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Democrats see victory as session concludes

The Baltimore Sun

The General Assembly adjourned last night after an annual session that saw the passage of new protections for homeowners against foreclosures and new funding for consumer energy efficiency incentives but the failure of legislation authorizing statewide speed cameras and banning the use of hand-held cellular phones while driving.

Lawmakers worked nonstop yesterday, negotiating 11th-hour compromises on a number of bills in conference rooms and lounges. Gov. Martin O'Malley worked behind the scenes to ensure passage of his priorities.

Among the hundreds of bills that moved through the legislature before adjournment were measures to expand the state's DNA database used to investigate criminal cases, to govern growth arising from a national military base realignment that is expected to bring an influx of soldiers and contractors to Maryland, and a bill outlawing slot-like electronic gambling devices.

"This has been a session of very real and steady progress for the people of Maryland, even in these difficult times," said O'Malley, a Democrat. "This has been a tough few months, but we have come together."

O'Malley and legislative leaders highlighted their achievements in spite of an economic downturn that hampered their ability to roll out new spending initiatives. Much of the legislature's agenda this year has been dominated by O'Malley's priorities, because major spending bills introduced by lawmakers were generally rejected because of budget concerns.

Democrats, who have solid majorities in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, had modest objectives when the session began. Lawmakers reconvened just two months after a bruising special session in November, leading many to question whether the legislature would accomplish much. But several lawmakers said yesterday that they felt they had enacted a surprising number of initiatives that they could tout to their constituents.

"Despite the challenges, they came out with a package of real deliverables," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Michael Cryor.

Republicans, however, said that many new Democratic initiatives would hurt taxpayers and businesses. While O'Malley began his term last year saying that he would reach out to the other party, his relations with the GOP were strained by the special session and by an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by Republicans who wanted to invalidate the tax increases and slots gambling referendum approved in November.

"A lot of things we've done will be very damaging, especially the economic ones," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who represents Southern Maryland.

Among the early victories claimed by O'Malley was a package of bills addressing the rising number of foreclosures in the state. The measures stretch out the legal time frame before a home can be repossessed or sold and require banks to establish a borrower's ability to pay before making a loan. He also announced early in the session a subsidy funded by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield for seniors stuck in a Medicare coverage gap.

Yesterday, legislative leaders ticked off achievements they said residents would notice, including a continued freeze on tuition at state universities and hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to transportation projects aimed at easing congestion.

They also basked in the repeal over the weekend of the unpopular sales tax on computer services, which many said would drive away jobs. They replaced it in part with a higher income tax on millionaires.

"The citizens of Maryland can be very happy," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "We fully fund your education, your college tuition remains stable, while we build your roads, build your schools. Those things we left in during the toughest economic conditions."

In the final minutes of the session that officially ended at midnight, with O'Malley watching debate in the House, lawmakers passed a measure to bar gambling machines that have proliferated in Maryland in recent years.. Voters are set to decide in November whether to legalize 15,000 slot machines at five locations.

Also in the final moments of the session, lawmakers approved a bill classifying beverages such as Jack Daniel's Black Jack Cola as beer, which will allow them to continue to be widely distributed and to be taxed at a lower rate than spirits.

In other action, lawmakers approved the state's settlement with Constellation Energy Group, which includes one-time $170 rebates to BGE customers. A series of administration bills aimed at reducing energy consumption and boosting renewable power received final approval as well. Those bills include money for energy efficiency and conservation programs as well as small rebates for all consumers on their utility bills.

Meanwhile, lawmakers failed to hammer out a compromise on legislation that would allow state and local law enforcement agencies to deploy speed cameras. The legislature had already killed another bill aimed at improving driver safety by prohibiting drivers from talking or texting on hand-held wireless devices.

