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Session leaves some big issues in limbo

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland lawmakers approved a $30 billion budget, a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and a first-in-the-nation "living wage" for some government contract workers yesterday, but as the General Assembly adjourned last night, legislators left the State House with a sense of unfinished business.

The decision not to address this year the state's most pressing problems - including a projected budget gap of as much as $1.5 billion, a growing number of Marylanders without health insurance and the decline of the Chesapeake Bay - made for a quiet, largely drama-free final day for the General Assembly.

Gov. Martin O'Malley proclaimed the session a success, saying legislators tackled important issues such as education and school construction funding while working to re-establish a tone of cooperation after four years of divided government.

"We are not going to repair the divisions of the last four years in the first 90 days of this session, but I think we've made a lot of progress," said O'Malley, a Democrat.

Many lawmakers echoed O'Malley's idea that the tone in Annapolis has changed, but the assessment that the session was productive was not universal.

"I look at this session as kicking the can further down the road," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Some of these issues could have and should have been addressed this year. Instead, we've addressed some issues we knew were going to be passed - clean cars, which is important, and the [smoking ban] - but we're going to come back next year and face what will be a pressure cooker."

By yesterday, nearly all major issues the General Assembly tackled this year had passed or been effectively killed.

Legislation requiring cleaner automobile emissions, reforming Maryland's antiquated ground rent system and expressing "profound regret" for the state's role in the slave trade were finished days ago. Bills to repeal the death penalty, ban assault weapons and enact public campaign financing had been defeated.

One of the most contentious issues - a proposal to grant in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities to the children of illegal immigrants - never got a vote by a Senate committee. It was passed by the House of Delegates.

"There isn't a whole lot of drama," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Dundalk Democrat who is one of the longest-serving legislators. "This has really been a very laid-back session."

The pressure in Annapolis was almost nonexistent.

The House of Delegates rolled in at 11:40 a.m. yesterday, approved the budget and the smoking ban in the first 10 minutes, mopped up some other work and shortly thereafter took a four-hour break.

The House voted vote 100-40 to approve the smoking ban yesterday. O'Malley has pledged to sign the bill. Health advocates have been trying for a decade to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, the only businesses that were exempted from a law that passed in 1995.

The Senate debated the living-wage bill extensively but otherwise did little more than shuffle bills through the day and evening.

"It's been a journeyman-like session," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties. "We've done all we were required to do, but we didn't go the extra mile."

The one exception to the calm last night was an 11th-hour negotiation between the O'Malley administration and Prince George's County officials over the financially troubled Prince George's County Hospital. Although the state agreed in the last few days to increase its financial contribution to an 8-year, $440 million plan to save the facility, the deal collapsed last night when county council members refused to accept any deal that bound the county financially after their terms end in 2011.

With the deal shelved, O'Malley has committed $20 million to facilitate the orderly closure of the hospital and the transfer of its patients to other facilities.

Legislators say they think the capital was worn out after a contentious four years of divided government when Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Democratic-led General Assembly clashed repeatedly on issues including the minimum wage and slot machine gambling.

The vetoes, override votes and political gamesmanship of the past four years evaporated when lawmakers returned to Annapolis in January with O'Malley in charge, but that doesn't mean they are entirely happy with inaction on key proposals.

In the House, in particular, lawmakers are regretting a lost opportunity to pass a proposal to extend health care coverage to more than 100,000 lower-income Marylanders.

"The plus is everybody's being nice. That's a big plus," said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat. But, she said, "I feel a sense of loss that we didn't do a big health care bill. I understand their thinking, but that doesn't change the sense of opportunity lost."

Advocates made a major push to double the tobacco tax to $2 a pack to pay for an expansion of Medicaid. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, backed the measure and pushed it through his chamber.

Miller refused to take it up, saying it would be unwise to enact a tax that didn't help reduce the state's structural deficit.

Busch and O'Malley also backed new fees on development to fund a Chesapeake Bay cleanup, but Miller rejected it for the same reason.

Lawmakers did not make any significant moves to address the deficit. Miller introduced a bill to legalize slot machine gambling, a proposal he said would generate $800 million a year, and pushed a 50 percent increase in the gasoline tax to replenish the state's transportation trust fund. But, lacking O'Malley's support, he did not push for a vote on either, promising instead to resurrect the discussion next year.

In the House, delegates proposed increases in the income, sales, alcohol and tobacco taxes, but none of those made it out of committee.

