ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Maryland state senators sought to contrast their cooperative spirit with Washington's partisan gridlock on Thursday by outlining bipartisan support for measures to help protect family farms, boost social studies in schools, extend scholarships for veterans and protect children from identity theft.
While the Maryland General Assembly is heavily Democratic, Senate leadership from both parties underscored some areas of agreement in a session that's expected to be challenging. Lawmakers anticipate battles over tax proposals and the state's ongoing budget deficit.
"We know that there are a lot of questions as relates to taxes and so forth, but we also understand that we have to be conscious of the diversity of the state," said Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore. "We want to make sure that we are inclusionary."
Legislation to exempt up to $5 million in qualified agricultural property from the Maryland estate tax made allies of two partisan rivals in Maryland's 6th Congressional District race: Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery, and Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ron Young of Frederick, would also reduce the estate tax for farms from 16 percent to 5 percent on land valued above $5 million. Non-farm items would still be taxed at the 16 percent rate over $1 million.
"This is a very important first step for what we see in some of the estate tax issues that are coming up, not just with the agricultural community but with the whole business community," Brinkley, who is in a crowded GOP primary for the congressional seat in Western Maryland and a large portion of upper Montgomery County.
Garagiola, who is in a primary contest for the Democratic nomination, said too many families end up losing a portion of a farm or the entire farm to development, because they are land rich, but cash poor.
"This is probably one of the greatest land preservation tools that we have in the toolbox if we can get this enacted," Garagiola said.
The senators also showed bipartisan support for a bill that would reinforce social studies as a core discipline area in public schools. Last year, Maryland cut its high school assessment test for government.
"As much as I think it's important for science and language and reading and math, if you don't understand how your government works, if you don't understand the rights that you have as citizens, it's really hard to have a free republic," said Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard.
Senators also believe they have found common ground to do more to protect children from identity theft. Currently, parents or guardians who believe their child's Social Security number is at risk may not put a credit freeze on the child's credit report with a credit reporting agency. The measure would enable a parent or guardian to freeze a child's credit report to stop fraudulent use of a child's Social Security number.
An income tax credit to help offset the cost of acquiring an expensive security clearance is finding support from Democrats and Republicans as well. The proposal would provide a tax credit of $3,000 or half the cost of a clearance. The credit would be capped at $6 million and evaluated each year based on the effectiveness of the credit in job creation. Maryland, which is home to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, is also home to many high-tech jobs that require security clearances.
"We want to ensure that those jobs are going to Maryland workers and that those workers have the tools that they need and the opportunities that we can give them to be successful to compete for those jobs," Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, said.
Lawmakers in both parties also support extending a scholarship program for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2009, 357 people have qualified for nearly $2 million in scholarship funds.
"A nation -- a state -- that forgets its veterans will itself one day be forgotten. Let us never forget our veterans," said Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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