By Lucas High, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS—Gun control, the death penalty, transportation and environmental legislation were expected to be top priorities for state lawmakers as the Maryland General Assembly convened for its 433rd legislative session Wednesday in Annapolis.
In the wake of the mass killings in Newtown, CT, in December, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) plans to push for tighter firearm restrictions, including a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh said there will be a reintroduction of a bill he sponsored last legislative session that prohibits the sale of guns with magazines of 10 rounds or more.
“[The proposed bill] can protect people, save lives and it certainly does not infringe on Second Amendment rights,” said Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) hopes Maryland will take a leading role in shaping national gun laws. Individual states acting to restrict access to firearms will help change federal policies, said Cardin, who was in town for Opening Day.
Any gun control bill is sure to face opposition from Republican legislators.
O’Malley alluded to this opposition in his brief statement to the House of Delegates, playfully referring to pushback from political opponents as “creative tension.”
“There is no legislator, executive or judiciary that can do anything to infringe upon the right to bear arms,” said Del. Michael D. Smigiel (R-Dist. 36) of Chesapeake City. “The Constitution is non-negotiable.”
Smigiel said he and his Republican counterparts plan to do their best to water down “overly restrictive” gun control proposals.
O’Malley also has his sights set on repealing the death penalty.
The Catholic Church and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are among the supporters of repealing the death penalty in Maryland, a state with five prisoners on death row.
"We have the momentum," Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg said of his confidence that the bill would receive the 71 votes needed to pass in the House.
Rosenberg (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore, who is the House sponsor of the bill, said he feels the death penalty is racially discriminatory, expensive and not a deterrent.
Legislators are also expected to address environmental issues, such as hydraulic fracturing and tax incentives for wind power.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a process used to extract natural gas from rock deposits below the ground.
Tapping into these natural gas deposits in Western Maryland could bring new jobs and tax revenue to the area, but opponents argue the environmental impacts of the extraction process outweigh the financial benefits.
Members of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a nonprofit climate change organization, gathered outside the State House to advocate for a bill that would place a moratorium on fracking in Western Maryland until more research on safety and best practices has been completed.
O’Malley called for such a study in an executive order in June 2011, after a similar moratorium passed in the House but failed to pass in the Senate.
The climate change group offered a taste test of contaminated and non-contaminated water for legislators to try on their way into the session. One gallon of water was from a farm in Pennsylvania that they said had been contaminated by fracking, and another was from the State House drinking fountain.
“Transportation is the biggest challenge that is going to be faced in this legislative session,” Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) said.
The legislature will deal with a multitude of transportation issues, including traffic congestion (which O’Malley called the “worst in the nation”), investment in mass transit infrastructure and gasoline taxes.
The debate over raising state taxes on gasoline is likely to be especially contentious in the upcoming session.
There are better alternatives to the proposed gas tax increase, said Sen. Allan Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship. “I don’t think we should be preaching sales tax on gasoline,” Kittleman said. “We should be looking at broader regional [solutions].”
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Dist. 45) of Baltimore stressed the importance of school renovation and improving infrastructure in the city.
“We are looking at a more creative way to spend the state and city dollars so that we can build and repair a larger number of schools,” McFadden said. “Right now, the system exists where we can only build or renovate or construct a small number of schools.”
In Baltimore, more than three-quarters of schools are not up to the desired standards, McFadden said.
Capital News Service reporters Hannah Anderson, Allen Etzler, Amber Larkins, Julia Maldonado, Ethan Rosenberg, Mary Tablante and Jessica Wilde contributed to this report.