'Living wage,' but not slots

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reads "Never think you've seen the last of anything" on slots. Budget chief James C. "Chip" DePaula at left, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, center.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reads "Never think you've seen the last of anything" on slots. Budget chief James C. "Chip" DePaula at left, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, center. (Sun photo by Monica Lopossay)
Maryland lawmakers ended a rancorous 90-day session last night by rejecting expanded gambling for the second straight year and passing legislation that would make the state the first in the nation to guarantee a "living wage" for employees of its contractors - a measure the governor promises to veto.

Other items approved in the final hours of the 418th session of the General Assembly includes compromise legislation to charge homeowners for an upgrading of the state's sewage treatment facilities - hailed by environmentalists as a breakthrough for the Chesapeake Bay - a $23.6 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and a bill to make lacrosse the state team sport.

The living wage bill would require state contractors to pay at least $10.50 an hour, but was vigorously opposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who said it would drive up the cost of state projects.

Republicans, encouraged by Ehrlich, mounted a filibuster against the bill shortly before 11 p.m., but the Senate voted to end debate and the measure passed 31-15.

A major bill intended to expand health coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Marylanders also failed in the final hours, on a 22-24 vote. Senators balked at a 2 percent tax on health maintenance organizations, or HMOs, that Ehrlich had threatened to veto.

"It's a pretty major tax policy that we didn't have time to consider. We took tough votes to do what was doable and against what was not doable," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

For the second year in a row, Ehrlich's efforts to legalize slot machine gambling came up short.

The governor, however, pronounced the session a success shortly before the balloons and confetti fell from the balconies of the legislative chambers.

"We are beginning to put our stamp on this state," Ehrlich said.

The Republican governor made far more headway with the Democratic-controlled legislature than he did a year ago, when lawmakers mauled his agenda. "Tonight we can claim a very solid B-plus," he said. "When the issues are reviewed ... on their merits, this administration has a chance to move the ball forward. When it's a party call, we have no chance."

Some of Ehrlich's successes read like a page from a liberal agenda: passage of his proposal for treatment of nonviolent offenders rather than incarceration; a measure to direct 10 percent of all state contracting work to small businesses as a way to help minority and women firms; and the environmental legislation, dubbed the flush tax, that is designed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay through a $30 a year fee for most homeowners.

But even with the gains the governor made, a dark cloud loomed large: a projected deficit that would reach $1 billion before the governor's term ends if spending isn't cut or revenues increased.

"We're facing a fiscal hell next year," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat who represents Prince George's and Calvert counties.

Moreover, there was growing concern about partisan bickering in the second half of Ehrlich's term as the state draws closer to the 2006 gubernatorial election. The Republican and Democratic divide will be seen as the bills passed during the session arrive on his desk for his signature or veto.

In addition to the living wage legislation, the governor said he would reject a measure to cap tuition increases at public universities while raising corporate income taxes by 10 percent for three years to assist higher education; and a bill to expand Medicaid availability and create an expanded network of community health centers to serve Marylanders without health insurance, because the plan would be funded by a tax on health maintenance organizations.

Lawmakers, led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, dealt Ehrlich a second blow in as many years on his plan to bring slot machine gambling to Maryland. The House Ways and Means Committee voted 19-2 to kill the legislation that the governor introduced, and unanimously rejected the bill that had been amended and passed by the Senate in February.

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, compared taxes to dieting: "You can raise taxes and lower taxes, like you can gain or lose weight." But slots, he said, were a more permanent concept. "If you get a tattoo, it's a statement. They're forever, just like slots."

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairwoman of the committee, placed blame for the failure of the slots bill squarely on Ehrlich's refusal to negotiate over taxes with House Democrats.

"Our mantra for the majority of this committee was, 'No taxes, no slots, and that's the position we're in today,'" Hixson said.

Ehrlich officials wouldn't rule out trying again next year, and delegates said they expect the slots issue to return. Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's Democrat, handed out pieces of paper to committee members with a quote from writer Eudora Welty: "Never think you've seen the last of anything."

In other action yesterday:

  • A bill that would have provided in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who are Maryland high school graduates was killed by a Senate committee.

  • Legislation was passed to extend the Historic Tax Credit program that has helped Baltimore's revitalization efforts. Lawmakers altered the measure to limit the program's costs and cap how much can be devoted to city projects.

  • A measure was passed that would close the so-called Delaware holding company tax shelter that has allowed dozens and possibly hundreds of corporations to avoid Maryland taxes.

  • A bill that would have require state officials to seek federal permission to set up a Canadian drug importation plan for Medicaid recipients and current and retired state employees died when the Senate ran out of time.

  • A bill that would make it a felony to counterfeit checks, letters of credit or other negotiable notes passed. The governor's office said he would review it.

    As the final bills reached the floors of the House and the Senate and debate began to ease, attention turned away from politics to clock-watching.

    Del. George W. Owings III was brought briefly to tears, presented with the journalized proceedings of the 1956 General Assembly session, when his father served as the chief clerk.

    Owings, a popular Democrat from Calvert County, offered observations from his House tenure, which will end when he takes an Ehrlich administration job as secretary of veteran affairs after the session.

    He noted the testy relationship among the State House's three-man leadership.

    Owings quipped, "What we have here are three honest individuals: for the North, the governor, from the South, President Miller, and from the East, the speaker. What we have here is the perfect storm!"

    Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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