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Annapolis: The good and bad

Here's our take on 10 good things that happened during the 90-day General Assembly session, which concluded on Monday, and 10 bad things.

Good:

•Sex offender laws. Thanks in no small part to the appeal Monday by Jennifer Foxwell, the mother of kidnap and murder victim Sarah Foxwell, the General Assembly passed a package of sex offender reforms that will increase penalties and make Maryland's sex offender registry more effective. We'll never know if these laws could have saved Sarah, but they should help make Maryland's children safer.

•Distracted driving. After more than a decade of attempts, the legislature finally outlawed the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Many of us use our cell phones while we drive even though we know it's dangerous; the new law will prompt many to quit. However, the legislature bungled an attempt to expand the ban on texting while driving to include reading texts while driving, which seemed like a no-brainer.

•The short-term budget. State revenues appear to have stabilized, and Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature enacted enough cuts to keep the budget balanced this year without raising taxes. The state's AAA bond rating is secure, and it appears possible that we won't have to endure the kinds of wrenching midyear budget cuts that we did last year.

•Updated child support guidelines. Maryland's guidelines for how much it costs to raise a child, the basis for judges' decisions on how much child support to require, hadn't been updated in 22 years, and they were based on data that were even older. That meant that custodial parents were effectively picking up a larger share of the costs to raise the children than was fair.

•Gangs. New laws will encourage schools and the police to share information about kids who become active in gangs and will give teeth to an ineffective 2007 law that was meant to target gang leaders and increase sentences for gang members convicted of some crimes.

•Foreclosure mediation. Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort this year to stem the foreclosure crisis in Maryland goes beyond just requiring mediation between borrowers and lenders before the process can be completed. Perhaps the most important element of the bill requires lenders to file an affidavit before foreclosure certifying that alternatives, such as loan modification and short sales, have been tried first. The experience of other states suggests the program won't end the foreclosure crisis, but it will help.

Medicaid fraud. The General Assembly finally passed Governor O'Malley's bill to encourage whistle-blowers with knowledge of Medicaid fraud to come forward. Analysts expect the state could recoup $20 million a year as a result. The effort is particularly important with the planned expansion of Medicaid from the federal health care reform law.

•Unemployment insurance. The O'Malley administration, legislators and business groups worked out a compromise plan to modernize Maryland's unemployment insurance system, making the state eligible for more than $120 million in federal aid.

•Recognizing gay marriages. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler issued an opinion this year that Maryland should recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal. The legislature turned down an effort to overrule him and one to impeach him.

•Tuition. College and university tuition will go up in Maryland for the first time in four years, but only by 3 percent. Given the budget crunch the state faces, that's a significant accomplishment and has made higher education more affordable for thousands.

Bad

•Education reform. Governor O'Malley didn't go nearly far enough in pushing education reforms, such as a strengthening of Maryland's charter school law. The reform that did pass, a lengthening of the time it takes teachers to earn tenure and a linking of student test scores with teacher evaluations, is helpful, but compromises in the legislature weakened its effect.

•Drunken driving. Despite the terrible death of a Johns Hopkins University sophomore in a hit-and-run accident in which a serial drunken driver has been charged, the legislature failed at the last minute to move forward with a requirement that those convicted of driving under the influence be forced to install an igntion interlock device on their cars.

•The long-term budget. The spending plan the legislature approved for the coming fiscal year isn't the problem. It's the next few years that are the issue, thanks to ballooning pension, health care and education costs. Credit goes to the Republicans for highlighting the problem and providing suggestions for how to address it, but the legislature did too little about it.

•Direct wine shipment. Once again, the legislature refused to end Maryland's ban on direct wine shipments to residents' homes out of deference to the political clout of the state's liquor industry, which complained that it would upset the Prohibition-era regulatory structure of alcohol sales in the state. That hurts both consumers and Maryland wineries, who find themselves unable to ship wine to customers from other states that demand reciprocity for direct-to-consumer sales.

•The alcohol tax. Speaking of the political clout of the liquor industry, despite a well publicized push by advocates who argue — passionately and convincingly — that state services for the developmentally disabled are woefully underfunded, the legislature failed to even seriously consider raising the taxes on beer and wine, which haven't changed since the 1970s, or liquor, which has stayed the same since the 1950s.

•Auto insurance. At the behest of the trial lawyers lobby, the legislature increased the mandatory minimum auto insurance requirements, which will increase rates for thousands of low-income drivers and will likely lead many of them to drop their coverage altogether. This, in spite of the fact that average claims are still well below Maryland's current minimums.

•Medical marijuana. The Senate approved a measure that would allow people suffering from certain illnesses to get prescriptions for marijuana to relieve their symptoms, but it went nowhere in the House of Delegates.

•Debt settlement services. The legislature punted on Attorney General Gansler's effort to regulate the debt settlement industry, a for-profit business that too often leaves consumers deeper in debt and with worse credit than when they started. The issue was sentenced to the dreaded summer study and will likely come up again next year.

•Academic freedom. The House and Senate both threatened to withhold money from the University of Maryland School of Law in reaction to a suit filed by students as part of that school's highly regarded law clinic program because it targeted Perdue for the waste produced on the farms that raise its chickens. After an outcry, the legislature backed down, but lawmakers' actions and rhetoric are sure to have a chilling effect.

•Retirement. Easy as it is to be cynical about our elected representatives, we're losing a couple of good ones to retirement. Del. Murray Levy, a Democrat from Charles County, earned a reputation as a pragmatic budget hawk, and Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican from the lower Eastern Shore, was a conservative who stood on principle, not partisanship. Senator Stoltzfus also has a terrific singing voice; Delegate Levy, not so much. Both will be missed.

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