Stem-cell bill dies in Senate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Maryland General Assembly concluded its 90-day session last night riven by the same partisan feuding in which it began, with a divisive plan to spend state money on embryonic stem-cell research dying under the threat of a Senate filibuster that never came to pass.

The political jockeying between Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and a Democrat-controlled legislature intensified in the third year of the governor's term and looks to continue through the next election.

With confetti dropping inside the State House at midnight, Democratic leaders said they had done right by working Marylanders this year, increasing the state's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour and by imposing a tax on large corporations - effectively just Wal-Mart - that do not spend a prescribed percentage of payroll on employee health benefits.

Ehrlich said he would veto both measures and was pondering whether to support a bill that would create a registry letting gays and other unrelated partners make medical decisions on each other's behalf, which won final passage last night.

The specter of a filibuster hung over the Assembly all day, as Republican Senators prepared to lead a session-ending debate over the morality of using human embryos, which otherwise would be discarded, in research to find cures for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.

But the legislation never came up for a debate in the Senate, though Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had said he would allow discussion in the final hours. Supporters did not muster the 29 votes needed to halt debate - called cloture.

A defiant Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would return next year. "We will bring it out early and they can filibuster it all session," she said. "The governor could have helped. Now he is allowing scientists to wave goodbye to our state."

Just a few minutes before midnight, the Assembly passed a bill that allows polling places to open eight days before the primary and general elections, and legislation that contained major revisions to how the governor is allowed to sell state parkland. Earlier in the day, lawmakers gave final approval for a constitutional amendment that would appear on the 2006 ballot asking voters if the Assembly should sign off on the sale of state parks.

Both the amendment and the land bill were sparked by a controversial Ehrlich plan to sell a protected forest in Southern Maryland to a politically connected contracting company owner. The issue would follow the governor to the ballot box if he runs next year as expected - and Ehrlich said he supported the concept.

"We're happy to add more transparency" to the land-sale process, Ehrlich said yesterday.

The amendment was one of many proposals this year that would chip away at the governor's power. Clashes over who should appoint members to the state board of elections and who should claim credit for tax breaks bitterly divided Republicans and Democrats.

Leaders say they don't expect the rifts to close.

"I don't expect anything of major significance happening in the next session," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "This is the first time we've had split government in over 40 years. It's a new experience for most of us."

The Senate was chastised Saturday by a high school page, who Miller said took the chamber's microphone, "telling us we are not supposed to be voting along party lines. ... I've never seen that before," Miller said.

Party manuevering continued to the final minutes. Well after 11 p.m., the House of Delegates overrode Ehrlich's veto of a bill that would change the way members of the state Board of Elections are selected, removing some authority from the governor and protecting the appointed elections administrator. Ehrlich had tried to remove administrator Linda H. Lamone last year by packing the board with Democrats of his choosing.

"Just because we have the power to do something, doesn't mean we should do it," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican.

Grasping for successes after a season in which politics trumped policy, Ehrlich and lawmakers said they performed well in the only task they are required to do: adopt a balanced budget for the state's next fiscal year.

"I think it's actually been a very productive session," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "The challenges were meeting the goal for school construction. We did it in a bipartisan fashion."

The state's capital budget, which received final approval yesterday, contains $250 million for school construction and renovation, about $100 million more than first proposed by Ehrlich.

The state's $26 billion operating budget, which includes no new taxes and contains a record amount for K-12 education, was passed last weekend.

"The bottom line on the budget is it's great for students, state employees, the environment and taxpayers," the governor said.

Lawmakers were consumed by debates this year that continued to the final hours, including extending the list of hate crimes to include violence against homosexuals and renaming Baltimore-Washington International Airport to honor former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In a compromise, lawmakers put Marshall's name after Baltimore-Washington International instead of before, and required approval of the state Board of Public Works before the change goes into effect. The bill also creates a commission to study future name changes for public facilities.

"Down here you don't get everything you want, said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and sponsor of the legislation. "You get the best you can, and this is the best we can get."

Also yesterday, the legislature adopted a weakened version of an Ehrlich initiative that would allow testimony in criminal trials even if witnesses are too afraid to appear. A spate of witness killings in Baltimore brought the issue to light, although the final version of the plan was heavily criticized by Patricia C. Jessamy, Baltimore's state's attorney.

"Obviously Patricia Jessamy has expressed concern on witness intimidation, but every other prosecutor in the state has come forward and said it's a major step in the right direction," Ehrlich said.

The governor called the measure a partial victory. "But three-quarters of a loaf ... is more than a lot of people thought we could get," Ehrlich said, because of the reluctance of the powerful chairman of the House Judicial Proceedings Committee, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. of Prince George's County.

Ehrlich entered the session promoting what he called a "year of the child" agenda, but also introduced a slot machine gambling bill for the third consecutive year, and pushed for tax credits for the film industry and veterans.

