The 2010 edition of the Maryland General Assembly's lawmaking session will close Monday night with a traditional midnight confetti drop, but for many, the end came a while ago.
After Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s official announcement last week that he was challenging Democratic incumbent Martin O'Malley in a rematch for governor, the shift from legislating to campaigning was abrupt.
Ehrlich began a tour of the state, promising to lower taxes. O'Malley immediately departed from the capital, forgoing direct involvement in some final bill negotiations for a "Jobs Across Maryland" push he intends to maintain for some time. Visiting a Baltimore biotech company on Friday, the governor touted a tax-credits-for-jobs initiative that passed the Assembly weeks ago.
Conventional wisdom held true to form this year, with the governor and lawmakers avoiding the most contentious issues in an election year. Still, some important topics remain on the to-do list, awaiting a resolution that would come in the frantic hours of the 90th session:
- A plan to allow some not-for-profit groups to occasionally conduct gambling is now intertwined with a proposal to allow poker games at the Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County. If they aren't decoupled, both ideas could go down to defeat.
- The authorization of ignition interlock devices to prohibit convicted drunken drivers from starting their vehicles if they've been drinking could be sprung from a House committee.
- An overhaul of a sex-offender registry, and longer mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders would both become law if negotiators from the House and Senate can reach an agreement as time expires.
- A proposal to increase the length of teacher probation periods, an idea that weakens job protections for educators but makes it easier to get rid of bad teachers, must be approved to boost the state's eligibility for the competitive pot of federal money known as Race to the Top.
- Cyclists plan to descend on Annapolis today, inspired by the death last week of an avid bike rider in Baltimore County, to push for a plan mandating a 3-foot buffer zone between motor vehicles and bikes.
The Assembly has completed the one task required of it: adopting a balanced budget. Maryland's $13 billion operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is a bit smaller than the current year, but still contains more spending than many lawmakers -- who were hoping for deeper cuts -- had wanted.
Despite posturing and attempts at restraint, lawmakers preserved many of their financial prerogatives that were rumored to be on the chopping block.
The House of Delegates suggested taking an $11.5 million fund for scholarships that legislators dole out on their own, and giving it to the higher education system. Senators wanted to eliminate a $15 million pool of money for pet projects that they borrow each year through bond issues. Both programs are frequent subjects of criticism. But ultimately, both the scholarship fund and the bond-bill projects stayed in the budget.
Lawmakers also seemed to be moving toward a plan to shift some of the costs of teachers' pensions -- now borne entirely by the state -- to local governments. The Senate included the shift in its version of the budget. In the end, however, the issue will be studied.
A different cast of players will tackle those challenges next year. All 188 members of the Assembly are up for election this year, and while voters might replace some, others have said they are going on their own. Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a highly regarded former Republican leader from the Eastern Shore, is retiring, and Sen. Andy Harris, a Republican from Baltimore County, is running for Congress again in the district he lost to Democrat Frank Kratovil two years ago. Del. Bill Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, is taking a job with the Obama transportation department, and Del. Murray Levy, a Charles County Democrat praised for his budget knowledge, is also retiring.
Confetti will fall on their heads -- and many others' -- for the last time.