O'Malley asked legislators to hold off on tackling the structural deficit until he has had time to find efficiencies to reduce the cost of government.

"As people see we are giving to Maryland a government that actually works, I think they will be a lot more willing to have the conversation about making investments in it," O'Malley said yesterday.

Lawmakers granted his wish, passing his budget yesterday with relatively minor changes.

They continued the landmark Thornton Commission education funding plan, added corrections officers, paid for a tuition freeze at University System of Maryland campuses and increased stem cell research funding to $23 million from $15 million in the current year.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who is chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, called this year's operating budget "fiscally prudent and socially responsible" but acknowledged that tough choices lie ahead.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, chastised his colleagues for not working to close the budget gap and said future fiscal estimates could show the state in worse financial shape by next year, depending on tax revenue.

"I wouldn't doubt we'll have a $2 billion problem when we come back," he said.

Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the budget meets the needs of the state and leaves a reserve to handle a recent dip in revenue projections.

"Next year, we must make the tough decisions," he said.

Conway said he has asked the governor to convene work groups with senators and delegates over the interim to make sure a solution is ready when legislators return in January.

Miller said it would be a mistake to wait that long.

"I'm hoping we're going to have a special session," Miller said. "This fiscal crisis is real. ... If we wait until the next session to solve the budget problems, it will suck the life out of everything else."

As a result of the inaction on budget issues, Miller blocked almost all legislation that would cost the state more than $250,000.

He made a few exceptions in the waning days of the session, notably for the living-wage bill and a plan to scrap Maryland's electronic voting machines and replace them with a system that includes a paper trail.

The living-wage proposal, one of O'Malley's top priorities, requires that state government contractors pay service employees higher wages - $11.30 an hour in urban areas and $8.50 an hour in rural areas.

Dozens of cities, including Baltimore, and counties including Montgomery and Prince George's have similar statutes, but when O'Malley signs the bill, Maryland will be the first state in the nation to enact such a law.

Business groups oppose the measure as an intrusion in the free market, but it is a top priority of progressive groups and organized labor, a constituency that campaigned vigorously for O'Malley last fall.

Also yesterday, lawmakers passed a bill to scrap Maryland's electronic voting machines and replace them with a system that includes a paper trail. The measure is expected to cost $18 million to $20 million. If funding is approved, the machines could be ready for the 2010 election.

The bill was one of several election reforms the legislature took up this year, including a bill to move Maryland's presidential primary to Feb. 12 and a proposal that would give Maryland's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote for president if enough other states joined in the plan.

Republicans, who lost nearly all of their power in Annapolis when Ehrlich was defeated, kept a relatively low profile.

They objected to many of the Democrats' initiatives, including the living-wage bill and measures that that would allow parole for second-time drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences and restore voting rights for felons who've completed their sentences.

But with Democrats again in solid control, they mostly did so without attempting to disrupt the legislative process.

"We're realistic about it," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican. "On issues like that where a core part of the Democratic base has to be represented, we know what we're going to get."

andy.green@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article

2007 SESSION ISSUES

Arrest records -- Police records for those who are arrested but released without being charged will automatically be expunged under a bill the legislature approved and that Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged to sign.

Assault weapon ban -- A bill to ban the importation, sale or possession of 45 types of semiautomatic handguns and long guns in Maryland died in a Senate committee, despite O'Malley's support.

Budget -- Lawmakers approved O'Malley's $30 billion spending plan largely intact, including no tax or fee increases, a record investment in K-12 education, a tuition freeze at University System of Maryland campuses and $23 million for stem cell research.

Chesapeake Bay -- A proposal to levy a fee on developers to pay for Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts died in the Senate amid concerns about the financial impact. Lawmakers agreed to allow leasing parcels on the floor of the bay for oyster restoration and to reduce phosphorus from dish-washing detergents sold in the state. A bill to outlaw the trapping of Maryland's diamondback terrapin was approved late yesterday.

Clean cars -- Cars sold in Maryland would face stricter emissions standards to cut down on pollution that causes global warming under an approved bill that O'Malley has promised to sign.

Consumers -- Consumers would be allowed to block access to their credit reports, and businesses would be required to promptly disclose security breaches of personal data, under two bills aimed at preventing identity theft. Motorists insured through the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund would continue to pay the entire annual premium upfront - mostly by obtaining high-cost loans through premium finance companies - after a bill that would have allowed installment payments to the state agency failed in the House. Another bill that would have forced insurance companies to write homeowner policies in coastal areas, where some companies have limited new business, also failed.

