A day of pens, pals and praise

The Baltimore Sun

Flanked by the House speaker and Senate president, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed 105 bills into law yesterday, including measures to create the government-efficiency program StateStat, to potentially change the state voting process during presidential contests and to expunge the arrest records of people arrested but never charged with a crime.

The three Democratic leaders hailed the 90-day General Assembly session that ended Monday evening as a model for cooperative government but cautioned that serious work remains. They said they are girding themselves for a debate over how best to address the state's looming $1.5 billion budget hole - a problem that could force a rift among top Democrats over proposals to legalize slot machine gambling and raise taxes.

Talk of a special session has diminished, meanwhile, but officials said they will start meeting informally this summer to ponder a plan.

"We're going to tackle tough challenges in the months and years ahead having to do with Maryland's fiscal health and the structural deficit, but we have it within us to be able to tackle these challenges," O'Malley said. "We absolutely, positively do."

Many lawmakers - some with bags under their eyes - turned out for the bill-signing ceremony, despite a late night of revelry after the midnight end of the legislative session.

Packing a second-floor State House reception room, they expressed their appreciation for the new mood of consensus in Annapolis.

Bill sponsors, including some Republicans, took turns smiling for photographs with O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.

Miller and Busch, meanwhile, each applauded O'Malley's work with lawmakers.

"The reason we had such a good session, I think, was largely because of your personality," said Miller, who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties. "I'm not saying that to stroke you or suck up to you or anything like that."

Busch agreed with Miller, lauding O'Malley, as well, for making solid Cabinet appointments since taking office in January and rejiggering leadership of the beleaguered Public Service Commission.

"I think the fact that you came in and set the tone and the temperament for this 90-day session was very important," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

O'Malley has three more bill signing events scheduled: April 24, and May 8 and 17. Later this month, he will approve a bill mandating stricter emissions standards for cars sold in Maryland, according to a spokesman.

The General Assembly passed 800 bills and resolutions this session, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

Yesterday, the governor signed two proposals dear to the administration: a bill to create StateStat, an effort to streamline government costs that is modeled on O'Malley's CitiStat program, and a plan to create a subcabinet to manage the Base Realignment and Closure process, which is expected to bring 40,000 to 60,000 jobs to Maryland over the next five years.

The governor also signed a bill requiring arrest records to be expunged for individuals who are not charged with a crime. The measure seeks to help people clear their names and ease the application processes for mortgages, loans and employment, among other matters.

About 21,000 people were arrested statewide last year but not charged; 16,000 of them were arrested in Baltimore.

The proposal is not retroactive. All those who were arrested before Oct. 1 of this year would still have to file a request with the law enforcement agency believed to have an arrest record in their name.

With O'Malley's signature yesterday, Maryland became the first state in the country that would award the state's 10 Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote. For the proposal to go into effect, however, states with electoral votes totaling 270 - the margin of victory - must also participate. Until then, Maryland's electoral votes will be awarded to the winner of the state's popular vote.

The state will also embark on a review of its retirement and investment holdings with an eye toward divesting from companies doing business in Sudan, where violence in the country's Darfur region has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

Lesser-known bills

O'Malley also signed many lesser-known bills - such as one pertaining to the inspection of honey bee colonies by the state Department of Agriculture and another authorizing lifetime complimentary Chesapeake Bay sport fishing licenses to former prisoners of war and disabled veterans.

Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, who sponsored proposals to reform the state personnel system which the governor has also pledged to sign, noted that the General Assembly was quite productive - even if some of the measures are more arcane.

"Both Republicans' and Democrats' bills are being signed," she said. "We got a whole lot more [done] than I would have anticipated we would've gotten for the first term of a new administration."

After the signing, Miller reiterated the urgent need for an assessment of the deficit problem. He said that O'Malley, who has proposed first that his team explore ways state government can be made more efficient to cut costs, must get onboard "sooner rather than later" with a comprehensive plan combining slots and taxes.

"We're going to have to come together and make some decisions in terms of revenue - that's a nice word for taxes," he said.

O'Malley, however, sought to play down any past or potential differences between state Democratic leaders.

"On those issues when we were not able to agree this session, I think at the very least we were able to disagree in a way that made people proud that they sent representatives here who could debate the issues rather than attacking one another," he said.


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