Another bill, which has faltered in the legislature for years, failed this year after lengthy negotiations between state regulators, lawmakers and so-called premium finance companies. Those companies lend to residents who cannot obtain insurance in the private sector and turn to the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund for coverage.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

THE PLAYERS

The General Assembly's 90-day legislative meeting gave lawmak ers, advocates and one notable dessert the chance to make an im pact on state policy. Here are some of the players who helped define the 2008 session:

Smith Island cake

Getting the Senate to declare the multilayer island dessert the official state confection was a cakewalk. But Del. D. Page Elmore's bill was met with a frosty reception in the House Health and Government Opera tions Committee. Apparently Del. Peter A. Hammen, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the panel, is allergic to symbolic legislation. But when Elmore, a Republican, agreed to part ways with the GOP and back the repeal of Maryland's new computer services tax in the Ways and Means Committee, he earned a little arm-twisting from House Speaker Michael E. Busch. The cake bill came out of committee and sailed through the House yesterday on a 111-27 vote, to rapturous ap plause from delegates hungry for a happy ending.

Sen. Rob Garagiola

The Montgomery County Demo crat was an energetic behind-the-scenes figure in repealing the sales tax on computer services. Garagiola privately lobbied fellow lawmakers from the state's wealthiest county to accept a temporary millionaires' tax as an alternative to the $200 million "tech tax." Both levies faced strong opposition in Montgomery County. Despite representing tony Potomac - a hotbed of multi-millionaires - Garagiola came out publicly for a high-earners tax alternative before Gov. Martin O'Malley did. In the fi nal tally, six of eight Montgomery senators voted to accept the compromise.

Del. John L. Bohanan Jr.

When a legislative audit this year un covered serious financial manage ment problems at Morgan State University, the St. Mary's County Democrat successfully pushed to withhold millions in funding to the Baltimore school - drawing charges that he and other leaders on the Ap propriations Committee were un fairly critical of the historically black college. Throughout the session, the budget expert spent hours privately walking African-American lawmak ers through auditors' reports and fended off possible opposition from the Legislative Black Caucus.

Del. Peter A. Hammen

Weeks before the session began, the Baltimore Democrat was laying the groundwork for his next health care crusade and saw his opening with the installation of Chester Burrell as the new chief executive of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. Within Bur rell's first few days on the job, Ham men approached him about helping Maryland seniors caught in a Medi care coverage gap. The state has been in dire fiscal straits, and Ham men convinced CareFirst to provide money to extend subsidies to residents.

Comptroller Peter Franchot

The state's tax collector - or, as Fran chot prefers, "chief fiscal officer" - had a politically profitable session, even as tax revenue estimates plum meted by $330 million. Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and outspoken opponent of the computer services tax, was able to be simultaneously gloating and gra cious when the tech tax was scuttled, thanking O'Malley and Senate Pres ident Thomas V. Mike Miller for fi nally coming round to his way of thinking. Franchot also accused Mill er of trying to eliminate a couple of high-paid aides in the comptroller's office - citing "rumors." When that didn't happen, sources in the CFO's office credited their pre-emptive news media strike.

The Republicans

A GOP-backed lawsuit seeking to invalidate tax and gambling legisla tion passed last year was rejected by Maryland's highest court, but it suc ceeded in infuriating the heck out of Democratic leaders. Sen. E.J. Pipkin again assumed the role of intellectu al gadfly, putting in jeopardy the state's $2 billion settlement with Constellation Energy Group by convincing lawmakers to adopt one of his amendments.

Dels. Aisha N. Braveboy and Joseline Pena-Melnyk

O'Malley's proposal to allow for col lection of DNA samples from sus pects charged with violent crimes ran into a major roadblock when the Legislative Black Caucus opposed it out of concern that it would unfairly single out minorities. Working to gether with Democratic leaders, Braveboy and Pena-Melnyk forged a compromise that would increase protections for defendants. They stuck to it, despite attempts by other legislators to go back on the deal. Busch praised the two Prince George's County Democrats yes terday, saying they were crucial to getting the bill through.

THE ISSUES

BUDGET

Although lawmakers spent 21 grueling days in November raising taxes by $1.3 billion and ordering up hundreds of millions in spending cuts, fiscal issues again permeated much of the debate in Annapolis, with revenue shortfalls and the repeal of the computer services tax overshadowing much else. The $31.2 billion budget capped off nearly a year and a half of state spending reductions, with the total figure reaching well over $1 billion, including $500 million this session in cuts or delays to funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs, a health care insurance expansion and state contributions to retiree health care obligations.