The slots bill failed for the third consecutive year. The governor spent much of yesterday lobbying for the veterans' tax break, urging listeners to an AM talk radio show to call the Assembly and register their displeasure.

"They've told me that it just has the wrong sponsor this year: me. In this case, they haven't pretended there is some policy reason. They haven't even put up the faM-gade," Ehrlich said yesterday, speaking on a radio show.

Miller said the governor's lack of success on slots, the veterans bill and other legislation was because of an ineffectual staff.

"He's put people in office, rewarding his Republican base, who have no experience in dealing with these Democratic legislators in either the House or the Senate," Miller said. "They're afraid to even go talk to them. They don't knock on their doors. They don't ask for votes. And if they did they wouldn't even know how.

"As a consequence, even the governor's agenda, as light as it is - and it is very light - is not doing very well," Miller said late yesterday.

Several bills restricting teenage drivers passed this session, and another one was approved yesterday. The House of Delegates passed a bill prohibiting teenagers with learner's permits or provisional licenses from driving while talking on a cell phone.

The bill, sponsored by Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, passed by a 132-1 vote.

In other action, delegates had a spirited debate over the future of Ehrlich's Office of Children, Youth and Families, which Ehrlich had hoped to elevate into a cabinet but that many Democrats say is dysfunctional and unnecessary.

In a divided vote largely along party lines, delegates approved two bills that would move most of the office's functions to different agencies, including the Department of Education.

"It has not done its job," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "It has not protected the children. It's become a bureaucracy which has been part of the problem for these children."

Ehrlich said last night he would try to maintain the office in some form through an executive order.

The House of Delegates also voted to override Ehrlich's veto of a bill requiring General Assembly approval before he signs into international trade agreements, despite several delegates who spoke of the legislation as dangerous and setting an unnecessary precedent. The vote was 93-43. The Senate overrode Ehrlich's veto on Saturday.

Backers of the stem-cell bill were working to the end, hoping that Maryland would follow California and New Jersey as states that have committed funds to research, in response to federal restrictions. At an afternoon news conference, supporters made a last push for Ehrlich and the Senate to act.

They included Baltimore City Mayor Martin O'Malley, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and former Governor Harry R. Hughes. They chided Ehrlich for not weighing in on the bill, even though he has said he supports stem-cell research.

"The governor has great influence if he wants to use it in the General Assembly," Hughes said.

Added Duncan: "We're just seeing our governor doing photo ops. While he's sitting in the slot machines pulling the lever, putting in $20 bills and posing for pictures, we're out here doing the hard work," citing statistics that show Maryland's biotechnology rankings dropping.

Much of the partisan tone of this year's session was created by a special session on medical malpractice legislation that Ehrlich convened for the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve last year.

Lawmakers approved a reform bill that eliminated a 2 percent tax exemption on the insurance premiums of health maintenance organizations. Calling the measure a new tax, Ehrlich vetoed the bill, leaving the Assembly angry, tired and frustrated as they headed into their regular January session.

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

Session highlights

ABUSED CHILDREN

A bill that would have would extended the statute of limitations in child sexual abuses cases to 28 years after a person reaches the age of 18 died without a vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

AIRPORT NAME

A proposal to rename Baltimore-Washington International Airport in honor of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall won approval.

BUDGET

The $26 billion budget approved for the fiscal year that starts July 1 - $150 million less than Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed in January - includes an increase of nearly $400 million for K-12 education and a $43 million increase in the state's university system. But a House plan to roll back state property taxes by about $100 a year for the average homeowner died in conference.

ENVIRONMENT

Lawmakers approved a bill allowing the introduction of non-native oysters into the Chesapeake Bay with certain restrictions, including state environmental studies and public hearings. Tough vehicle-pollution standards, modeled on those in effect in California, failed to win passage, as did a ban on four pollutants found in smokestack emissions. A phase-out of gasoline additive MTBE also failed.

GAY RIGHTS

Lawmakers approved a domestic partners registry allowing unmarried people of either sex the right to make medical decisions for each other, among other benefits. The proposal was strongly backed by the gay community but opposed by social conservatives as a step toward approval of gay marriage. A law expanding the definition of hate crimes to include offenses against people because of sexual orientation passed both chambers. But a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage failed to win approval by either house.

HEALTH CARE

Maryland became the first state in the nation to require a certain level of health care benefits from large employers. The Fair Share Health Care Fund Act requires that for-profit companies with 10,000 or more workers pay a levy to the state if they fail to spend 8 percent of their payroll costs on health care. Retail giant Wal-Mart is the only company now affected by the measure. The governor has vowed a veto.

LAND

Legislators voted to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year giving the legislature veto power over the sale of certain state land.

LEAD PAINT

Lawmakers approved earlier action to treat children with lead poisoning and require landlords to move more quickly to reduce lead hazards in housing after a child has been poisoned.

