imposing a ban and smokers who believe it is their right to smoke. On the other hand you have potential customers who avoid bars and clubs because of the health risks associated with second-hand smoke. Based on the positive experiences of other cities and states, such a ban is likely to be enacted, if not this year, then next.

As far as issues that also directly impact the lgbt community are concerned, the volatile matter of same-sex marriage is clearly the most consequential and politically charged. The lawsuit that challenges Maryland’s 1973 marriage law as a violation of the Constitution by nine lgbt couples and a gay widower is the central focus. It had been ruled favorably for the plaintiffs by a Circuit Court Judge. The case is now awaiting a decision by the Court of Appeals.

The timing and nature of the judgment will determine the course of action undertaken by Equality Maryland, the principal lgbt civil right organization in the state. It can come down during the General Assembly session or following it—most likely the latter.

"The ruling could be with us, against us, or a New Jersey-style decision," said Equality Maryland’s Executive Director Dan Furmansky to a gathering of over 60 at a Howard County chapter of PFLAG meeting. Furmansky was referring to the recent decision by the New Jersey courts to provide equal marriage rights to same-sex couples but stopped short of calling it "marriage."

However, should the Court rule while the Assembly is in session and either upholds the lower court decision and grants marriage rights to same-sex couples or directs a New Jersey-type solution, the stuff will definitely hit the fan.

Delegate Don Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel), who eked out a 25-vote victory in November, is on a mission to ensure that same-sex marriage never occurs in Maryland. He already pre-filed a bill that would seek to amend the state’s Constitution that would limit marriage to one man and one woman. Moreover, he believes, at the very least, the voters should decide on the definition of marriage and is pushing for a referendum on the issue.

Thwarting such an amendment or a ballot initiative is the first priority of Equality Maryland. Even with the increased number of Democrats in both chambers and a Governor who has disavowed a constitutional amendment during the campaign, nothing will be left to chance.
In other initiatives, Equality Maryland will push for legislation adding gender identity and expression to the state’s anti-discrimination law. Many observers believe this stands a good chance of passage. As mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley lent his cooperation as the City Council passed similar legislation.

The organization will also seek to expand health coverage requiring health insurance companies to write policies inclusive of unmarried adults in the same household and their children.

Finally, Equality Maryland will attempt to pass legislation allowing individuals who pay the health care costs of another non-dependent adult in their household to deduct those expenses.
Prior to the elections in November, Equality Maryland's Dan Furmansky told OUTloud, "Whoever lives in the Governor's mansion will greatly influence what we are able to accomplish over the next four years."

With Governor O’Malley in place, there is a greater feel for optimism than there was at the beginning of last year’s General Assembly.

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