CELL PHONES

Efforts to enact a ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving failed again in the General Assembly, though it came closer to becoming law than ever before. The bill would have prohibited talking and texting while holding a wireless device while allowing the use of hands-free accessories. It passed the Senate but died in a House of Delegates committee.

DNA

Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal that would allow the collection of DNA samples from suspects arrested for violent crimes, not just those convicted, passed yesterday. But O'Malley agreed to substantially weaken his initiative to win over the Legislative Black Caucus, which had feared that the expanded DNA database would be used to target minorities. DNA samples now would be processed only upon arraignment and would be expunged if the charges do not result in a conviction. DNA evidence also could be used to seek new trials for those who contend that they were wrongly convicted.

ENERGY

Lawmakers approved a package of administration bills to reduce the state's energy consumption 15 percent by 2015 and to double the amount of renewable energy that power companies must provide for sale to customers, to 20 percent by 2022. The legislation also sets out how to spend proceeds from new fees on industry intended to promote reducing greenhouse gases, directing the money to energy efficiency, conservation and small utility-bill rebates.

ENVIRONMENT

A measure committing the state to fight global warming, embraced by O'Malley, ran into formidable opposition from labor and industry fearful that state regulations could cost jobs and shutter factories. The bill passed the Senate in weakened form but failed in the House. Shoreline development curbs near the Chesapeake Bay got their first major overhaul in 24 years, though they were also watered down from the original O'Malley proposal. The bill still tightens enforcement and subjects growth in rural areas to greater scrutiny. The Assembly approved legislation directing $25 million to fight polluted runoff from farms and development, though only half of what the governor and lawmakers originally planned to spend. A bill passed requiring energy-efficient and environmentally friendly state buildings and public schools.

FORECLOSURE

O'Malley made efforts to address a rising foreclosure crisis a priority this year, and he convened a task force with industry representatives and consumer advocates over the summer. The package of bills stretches out the legal time frame before a home can be repossessed or sold, forces banks to establish a borrower's ability to pay before making a loan, imposes tougher sanctions for mortgage fraud and bans the conveyance of property in so-called foreclosure rescue schemes.

GAY MARRIAGE

Gay-rights activists arrived in Annapolis this year hopeful that the legislature would legalize gay marriage or create civil unions for same-sex couples. But those bills stalled in a Senate committee, largely because of opposition from Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's Democrat who is an evangelical Christian bishop. Instead, the legislature approved two bills allowing hospital visitation and exempting property transfer taxes for domestic partners.

HEALTH CARE

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation authorizing a subsidy to help seniors bridge the "doughnut hole," an often-criticized cost-saving measure built into the Medicare prescription drug benefit passed by Congress in 2003. CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the region's largest insurer, pledged to fund the $7 million annual program that will help an estimated 7,500 lower-income residents.

LEAD TOYS

A ban on children's products that contain toxic lead won House and Senate approval, after Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, Baltimore City Democrat, led an effort to remove amendments sought by the toy industry that would have delayed the ban for a year, among other things.

TECH TAX

The General Assembly repealed a new sales tax on computer services before it went into effect and replaced the unpopular $200 million levy with a combination of cuts and a three-year individual income tax surcharge on earnings of more than $1 million. Passed in the final hours of last year's special session, the so-called "tech tax" was opposed by a broad consortium of business groups that warned the measure would destroy Maryland's high-tech economy and cause a migration of well-paying employers out of state.

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY

Lawmakers decided to withhold more than $3.1 million in planning money for Morgan State University's new $80 million business school until the university overhauls its procurement processes, which are under criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office. The action came in response to a legislative audit that found financial mismanagement in the school's construction contracts.

SPEED CAMERAS

O'Malley's administration proposed legislation that would allow state and local law enforcement agencies to use speed cameras on streets with speed limits up to 45 mph, in school zones and near highway construction zones. Lawmakers tried to resolve differences last night over how fast motorists must be driving before being issued a ticket, but the bill came to the floor too late for a vote last night.

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