Illegal immigrants would be stripped of Maryland driver's licenses by 2015 under a last-minute legislative compromise that seeks to end the state's status as a haven for foreigners seeking government-backed credentials.

Adopted in the final moments of the 426th General Assembly session, the new policy was designed to bring the state into compliance with a federal security law known as the Real ID Act.

The plan narrowly passed the House of Delegates, where many members had sought greater protection for immigrants, after intense pleas by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and under the threat of a special session or the possibility that Maryland licenses would soon be rejected at airports. Then, with 30 minutes left to go, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the legislation.

Moments before the House vote, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, cried as she implored her colleagues to pass the hard-fought compromise, which she said looked as if it would fail. Busch huddled with delegates, telling them to accept the reality that this was the best that immigrants' rights proponents could hope for. The legislation passed by five votes.

The licensing debate provided closing drama to a session dominated by the state's dire financial straits, but one which also included hand-wringing over the possible loss of the Preakness Stakes and heated debates over the death penalty and immigration.

As legislators rushed to complete their work, Gov. Martin O'Malley said the budget they adopted on their final working day preserved the educational and environmental programs important to Maryland.

"I cannot predict when the recession ends," the Democratic governor said. "All I do know is this: That if you do away with the things that made you a strong state in bad times, you're not going to be strong after the rebound."

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the legislature did its best, "given the greatest recession since the Great Depression."

"Everyone came in here and tried to row their oars in the same direction and face the daunting task to moving the ship of state forward," Busch said, ticking off what he called the session's successes: "a balanced budget, AAA bond rating, holding the line on [college] tuition, land preservation, protecting the Chesapeake Bay."

While the majority-Democrat legislature reached consensus on many issues, the thorny license debate percolated throughout the session and became the trickiest issue of the final day.

Earlier in the 90-day session, the divisive issue touched off a broader debate on immigration rights and exposed the problem of fraud associated with the flow of illegal immigrants from other states who come to Maryland seeking government-backed credentials. Maryland is one of four states - and the only one east of the Rockies - to issue driver's licenses without requiring proof of an applicant's legal status in the United States.

The Senate originally wanted all new and renewing driver's license applicants to show proof of lawful presence, while the House wanted a more generous plan that would permanently grandfather in illegal immigrants who already have a Maryland license.

A series of frantic meetings Saturday, followed by intense vote-finagling on the House floor, resulted in a compromise that allows people who already hold licenses to renew them without showing proof they are in the United States legally. Those licenses would be marked "not federally compliant" and would expire July 1, 2015, at the latest.

All new license applicants would need documentation of lawful presence by June 1. Sen. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said the compromise was nothing more than amnesty for illegal immigrants and promised, "you ain't seen lines like you'll see in the next two months" at the Motor Vehicle Administration.

O'Malley said he wanted Real ID legislation on his desk and said he would sign any version of it, including the compromise plan.

Licensing was one of several contentious policy questions the legislature dealt with this year. Last month, senators rejected O'Malley's bid to repeal the death penalty, and lawmakers instead passed a series of evidentiary restrictions that will make the state's capital punishment statute one of the most limited in the country.

And on Monday, dealing with a late-emerging concern, the General Assembly gave O'Malley the authority to purchase the Preakness and other Maryland horse racing assets of its bankrupt owner, by eminent domain, if necessary.

The 93-43 vote in the House on the session's final day followed Senate approval on Saturday. The emergency measure will go to the governor's desk less than a week after he introduced it.

Lawmakers passed O'Malley's bill over the impassioned warnings of Republicans, who said wielding the state's power of condemnation in pursuit of a horse race was a dangerous threat to private-property rights.

The governor's supporters said the state has a legitimate public interest in staking a claim to the historic race.

In the final hours, lawmakers finished work on a number of bills, including:

• An O'Malley-backed bill that would allow the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest union for state workers, to negotiate service fees from nonmembers as part of their contract.

• A bill, sought by gay rights advocates, to exempt domestic partners who jointly own homes from inheritance taxes after one of them dies.

• A measure to implement an early voting system approved by voters in a November referendum.

But the session was mostly consumed by the state's bleak financial picture. Already prepared to pass one of the leanest budgets ever, lawmakers had to rip up their plan in mid-March when they learned that state revenues were down more than expected, leaving them with a $500 million budget hole. The $13.8 billion operating budget and companion measures only gained final passage Monday. The budget is balanced, as required by law, but relies on more than $1.4 billion from the federal economic stimulus package.


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