MINIMUM WAGE

A $1 increase that would bring the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour in Maryland won passage, despite Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s promised veto. A veto override vote is expected when the legislature reconvenes.

SLOTS

The push to legalize slot machine gambling died for the third year in a row after the two houses failed to reach a compromise on competing bills. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has declared the prospect of slots dead until after the 2006 election.

STEM CELL RESEARCH

A bill providing $23 million a year in state money for stem cell research, approved by the House, died in the Senate in the face of a threatened filibuster.

TAXES

Bills to exempt military retirees from state income tax and to end a loophole allowing some corporations to avoid taxes when they transfer real estate failed. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s tax credit for film production companies won approval.

TEEN DRIVING

Lawmakers took several steps to tighten restrictions on teenage drivers, including a ban on cellular-phone use by most motorists under 18, and the governor's three-bill package extending the learner's permit period from four months to six; requiring provisional drivers caught not using a seat belt or driving during curfew hours to start the 18-month provisional license period over again; and suspending licenses of teenagers caught driving drunk or drugged.

UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

Payments to unemployed workers in Maryland would increase to a maximum of $340 a week from $310 a week under legislation that won support from the business community and worker advocates alike.

WITNESS PROTECTION

Responding to concern over intimidation of witnesses in criminal cases, legislators approved the use of out-of-court "hearsay" statements in some cases and increased penalties on those who threaten witnesses.

Session winners

Michael E. Busch

The strain of fending off lobbyists showing on the House speaker's face, the old gambling foe was masterful in crafting slots bill that passed by a single vote, then killing it with a take-it-or-leave-it edict that infuriated Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Is obstructionist label off his back, or was he too clever by half?

Luiz R.S. Simmons

The Montgomery County Democratic delegate almost convinces colleagues to ban gambling contributions after an impassioned House speech, then brokers compromise provisions that help save Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s witness intimidation bill. Emerging as the finest orator in the House.

When Simmons talks, people listen.

Eric M. Bromwell, Steven J. DeBoy Sr. and James E. Malone Jr.

Democratic delegates from conservative districts get to sponsor slots bill that finally passes House, making up for their leadership-mandated pro-tax votes a year ago. But they're even higher up on the GOP hit list, if that's possible.

Equality Maryland

The Assembly passes hate crimes legislation and a registry that allows domestic partners to make medical decisions for each other. A banner year for the gay lobby.

James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.

Ehrlich's budget secretary pads this year's budget with enough reserves to make next year's election-season spending plan look like child's play. It pays to think ahead.

Anthony G. Brown

The House majority whip's stature increases immeasurably during the Army reservist's duty in Iraq, even as his chair sits empty. Titles of lieutenant governor or attorney general could fit better than fatigues.

Kendel Ehrlich

An e-mail exchange with the "Prince of Darkness" does nothing to stop chatter about a first-lady-for-Senate bid. Dutiful mother demurs, but after another year in the partisan crossfire in Annapolis, a trip back to Capitol Hill might look tempting.

Working poor

If you're making minimum wage or working at Wal-Mart without health care, the Maryland General Assembly wants to make your life easier. But first there are those Ehrlich vetoes to get around.

Emmett C. Burns Jr.

The Baltimore County Democrat's idea to rename Baltimore-Washington International Airport for Thurgood Marshall was one of the year's more intriguing concepts.

Teen drivers

Something to make the parents rest easier. No friends in the car for the new drivers, no cell phones and more time in provisional license purgatory. And don't even think about driving home from that kegger.

Session losers

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Year of the Child agenda, whipped up after medical malpractice special session ends in a veto override, is crumpled by lawmakers. Contrived photo ops can't save slots bill or veterans tax-cut plan. Longtime aide caught spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and the legislature is lining up subpoenas for an investigation into personnel practices. But we know who he'll be blaming, don't we, Speaker Busch?

Richard F. Colburn

The Eastern Shore senator's ambitions for a bachelor's degree are dashed when an ex-aide alleges Colburn's academic papers were fraudulent. But the senator passed one test: the legislative ethics committee won't be investigating.

William Donald Schaefer

His Board of Public Works rants land him in hot water (again) when he says it's time for minority business programs to end, then heart troubles intensify chatter that he should retire (again) after this term ends. But don't count him out - he's back at work and crankier than ever.

Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton

Two staunch slots opponents were forced to cast votes for gambling bills because their party leaders (hers Republican, his Democratic) needed support. They'll have some explaining to do back home.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

What Ehrlich wanted (just a little bit), as per request in his State of the State speech. But, baby, he never got it. Lawmakers sock it to him instead.

Port of Baltimore

After the Ehrlich administration fired managers and forced out the director, lawmakers ponder changes in management structure. They back down, but a governor-appointed ice dancer remains as legislative liaison.

Slots

Ehrlich has said it's a second-term issue. If there's a second term.

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