O'Malley starts signing the bills

Less than 12 hours after the confetti dropped on Maryland's 2011 legislative session, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation Tuesday morning to limit access to credit reports, allow police to use wiretaps to investigate human trafficking and to prepare the state for the federal health care overhaul.

In the first signing ceremony of the year, O'Malley endorsed about a quarter of the 707 bills passed by the General Assembly during the 90-day session that ended Monday.


Not on his desk Tuesday was legislation to extend in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants or to raise the sales tax on beer, wine and liquor from 6 percent to 9 percent. O'Malley, A Democrat, has said he will sign both controversial measures, which passed in the final hours of the session.

Also off the agenda were two initiatives O'Malley had hoped lawmakers would pass this year: development of an offshore wind farm and a ban on septic systems at most large new developments. Lawmakers balked at the cost of each.


O'Malley said the Assembly had made "tough decisions" during the session. He said "the biggest story" was the passage of an operating budget that closed a $1.5 billion shortfall and an overhaul in the pension system for state employees. They passed the Democratic General Assembly without the acrimony seen over similar efforts in other states.

Legislation signed by O'Malley Tuesday will make Maryland one of the first states to establish an online clearinghouse for health insurance plans, a requirement of the federal health care overhaul.

"There are a lot of states looking at the forward-leaning leadership" of Maryland, O'Malley said. "If we can do this right, it will be a competitive advantage for us."

Another round of bill signings is scheduled for April 25.

Most lawmakers flee Annapolis the day after sine die, the conclusion of the session. But the traditional day-after bill-signing ceremony gives the state's top elected officials a moment to reflect.

The Democratic leaders congratulated each other for maintaining good relations through budget negotiations and the pension overhaul.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch spoke of hard feelings this year in Wisconsin



where Democratic lawmakers fled the state in order to deny the Republican majority a quorum to vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to take collective bargaining rights away from state workers.

"This has been the most collegial session between the two houses and the governor," Busch said. "We knew it was going to be a tough session when it started."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has presided over the chamber since 1987, called the session "as good as any" he'd overseen.

"No signature item was left outstanding," Miller said. "Everything ready for prime time got done."

Advocates for several causes would disagree. A bill to legalize same-sex marriage failed in the House after an emotional debate that brought so many members to tears that one delegate said the chamber had created an unofficial "crying caucus."

And O'Malley looked uncomfortable as Miller explained why two of the governor's top agenda items — the wind farm and the septic ban — didn't fall into the "prime-time" category.


On the septic ban, Miller said, rural counties don't have readily available sewer lines, and developers would need time to find alternatives. He predicted wind would one day be a viable energy source for Marylanders, but too many questions remain unanswered.

O'Malley signed several law enforcement measures. One allows a court to prohibit a person convicted of cruelty, abuse or neglect of an animal from owning or residing with an animal for a period of time. Another allows law enforcement officers to use electronic surveillance to investigate human trafficking.

O'Malley signed legislation to limit employers' access to the credit report of workers and job applicants.

Sen. Catherine Pugh pushed for the change after hearing from Marylanders who said they were denied jobs because they had poor credit.

"I think it's a real victory for those who are out there looking for employment, especially in these uncertain economic times," said Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat. "It also sends a message to employers that you shouldn't be using a credit report to determine someone's character. There are other ways of doing that."

With Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker and other local officials looking on, O'Malley signed an ethics package specific to that county.


Miller and other Democrats from Prince George's promoted the legislation after a series of corruption investigations last summer.

Among the changes: Most officials will not get county credit cards. The county must develop an active ethics board. Candidates and political slates with elected officials may not accept campaign contributions from developers who have land-use applications pending before the county.

Another bill directs the Department of Natural Resources to develop a "junior deer hunt" for people 16 and younger on specified Sundays in specified counties.

In the offbeat category, the governor signed a repeal of Carroll County's ban on fortunetelling. Come Oct. 1, those residents will be able to ask what the future holds.