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Gun control, Obamacare fix and tax relief mark an unusually bipartisan session in Annapolis

Maryland lawmakers will leave Annapolis Tuesday having resolved some of the costliest and most controversial issues of their four-year term — setting aside election-year politics to pass gun-control legislation, stave off the potential collapse of the state’s Obamacare market, deliver targeted tax relief and become the first state to regulate political ads on Facebook.

The General Assembly’s annual 90-day marathon of lawmaking involved a record 3,100 bills and showcased unusual bipartisanship, which leaders of both parties said was meant to demonstrate a contrast to gridlocked Washington.

“These are such challenging times, and you’ve got to sink or swim,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat. “We decided we were going to join hands and get things done.”

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, a Republican, explained it this way: “Voters are punishing politicians who don’t work together and solve problems.”

The Democrat-dominated legislature and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan worked together to address issues that have bedeviled Congress.

State leaders responded to gun violence and school shootings with a ban on bump stocks — a device used in the Las Vegas massacre to rapidly fire on a concert goers. They also passed legislation to enhance school security, requiring local districts to have trained school resource police officers or an arrangement with local police to respond quickly to threats.

They bridged a divide between tough sentences for violent offenders and violence prevention, crafting a broad response to Baltimore’s record homicide rate last year. The legislation increases funding for the Safe Streets program while also imposing new mandatory minimum sentences for people who repeatedly use guns in crimes.

Lawmakers passed modest tax relief to alleviate rising state tax bills, the inadvertent consequence of federal tax reform passed in Washington last year.

They approved what could be an $8.5 billion incentive package to lure Amazon’s next headquarters to Maryland, the largest publicly known offer in the country.

And leaders of both parties launched a behind-the-scenes effort to shore up Obamacare with a $380 million tax on insurance companies meant to prevent premium increases of up to 50 percent for people buying insurance on the health exchange. Hogan said that bill will be among the roughly 120 he intends to sign Tuesday morning in Annapolis, surrounded by Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

On Monday afternoon, the governor was heralding what he called “probably our most successful session out of all four years.”

“A lot of smart people in Annapolis and pundits and reporters and people who follow State House politics said, ‘You’ll never get anything done in an election year. That all we’re going to do is fight and call people names, and it’s all going to to be about politics,’ ” Hogan said. “There was almost none of that.”

Of course, there was some of that.

The session opened in January with a swift override of Hogan’s veto of a mandatory paid sick leave law and closed this month with another flexing of Democratic strength. Lawmakers, on a party-line vote, passed a bill curtailing the governor’s role in the school construction process, and again overrode the veto that followed.

As a result, most Maryland companies will have to provide paid sick leave for their workers, and future decisions about which schools get built will rest with an independent commission.

Some high-profile and partisan initiatives failed, including the governor’s push for term limits for lawmakers and progressive Democrats’ call for a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Neither ever advanced to a committee vote.

Comptroller Peter Franchot’s effort to expand the craft beer industry resulted instead in a bill to study whether he should continue regulating alcohol.

On the final day of session, Franchot — a Democrat whose role in the school construction process was also diminished — joined a rally in front of the State House calling to oust Miller from his leadership role. It’s a position Miller has held since 1987, longer than any other Senate president in the country.

Franchot said he plans to go door to door in Miller’s Calvert County district between now and Election Day to “talk to voters about what went on here” and “about the need for honest government.”

Lawmakers responded to the #metoo cultural movement by passing new rules and public reporting requirements to root out and prevent sexual harassment in Annapolis. An independent investigator will be required anytime a lawmaker is accused of misconduct more than once.

Monday marked the end of several decades-long General Assembly careers for high-ranking Democrats in the legislature. More than 40 people in the 141-member House of Delegates will not be returning next year and posed for photo.

“I missed the picture,” Del. Frank Turner said with a sigh. The Howard County Democrat spent 24 years in the General Assembly, most recently as vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee. He led the floor debate to legalize gambling and to increase the gas tax, which is currently paying for billions in infrastructure projects. Turner is retiring this year, and negotiated late into the night trying to reach a deal that would give free community college tuition to all Maryland high school graduates who need it.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “I’ve spent 2,100 days on this floor.”

Lawmakers this year passed bills that had languished for years, including legislation to revoke parental rights of rapists, to increase a long-neglected child care voucher for the working poor and to dedicate $167 million annually to help fix Baltimore’s aging subway system.

They also banned conversion therapy for LGBT people under 18 and pet store sales of dogs from so-called puppy mills. They passed laws to make it a crime for police to have sex with people in their custody and to set higher fines for texting while driving.

On the final day of the 2018 legislative session, some advocates were working right up to the midnight deadline, bouncing from office to office trying to rally votes for their causes.

Gene Ransom, chief executive of Med-Chi, the Maryland State Medical Society, worked until nearly midnight to defeat a bill that would have made it easier for trial lawyers to present expert witnesses in medical malpractice cases.

“It’s a classic fight — lawyers vs. doctors — you don’t get more Annapolis than that,” Ransom said.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary was mourning the apparent demise of her proposal to raise the state’s minimum marriage age, which is now 15. The Senate was refusing to go higher than 16, and the House wouldn’t go lower than 17.

“That’s unacceptable,” Atterbeary said.

The Howard County Democrat sponsored successful bills this session that will make it easier to convict serial rapists and to seize guns from people convicted of domestic violence crimes. But the last-day setback still stung.

“I should be ecstatic,” she said. “But I feel like crying.”

Last year at the same time, Del. Cheryl D. Glenn was nearly in tears after a deal collapsed to expand the fledgling medical marijuana industry to include black-owned firms, which did not win a single license to grow the drug. This year, what she called a better version of the bill passed early on the final day, so she spent the afternoon hand writing thank-you notes to the Democrats and Republicans who got it passed. She ordered 100 gold cannabis leaf pins for everyone to wear at the bill signing.

“The speaker always says this is the ultimate team sport, and this is a great example of that,” Glenn said.

Voters will see another bipartisan issue on their ballots in November when they’ll be asked to amend the state’s constitution to create a “lock box” for the money generated by casinos. The idea is to make sure the gambling money is used to increase funding for schools, not supplant existing revenue.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican, said it took compromise to pass school safety legislation that he called the most important accomplishment of the session.

The price of compromise meant that he wasn’t totally happy with the finished product.

“Unfortunately, it’s not as tough and as strong as I wished,” Jennings said. “I want an armed police officer in my child’s school at all times.”

House Speaker Busch, a Democrat, said he had expected this election-year session to be filled with acrimony given the nation’s political climate, not bipartisan accomplishment.

“No one succeeds down here unless you work together,” Busch said. Maryland residents “want that — for all of us to be mature adults down here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. J.B. Jennings’ leadership position. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

ecox@baltsun.com

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