Death penalty -- A Senate committee deadlocked on a bill to repeal the death penalty, causing its defeat despite support from the governor. The issue is likely to be resurrected next year because the state faces a court-ordered moratorium on executions.

Drug offenders -- Second-time drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences would be eligible for parole under an approved bill. O'Malley has promised to sign it.

Gangs -- A bill that would stiffen sentences for gang-related crime received final approval yesterday.

Ground rents -- Reforming the Colonial-era system, the legislature passed a package that included bills to prohibit new ground rents; establish a ground rent registry; and require ground rent holders to issue regular bills and increase notification requirements for homeowners.

Health care -- A House proposal to extend medical coverage to more than 100,000 residents, mostly by raising the income level at which an individual or family qualifies for Medicaid, died in the Senate amid concerns about the cost. The bill would have doubled the tobacco tax to $2 per pack.

Homeless hate crimes -- A Senate plan to expand the state's hate crimes law to protect the homeless was effectively killed in a House committee, languishing without a vote.

Immigrants -- The House voted to allow the children of illegal immigrants to be eligible for in-state tuition in Maryland, but a Senate committee declined to vote on it yesterday.

Legislative scholarships -- A bill that would prohibit state legislators from knowingly awarding scholarships to family members or the relatives of colleagues passed late yesterday.

Living wage -- After O'Malley brokered an 11th-hour deal, lawmakers approved a first-in-the-nation bill to require that state government contractors pay workers a "living wage," meaning $11.30 in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and $8.50 in rural areas.

Personnel reform -- Following up on a legislative investigation into former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices, the General Assembly passed modest reforms this year aimed at modifying the executive branch's influence over hires and fires. For example, the measure says that the appointments secretary cannot overrule the personnel decisions of department secretaries or other designated hiring authorities.

Schools -- Lawmakers approved O'Malley's record $400 million request for school construction funding. A proposal to require extra funding for jurisdictions where the cost of education is greater, a top O'Malley priority, failed to win passage. Increased physical education requirements also failed.

Sex offenders -- The General Assembly passed a bill that would prohibit parole for sex offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences, a measure known as "Jessica's Law," and a bill defining a sex offense against a child as a crime of violence.

Slavery apology -- Lawmakers adopted a resolution expressing "profound regret" for the state's participation in slavery and for the decades of discrimination that stemmed from it.

Slot machine gambling -- Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller again pushed for slot machine gambling to solve the state's budget problems, but the issue got little attention this year.

Smoking ban -- Smoking would be illegal in bars and restaurants - including private clubs such as American Legion halls - starting Feb. 1, 2008, under a bill approved yesterday that O'Malley has promised to sign. The legislation allows local health officials to issue waivers to businesses that can demonstrate a financial hardship, but those would expire in 2011.

STDs -- Lawmakers created a pilot program in Baltimore that would allow chlamydia and gonorrhea patients to pass on prescribed medication to their sexual partners.

Taxes -- O'Malley held off on tax increases, saying he wants to find ways to reduce the cost of government. Legislators introduced bills that would have raised the taxes on sales, gas, income, alcohol and tobacco, as well as proposals to expand the sales tax to cover services. But none of the proposals was enacted, and only the tobacco tax got serious consideration.

Towson MBA program -- A bill that would have allowed Morgan State University to challenge a state decision allowing Towson University's competing MBA program died yesterday amid differences between the House and Senate versions. The Senate version would have allowed Morgan State to fight that decision in state court; the House version authorized only mediation and binding arbitration.

Truancy -- Teenagers would be required to prove good attendance records to get learners' permits under an approved bill.

Voting -- The General Assembly approved bills that would move up Maryland's presidential primary to Feb. 12 to draw more interest; award the state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, if enough states do the same; restore voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences; and let voters decide whether to have "early voting." Legislators alsomoved to scrap the state's multimillion-dollar electronic voting system and replace it with a new one that relies on a paper record, if funding becomes available, for the 2010 elections. Bills to curb "robocalls" from candidates and allow public financing of legislative campaigns died in the Senate.

Andrew A. Green, Kelly Brewington, Melissa Harris, Jennifer Skalka and Laura Smitherman

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