Session of missed opportunities

The Baltimore Sun

The confetti has settled from the celebrations that mark the end of every General Assembly session in Annapolis. Now we can step back and take stock of who and what won in the 2007 session and who and what didn't. My appraisal: Caution won the day in the just-completed legislative session. Excessive caution.

Lawmakers, to be sure, did pass a few bills on the bold side. We voted to raise automobile emission standards and eliminate smoking in bars and restaurants. We also set a national precedent: We passed the very first statewide living-wage mandate. But we could have done - should have done - more.

Maryland now stands as one of the few states with Democrats in solid control of the governor's mansion and both legislative chambers. We could have leveraged that control to start addressing the really big and tough issues: the health care crisis. Climate change and global warming. Big money's influence on the political process.

In the 2007 session, all these issues went largely ignored. That's the way too many key state leaders seemed to want it. Between a new governor anxious about doing anything in his first year that might require raising revenue, and a legislative leadership - particularly in the Senate - disinclined to support reforms with deep roots in Democratic Party traditions, the big issues could find no political elbow room.

What a shame. We lawmakers had before us all sorts of bills that spoke to these big issues. One modest health reform that would have expanded Medicaid and Maryland Children's Health Insurance Program coverage to tens of thousands of the uninsured through an increase in the cigarette tax passed the House of Delegates but died in the Senate. A bill calling for universal coverage for all Marylanders never received a moment of serious consideration.

On climate change, lawmakers across the country are recognizing that states, given the apathy of the Bush White House, have a responsibility to start taking significant action. Some states are moving. California has enacted landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2010, a move supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. New Jersey is adopting similar policies.

Maryland seemed primed to adopt these same environmental reforms in the 2007 session. But despite broad legislative support, a bill that would have advanced these reforms spent the session stuck in committee, locked in place by legislative leadership. The new Democratic administration showed no interest in helping to find a key.

The drive to remove big money from campaigns and elections has also been picking up steam across the country. Last year, Connecticut adopted public campaign financing, joining Arizona and Maine, which have run "clean," publicly financed campaigns successfully through four election cycles.

The time appeared ripe for Maryland to follow suit, particularly after the surfacing of a secret FBI tape that revealed a former Maryland state senator, now under indictment, declaring himself a "whore" for the racetrack industry who "saved Comcast $75 million" as a legislative committee chairman.

In 2006, the House did pass a "clean money" campaign finance bill. The legislation only needed a nod from the Maryland Senate. But Senate leaders opposed the move, and the governor's office stayed silent. Despite these obstacles, the campaign reform legislation finally reached the Senate floor - with just two days left in the session. The bill lost, 23-24.

Maryland is one of the "blue-est" states in the nation right now. Last November, voters elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, returned the governorship to a Democrat, and elected an overwhelming Democratic majority to both General Assembly chambers. And that raises a question: What should be happening in such a strong blue state?

From my talks with voters, I think I have the answer. Much more should be happening than the General Assembly was able to deliver.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, chairs the Education and Environment subcommittees of the Maryland Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee. His e-mail is

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