On eve of session, Democrats vow end to confrontation; death penalty, health care reform seen as key issues

On the eve of today's start to the General Assembly session, Democrats gloated a bit about their victories in the November election but also said the time has come to prove to voters that they can solve the problems of the state.

Lawmakers will tackle the death penalty, health care and other issues certain to reveal deep divisions during the 90 days they are in Annapolis.


But during the Democratic Party's annual pre-session luncheon yesterday, legislative leaders, county executives and others - including Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley - pledged an end to the confrontation that ruled Annapolis during Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term.

"Last year at this luncheon, we were going into battle, and we won that battle, the contest of ideas," O'Malley said. "Now we have to win the peace."


The legislature officially convenes at noon today with a ceremonial swearing-in of the delegates and senators. O'Malley is to be inaugurated Jan. 17 .

The first year of a new term is usually not the most productive because it takes new legislators and a new governor time to find their way. But lawmakers say a few issues could crop up early this year.

The death penalty could be the subject of tense debate, though some lawmakers are predicting that the Assembly will deadlock, leaving in place a de facto moratorium implemented by the Court of Appeals last year.

The court ruled that the state's procedures for carrying out capital punishment must be approved by the legislature. Bills to codify those procedures - and others to abolish the death penalty - are likely.

But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, predicted that neither side would have enough votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

"It's going to be very difficult to pass legislation either way," Frosh said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he thinks the regulations the court required are a relatively minor matter, but there is strong opposition to capital punishment in the black caucus in his chamber, and in the growing liberal wing of the Senate.

Under Senate rules, 19 of the chamber's 47 members can prevent a motion to close debate, thus effectively killing a piece of legislation.


House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he does not know how a death penalty vote would break down in his chamber, where filibusters are not allowed. O'Malley does not support the death penalty, but he has not said whether his administration will take an active role in the debate.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, the Republican minority leader from Frederick County and a death penalty supporter, said he expects lawmakers will try to institute the regulations the court required. But he said he doubts the Democratic leadership will let those bills out of committee for a full floor vote.

"No action gives many of the opponents of the death penalty exactly what they wanted, so that very well may be the tactic taken so that no one has to vote on it, debate it or anything," Brinkley said.

Health care is also likely to be one of the top issues in this session. Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Health and Government Operations Committee, has been working on a package of reforms for months. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Finance Committee chairman, said he expects to be spending much of his time on the issue this year.

Lawmakers and representatives of the O'Malley administration are due to meet today to draft legislation to reform Maryland's ground rent system. A Sun series documented hundreds of cases in which courts awarded ground rent holders the deeds to homes whose owners owed back ground rent, in some cases as little as $24.

Frosh said the legislature will be looking at bills to prohibit the creation of new ground rents, ensure the penalties for missed payments are proportional to the original debt, and establish a system to encourage homeowners to buy back their ground rents.


At their luncheon, Democrats were gleeful about their victories in retaking the governorship and picking up legislative seats from Republicans. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who has made the environment a top priority, even went so far to declare that that "fish and crabs and oysters and clams ... are rejoicing today that the Democrats are in power."

At the same event a year before, Miller had pledged that Democrats would "get together and we're going to shoot [Republicans] down. We're going to put them in the ground. We're going to bury them upside-down, and it'll be 10 years before they crawl out again."

Yesterday, Democrats were pondering whether 10 years will be enough time for Republicans to recover.

"That's not long enough," said the ordinarily reserved Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett. "We need to literally put a stake through their hearts."

Despite the rhetoric, Republican leaders said they are encouraged so far by the amount of cooperation they have seen from the incoming O'Malley administration. The GOP caucuses in the House and Senate met yesterday with O'Malley Chief of Staff Michael Enright, top legislative and policy adviser Joseph Bryce, as well as Gansler, Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

"The level of willingness to get to the people's work and put the rhetoric behind from the election is very high on our side, and we appreciate the graciousness of our colleagues," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland.


He and other Republican leaders identified eminent domain and tougher penalties for sex offenders as key issues the GOP caucus will pursue. Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip from Howard County, said Republicans will also work to have an influence on some of the Democrats' top priorities, such as health care reform.

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.