2006 session issues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Assault weapons ban -- The Assembly rejected legislation that would ban the possession and sale of assault weapons. A federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004.

Budget -- The Assembly approved a $29.4 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that contains an increase of more than 11 percent in general state spending, the fastest growth in 25 years. The plan contains no new taxes and increases public school funding by 9.2 percent, continuing the phase-in of a $1.3 billion yearly increase in schools spending mandated by the legislature in 2002.

Criminal record expungement -- The Assembly rejected efforts to automatically expunge the arrest records of thousands of people arrested and released without criminal charges. Baltimore lawmakers filed several bills in response to what they and advocates said was overly aggressive methods by city police. But the legislation died in committees amid concern that the bills would not have altered police practices.

Electricity rates -- Faced with a 72 percent rate increase for BGE customers when rate caps instituted as part of deregulation expire June 30, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and legislative leaders failed to reach an agreement with Constellation Energy on a plan to phase in the increase. .

Emergency contraception -- A bill that would have allowed pharmacists to dispense emergency birth control, known as Plan B, without a prescription was defeated by the Senate in a close vote.

Eminent domain -- After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a cash-strapped Connecticut city could seize property and give it to a private developer, Maryland lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on restricting condemnation powers. Some lawmakers wanted to change the state constitution to prohibit seizing property for economic development, but others wanted more moderate reforms, such as bolstering compensation packages for property owners.

Environment -- Lawmakers approved, and Ehrlich signed, a bill placing strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions and mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen pollution from the state's largest coal-fired power plants by requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in filtration equipment. Legislation to limit development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore was killed in the Senate.

Gay marriage -- Opponents of gay marriage failed in their efforts to place a constitutional amendment banning the practice on the November ballot. The issue consumed the early days of the session after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled in January that the state's definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. The decision is on appeal.

Governor's powers -- Legislators took steps to limit the power of the chief executive by forcing second-term governors to renominate their Cabinet secretaries, thus giving the Senate a chance to reject them. Ehrlich vetoed the bill, aimed at Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

Health Care -- Maryland became the first state in the nation to require large employers to pay a certain amount for employee health care after legislators overrode an Ehrlich veto. In practice, Maryland's statute will only affect Wal-Mart. Other states are considering similar measures. An effort to expand the law to smaller employers failed.

Immigrants -- The legislature voted to restore $3 million in future budgets for health care for 4,000 legal immigrant children and pregnant women, restoring a portion of the $7 million cut by Ehrlich last year. A series of bills to crack down on illegal immigration failed in committees, as did an effort to make English the official language of Maryland.

Minimum wage -- Maryland businesses will have to pay $6.15 an hour, $1 more than the federal rate, after legislators overrode an Ehrlich veto early in the session. Efforts to raise the rate further gained little traction.

Pensions -- The Assembly agreed to improve pensions for teachers and state workers, considered the worst in the nation. The plan calls for workers to contribute more money toward their retirement, from 2 percent to 5 percent over three years. Employees will get retroactive benefits dating to 1998. Legislators say the change will put Maryland in the middle of the pack nationally.

Personnel reform -- A special committee investigating the hiring and firing practices of the Ehrlich administration did not complete its work during the Assembly session and will extend its inquiry. Legislation to extend civil service protections to more state workers did not pass.

Schools -- Lawmakers did not pass a measure that would provide more money for school districts where the cost of education is higher, such as Montgomery County, which pays higher teacher salaries. After encountering widespread disapproval, a bill requiring school districts to send home weight report cards was transformed into legislation to form a task force to study how to fight childhood obesity.

Sex offenders -- Lawmakers debated tougher restrictions on sex offenders until the final hours of the session.

Slots -- Ehrlich's slots machine legislation was defeated for the fourth consecutive year.

Smoking -- For the fourth consecutive year, a proposed statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants failed. A proposal to increase cigarette taxes by $1 per pack to pay for health care also was defeated.

Stem cell research -- The Assembly passed a bill authorizing a stem cell research program, without an annual mandate for funding or a requirement that embryonic research - restricted by the federal government - receive priority. Ehrlich signed the legislation; he had proposed spending $20 million next year for the program. Legislators trimmed the amount to $15 million.

Taxes -- Lawmakers approved a plan to enhance a property tax credit program for low-income homeowners. Legislators also approved a state income tax break for veterans.

Universities -- Tuition at University System of Maryland campuses will be frozen this fall after legislators and Ehrlich added $18 million to the system's budget. Major new academic buildings are in the works at Towson and Salisbury universities. University System regents took a hit, though, with a law - aimed at top Ehrlich fundraiser Richard E. Hug - prohibiting them from political activity. Regents were under scrutiny after Chairman David Nevins and former Gov. Marvin Mandel became subjects of ethics probes for possible lobbying activity.

Voting -- Maryland voters will cast ballots using an electronic touch-screen system, as they did in 2004, after an effort to move to paper ballots was defeated in the Senate. Partisan wrangling over early voting ended with a victory for Democrats, who voted to override the governor's veto of a bill naming polling places for early voting. Some polling sites will be open for five days before the election.

Wine distribution -- Most of Maryland's wineries will be able to distribute their product to retailers without using a middleman under legislation passed as a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that out-of-state wineries should have the same privilege.

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