Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Wednesday that he will make sure that legislation to repeal Maryland's death penalty gets a vote in his chamber if the governor lines up enough support for approval.
Despite his personal support of the death penalty, Miller said, he would give Gov. Martin O'Malley the opportunity to win passage of such legislation -- which has been bottled up in a Senate committee.
"If he shows me the votes, if he's got the votes on the floor of the Senate, then we'll find a way to move it forward," Miller said in an interview. "But this is not just a debating site where you sit and debate the bills that don't have a chance of passage."
O'Malley, a longtime death penalty opponent, sought repeal four years ago but settled for a compromise that sharply limits the circumstances under which it can be imposed. He has come under pressure from death penalty opponents, including NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous, to renew the fight when the General Assembly begins its annual 90-day session Jan. 9.
Takirra Winfield, an O'Malley spokeswoman, said the governor hasn't decided which bills to include in his legislative agenda for the coming session. But she said that his views have not changed and that he still believes "the death penalty is a drain on the state," Winfield said.
O'Malley asked NAACP officials when they met with him last month to help confirm the names of senators willing to vote for repeal and is awaiting their response.
Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, welcomed Miller's statement. She said death penalty opponents have had enough votes in the full Senate for repeal since the 2010 elections.
Maryland now has five men on death row for murders going as far back as 1983, but no executions are imminent because a 2006 court decision threw out the regulations under which the death penalty is carried out. The administration has been rewriting those regulations since a legislative panel rejected its earlier proposal in 2011.
In recent years, death penalty repeal proposals have hit a snag in the Senate, where a 6-5 majority on the Judicial Proceedings Committee supports keeping capital punishment. As a result, the most likely route for a Senate vote would be a petition to bring the legislation directly to the floor -- the process used in 2009 when O'Malley pushed for repeal.
While that move succeeded at first with Miller's support, the bill was amended on the floor to keep capital punishment in limited circumstances where there is particularly strong evidence against an accused murderer, such as a videotaped confession. Miller called Maryland's law "the most restrictive" in the country among the states that permit capital punishment.
It takes 24 votes to pass a bill in the 47-member Senate. Death penalty opponents contend they can reach that threshold on the floor if they can bypass the committee. Henderson said she's confident that if the bill passes the Senate, it can win approval in the House of Delegates.
Speaker Michael E. Busch has said the House, which has not voted on full repeal in recent years, will take up the issue only if the Senate acts.
Miller said he personally opposes full repeal because he believes there are cases where the death penalty is appropriate, such as in the case of mass murders.
"I strongly believe the death penalty should remain in effect for mass murderers," he said. "I feel strongly that the Hitlers, the Eichmanns, the slavers, these mass murderers, they deserve the ultimate penalty. Those are my personal views."
On another key issue, Miller said that to raise "desperately needed" revenue for transportation, the state will have to adopt a regional approach under which mass transit-dependent urban counties would pay higher tax rates than rural areas.
"That would be a logical solution," he said.
Such a move would break from Maryland's longstanding system of transportation funding, under which the same fees and taxes apply in all parts of the state and revenues are funneled into a Transportation Trust Fund to support roads, mass transit and other modes of travel.
The system has come under increasing criticism from rural lawmakers who have seen highway projects dwindle as transit system operating costs claim a higher percentage of the fund.
Miller said he sees no way that three major pending transit projects, including Baltimore's Red Line, can be financed without urban areas' paying more.