Rush of votes closes year for Assembly

Legislators vote to replace Pr. George's school board, protect Shore's coastline

`An extremely productive session'

Capital budget includes no funding for small, local construction work

April 09, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The Maryland General Assembly concluded its 194th session with a rush of decision-making yesterday, setting new development limits for sensitive Eastern Shore coastline and disbanding the elected school board in the state's second-largest county.

Lawmakers toiled into the night on a $720 million capital budget that has no money for smaller local construction projects for the first time in years and removes $3.1 million for library planning at Morgan State University despite the vocal protests of students.

In other last-minute decisions, the Assembly authorized an oversight mechanism for the state's troubled juvenile justice system, approved tougher penalties for repeat drunken drivers and extended a popular prescription drug benefit program for senior citizens.

Lawmakers yelped and hugged as the 90-day session ended at midnight, concluding the final legislative workday of their four-year terms. Many return home to seek re-election in districts markedly changed through the once-a-decade redistricting process.

This year, for the first time since the last election, legislators faced a weak economy that handcuffed their ability to approve new programs. Still, they said they've been responsible shepherds of state affairs.

"I think it's been an extremely productive session," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "We're walking out of here with over $500 million in reserves, when so many other states are walking away with deficits."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who outlined a more modest agenda than in past years, said he was pleased with efforts to support his "two passions."

"Notwithstanding a tight budget, we were able to make significant advancements in higher education and the environment," he said. Glendening also counted among his victories new security measures spurred by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Expanding the environmental protection programs that have been a hallmark of the governor, lawmakers voted yesterday to extend the same limits on development that protect the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to five coastal bays in Worcester County.

The bill will create a 1,000-foot buffer around the five bays, and require local officials to develop protection plans that must be approved by the state Critical Areas Commission. Like all measures approved by the Assembly, it heads to the governor for a signature.

"This is landmark legislation," said Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It's about the future, not about the past."

After spending almost the entire session wrangling over the Prince George's County school system, lawmakers settled on plans to replace the elected school board with one jointly appointed by the governor and the county executive. Glendening has said he will sign the bill.

The action represents the most significant shift in authority since Baltimore relinquished some control to the state in 1997. The administrative structure of the Prince George's system will be changed to look more like Baltimore's; the superintendent will be replaced with a chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chief academic officer.

Prince George's legislators said they were hopeful the new board and a $43 million funding increase would help bring stability to the school system. The bill requires the County Council to impose a telephone tax to raise money for public schools and will force Superintendent Iris T. Metts to reapply for her job, likely triggering her departure.

"We're going to change the culture of what's happening on our school board," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the county's House delegation. "It's been so negative that good people don't want to serve, and that's going to change."

Disagreement over how much to spend on construction projects proposed by legislators dominated much of the last day. House leaders demanded that $15 million in bonds for politically popular local projects stay in the budget, but senators refused.

Dozens of students from Morgan State University continued to fight for $3.1 million for the planning of a library at their school, rallying outside the State House for the second time in a week. The students criticized lawmakers for spending millions at other universities but refusing to provide the start-up funds for Morgan's library.

"It is now our turn to get our just desserts," said Aisha Oliver, Morgan's student government president. "I think it's unfortunate that we're not getting the support that we need."

Students remained frustrated when legislators decided to delay the library for a year. Lawmakers promise to give the school the full $53 million for the project next year and said they will give "special consideration" to the bypassed local projects.

The Assembly agreed to new limits on Maryland's historic tax credit program, marking the first effort to curb a tool described as crucial for the redevelopment of Baltimore's older neighborhoods.

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