General Assembly session ends

Maryland lawmakers last night toughened penalties for sex offenders, racing the clock on the last day of a legislative session that otherwise was marked by the political caution of an election year.

Tightening the laws for such offenders took on particular urgency after the December killing of an 11-year-old girl on the Eastern Shore and the subsequent arrest of a previously convicted sex offender. The girl's family made a last-minute plea yesterday in Annapolis as lawmakers put the final touches on the legislation.

Other bills passed this session will impact Marylanders on the road, with a new ban on handheld cell phones while driving, and in the pocketbook, with new guidelines that will increase child support payments in some cases and with utility bills that will go up as energy companies are required to increase their solar portfolios.

The flurry of legislative activity — the horse-trading and the compromising — continued up until the final moments. At the stroke of midnight, seconds after the Senate pushed through a substantive bill that could allow local governments to spend less on schools, confetti dropped from the second-floor gallery and the frenzied atmosphere lifted.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat seeking a second term of office this fall, checked off much of his legislative agenda this year, including tax credits for businesses that hire out-of-work Marylanders and a revision of unemployment benefits rules that qualifies the state for $127 million in federal stimulus funds. O'Malley has signed both of those measures into law.

"I feel very good about this session," O'Malley said Monday night. "This might have been an occasion for gridlock."

But Republicans disagreed, with House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell saying that the main result of the session will be guaranteed tax increases next year.

O'Malley refused Monday to make a pledge forgoing tax increases if he's re-elected, saying that such a promise would be "irresponsible" in a "time of war."

The $13 billion state spending plan, given final blessing over the weekend, was snipped, but not significantly altered by the General Assembly, though some in the Senate had hoped for much deeper cuts. In the end, the plan leaves a projected $1.5 billion shortfall for next year.

Lawmakers saved some of the most critical measures of the session for its final moments: The General Assembly came to Annapolis in January promising to take up the sex offender issue just weeks after Sarah Foxwell was killed on the Eastern Shore.

Thanks to a last-minute compromise, revisions to the state sex offender registry and a proposal to lengthen sentences for child molesters joined a package of overhauls. For some crimes, the minimum prison sentence will go from five to 15 years. Earlier, lawmakers had taken away good-behavior prison credits and instituted lifetime supervision for violent and repeat sex offenders.

Legislators also agreed on an 11th-hour comprimise to sweeten the deal for any bidders interested in building a casino at Rocky Gap, lowering the tax rate there and permitting it to be operated by the owner of a different Maryland casino.

School reform also received a last-minute approval, a must as the state positions itself to tap into as much as $250 million in federal money. They passed a package pushed by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, and backed by O'Malley, which included extending the time it takes public school teachers to reach tenure, from two to three years, and incorporating student achievement into teacher evaluations.

In the change that will be felt by perhaps the greatest number of Marylanders, both chambers agreed to a ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving. Talkative motorists will need to buy headsets in order to use their phones while navigating traffic. Violations will be punishable with a $40 fine.

But on the final day, a plan to require an ignition interlock device on the vehicles of those convicted of drunken driving was declared dead for 2010 by House Judiciary Committee Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat. The Senate had unanimously approved the measure, but it never saw a vote in Vallario's committee.

Another law with the potential for broad impact was the adoption of new child support guidelines, the first revision in decades. State Department of Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald called it "a huge win."

"We broke a 20-year logjam," she said. Most noncustodial parents will pay more under the new guidelines, which will take effect Oct. 1 if O'Malley signs the bill into law. Lawmakers agreed they won't apply to cases where the amount has already been set by the court.

As expected in an election year, lawmakers were reluctant to take on controversial issues. But the formal announcement last week that Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will seek to win back the governor's office from O'Malley recast the final days of the session as a preview of election season.

Just a handful of the 188 members have announced they won't be coming back. Baltimore County Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican, will depart to try again for a U.S. congressional seat. House budget guru Murray D. Levy, a Charles County Democrat, is retiring. Some delegates, including House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank of Washington County, will run for Senate.

Still, O'Malley said the year was less partisan than he anticipated. "You'd be hard-pressed to find an issue where the vote was a straight party line," he said.

Lawmakers, at times, seemed to live by the mantra "wait until next year," thanks to the looming November election and the hope that a years-long recession will at last begin to lift.

Senators pushed for the state to begin shifting a portion of the cost of teacher pensions — which account for nearly $1 billion each year — to local governments, which hire and set salaries and benefits for teachers. Delegates resisted that plan, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch said it must be addressed in 2011.

In greater numbers than ever, they supported an end to the state's ban on direct shipments of wine to consumers, but the leaders of the two committees that heard the bill tabled it, promising they'd seriously consider it next year.

Advocates for a dime-a-drink increase to the state's alcohol tax, which has held fast for decades, pushed hard this year only to be told to wait. But that's a plan that Miller said he hopes "never comes up" again. He said it "affects everything and everybody" and that the state should not consider raising it for years, even after the recession lifts.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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