Assembly enters final week with tough issues pending

As the General Assembly enters the final week of its 90-day session, lawmakers have fewer issues coming down to the wire than in a typical year — but some that remain are very thorny indeed.

A proposal to raise the minimum wage, Gov. Martin O'Malley's top priority in his last year as governor, is stalled by a key senator's demand that the state also increase the pay of workers who care for the developmentally disabled.


The House and Senate are wrangling over how much money to devote to a tax break intended to keep the production of the hit TV series "House of Cards" in Maryland. The two chambers must also resolve differences over how to fix a moribund medical marijuana program and build more accuracy into ticketing by speed cameras.

The most difficult issue of all appears to be restructuring Maryland's system for deciding which people who are arrested will be freed before trial and which will remain in jail. In that case the stakes are huge because the General Assembly faces a court-imposed deadline to comply with a decision that defendants have a right to a lawyer at all bail hearings or face potentially budget-busting consequences.


"Most of the weighty issues have been dealt with," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Friday.

Matters that have been addressed so far this session include bills slashing the number of families whose inheritances are subject to the estate tax and offering new protection for the rights of transgender people; both have been passed and sent to the governor. On other issues, the House and Senate have reached agreement and must only complete the final step of passing the other chamber's bill. Those include an O'Malley package of domestic violence legislation and a measure that would ensure pit bull terriers are treated the same under the law as other dogs — while also making it easier for dog-bite victims to sue.

Some high-profile bills are dead or on life support. Proposals to ban, delay or limit the natural gas extraction process known as fracking were killed in committee. Most bills to repeal or cut back stormwater pollution-control fees — which Republicans call a "rain tax" — are dead. A bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana passed the Senate and is technically alive in a House committee. But that bill, like a legalization measure, is unlikely to reach the House floor.

The three bills Miller said he sees as items that must pass before the session ends next Monday are the budget, the governor's proposal to raise the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage to $10.10 and a plan for revamping the pretrial release system.

The two chambers appear to be relatively close on the terms of the state's $39 billion budget. Still, there are relatively small unresolved budget issues that could lead to brinkmanship if legislators dig in their heels in conference committee negotiations.

One is the film tax credit, for which the House is proposing $11 million and the Senate $18.5 million. Lawmakers of both parties in the House and Senate say they want to keep such shows as "House of Cards" and "Veep" in the state, but the House also wants to send a message that it doesn't want to be pushed around by production executives.

To drive that home, the House hung an amendment on the budget that would require the state to use its eminent domain powers to acquire the assets of a production company that has received the tax credit but abandons the state. The makers of "House of Cards" filmed much of the show's first two seasons at sites in Harford County and Baltimore, including renting space in the Baltimore Sun building.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the Senate would not go along with the threat, saying the legislation is a bigger issue than just a dispute with the makers of "House of Cards."


"'They don't like you, they're going to take your property,'" he said. "This sends a terrible message to the business community."

Miller agreed, saying he hoped cooler heads would prevail.

Like Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch identified minimum wage and bail reform as the key outstanding issues.

Busch said he expected agreement to be reached on raising the minimum wage, but wasn't sure whether it would be tied to an increase for those who work with people who developmentally disabled, as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton is insisting.

Middleton says he's concerned it will be more difficult to attract such workers if the minimum wage comes close to their salary levels, and says he's working with the administration and the House to find a way to keep their state-funded wages at 135 percent of the minimum wage.

Busch suggested the biggest challenge would be to reach an accord on bail reform, where he acknowledged there are still deep divisions.


"That is a major issue that I thought some consensus would be built on," he said. "It's going to put the governor in an awkward position, plus both houses, if we don't resolve it."

The House Judiciary Committee has yet to agree on an approach – though it is apparently heading in a direction far different from the bill on which the Senate is expected to vote on early this week.

The Senate bill would scrap the current system under which a court commissioner conducts an initial bail review, and a defendant sees a judge only if not released at that initial appearance. The Court of Appeals has ruled defendants have a right to legal representation at the initial court commissioner hearing as well as the hearing before a judge — an order that would cost the state as much as $55 million to comply with.

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The Senate approach would cut that cost by about half next year, in part by eliminating the court commissioner step. It also would adopt a computerized assessment system that would allow the automatic release of defendants found to be at low risk for fleeing or committing new offenses before their court dates.

The General Assembly is under pressure to take action because the appeals court has said it will decide June 5 whether to require immediate compliance with its ruling or give the state more time to set up an alternative system. After a contentious debate on the bill Friday, Miller warned that if the legislature doesn't make a good-faith effort to comply, local governments might have to foot the bill for private attorneys to represent defendants at hearings until lawmakers find a solution.

If the legislation doesn't pass, Washington County Republican Sen. Christopher Shank warned, "we might even be back here in session in June."


Another issue stirring friction is an effort by Southern Maryland lawmakers to prevent large wind turbines from being built within 56 miles of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County, a major regional job magnet and economic asset. There is concern that the turbines could interfere with sensitive radar at the naval base.

House members overwhelmingly passed a bill that Eastern Shore lawmakers say would kill a $200 million wind project in Somerset County. O'Malley and environmental groups oppose the legislation, arguing the Navy has all the regulatory tools it needs to protect its interests, and that the bill would undermine the state's effort to increase renewable energy generation in Maryland.