Miscellaneous issues
William, Bladensburg: What do you think are the chances the state will pass the bill to not tax military retirement pay? Thank you.

Nitkin: The chances are excellent. I'd call it as close to a done deal as we see in Annapolis. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. submitted such legislation a year ago, but it did not pass, facing a General Assembly roadblock that the governor says -- with some justification -- was entirely political. But this year, with Ehrlich resubmitting his legislation, key leaders in both the House and the Senate have signed on and said they back it. Legislative analysts say that providing a state income tax subtraction credit for military retiree income would cost the state $4.5 million in the budget year that begins July 1, rising to $46 million in the budget year beginning July 10, 2010.

George Garmer, Baltimore: Do you think the new Medicare Part D drug benefit or the upcoming slashes in federal spending on Medicaid in January 2007 will affect Maryland politics in any way? Specifically, how do you think Annapolis will fill in the huge gaps in coverage for Maryland residents caused by these two pieces of federal legislation?

Nitkin: I haven't delved into the details yet, but gaps in Medicaid coverage are certainly a topic for discussion in the General Assembly. I don't know what the ultimate solution will be, but I'll say this: In an election year, politicians like to take care of constituencies that are active voters and who pay attention to issues. Senior citizens certainly fall into that category.

Chris, Baltimore: What is the status of the smoking ban being considered?

Nitkin: A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday before the House Health and Government Operations Committee on the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006 (HB 375), which would ban smoking in bars and restaurants in Maryland. For the bill to become law, it must be approved in identical form in both the House and the Senate and then sent to the governor, who could veto it. I'd put the chances for passage this year at less than 50 percent.

Dennis T. Byrne, Baltimore: The resolution for the paper trail in 2006 is quite easy. Eliminate all restriction for absentee ballots. Allow any voter who's concerned about the accuracy of their vote to have an absentee [ballot], which they fill in and copy, thus [having] his or her choices in print.

Nitkin: Indeed, the General Assembly this year passed a bill -- overturning Ehrlich's veto -- that allows voters to get absentee ballots for any reason. Chances are there will be an increase in the usage of absentee ballots this year. And you are right: Any voters who use them have bypassed the electronic voting machines and have created a paper copy of their selections. It could be unwieldy for elections officials to count so many ballots if everybody followed your suggestion, and we journalists who try to report on results on election night would also have a problem. It takes days if not weeks for all absentee ballots to be tabulated.

Brian King: Is it possible that Sheila Dixon may have crossed the legal boundaries (and common sense ones) with her recent actions in the Comcast hearings?

Nitkin: The Baltimore City Ethics Commission will be examining this matter. Here's the first paragraphs of a story by Doug Donovan that ran last Friday:

"Baltimore's Board of Ethics will investigate City Council President Sheila Dixon's involvement in several official meetings that appear to have benefited the firm that employs her sister Janice, the board's chairman said yesterday.

The five-member ethics board is scheduled to meet Feb. 21 and will begin examining whether Dixon acted properly during a City Council committee hearing last week and three Board of Estimates meetings over the past two years."

Tyler, Salisbury: I was hoping that you would comment on this year's budget. Looking at it at face value, looks like the governor is helping everyone from higher education to senior citizens to the environment. But when you look deeper, you see that the 14 percent increase in higher education funding is just getting their funds back to where they were three years ago when the governor slashed funding two years in a row. So, how can the governor say that he is saving higher education when in reality, he is giving them money that they should have had all along?

Nitkin: The governor can say whatever he wants, and then voters have to decide whether he's providing the full picture. You accurately state what is now happening: Ehrlich has been touting "historic" increases -- measured in both dollar terms and percentage increases -- in higher education, public schools and some other areas in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In public school education, the increases are mandated by a law that was passed in 2002, and which Ehrlich opposed -- because the mandate did not come with a funding source attached to it.

Ehrlich cut heavily from the higher education budget during his first two budget years: He had to find a way to balance the state budget, and higher education is the largest area of discretionary spending. Plus, state funding cuts can be made up through tuition increases -- something that some of his key supporters back. I don't think the governor has ever said he is "saving" higher education, but he is certainly paying attention to reversing some of the political damage done in 2003 and 2004 through budget cuts and tuition increases.

Eric Stevenson, Baltimore: What have you heard about a deal cut between the governor and the Prince George's County delegation to move the Department of Planning from Baltimore to Prince George's? Is this about buying votes? The move will cost over $3 million. Is this even legal?

Nitkin: We have some more reporting to do in this area before I can provide a definitive answer. I know of no illegality. Certainly, the governor has plenty of strong Prince George's supporters in his administration -- notably Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott -- and Prince George's County leaders have long demanded their share of state buildings. The county is the second most populous in Maryland and heavily Democratic. It's not hard to imagine that there are a lot of politics at play behind the decision to move the state planning office.

Julia Persky, Bel Air: Where on the Internet can I find how my delegates and senators vote on each and every bill? Also, committee members' votes? Thanks.