Assembly ends with fiscal crisis unresolved

Veto of tax increases expected

capital budget passes in last 30 minutes

2003 Legislative Session Closes

April 08, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The 417th session of the Maryland General Assembly - the first for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - shut down at midnight last night to the great relief of almost everyone who spent time in the divided capital during the past three months.

Lawmakers streamed from the State House grousing about an unresolved fiscal crisis that will smack them in the face in nine months - or sooner if they're recalled to grapple with the budget again. Ehrlich was left pondering how to get his priorities past a legislature controlled by Democrats. Almost all fizzled this year.

"I worked harder this session than I've ever worked in my entire life, but I've had probably a dozen where I got more done," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, upset that the Assembly did not approve a combination of slot machines and new taxes to ease the state's financial problems. "You look down and you see timid and cowardly people, and you feel like punching them instead of going up and shaking their hand."

The Assembly's final hours were packed with drama, as a stalemate over a $742 million capital budget drew Ehrlich, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch into the Senate president's office for closed-door negotiating over money for local projects favored by lawmakers.

As tensions rose, House lawmakers began circulating a petition calling for a special Assembly session on Wednesday to complete their work, saying that the Senate had reneged on a commitment for the projects. "We have been very flexible. They have dug their heels in," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Nervous lawmakers began speculating that somehow the stand-off was reviving the slot-machine issue - which they said could also be considered during a special session. But eventually, the State House leaders said they reached an agreement: The local projects would not be done this year, but would be given priority next year. The capital budget passed with less than a half-hour to go in the session.

"We finally won one," said Sen. Edward Kasemeyer of Howard County, the Senate's capital budget leader.

In another stalemate, Baltimore lawmakers refused to change the date of city primary elections to coincide with presidential elections, delivering a blow to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - who wanted to decrease the gap between the scheduled September primary election and the general election 14 months later.

Late last night, the Assembly approved a bill to reinforce the not-for-profit status of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and replace 10 of 12 Maryland board members by the end of the year. The changes were contemplated in the wake of the company's unsuccessful effort to sell itself to a private insurer.

Other last-minute measures approved by lawmakers included easier regulations to establish charter schools in Maryland to make the state eligible for federal funds, and a law authorizing automated speed-radar cameras in residential neighborhoods and school zones.

In its first experience with divided government since Gov. Spiro T. Agnew's final year in office in 1968, the legislature's Democratic majority trampled Ehrlich's agenda.

The governor's top initiative - expanding gambling to slot machines at racetracks - was handily defeated last week by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, and was not revived by the end of the session. The governor's gun-crime proposal, modeled after Project Exile in Richmond, Va., died in a legislative committee. His push for money for faith-based initiatives went nowhere.

Despite those setbacks, Ehrlich ticked off a list of successes yesterday, including new, more relaxed crabbing regulations; a renewed push for the Intercounty Connector Highway; additional money for Medicaid, charter schools and juvenile justice reform. "These are all things we promised during the campaign," Ehrlich said.

But Ehrlich said his biggest accomplishment this session was "killing a tax increase." He said the slots bill could have passed, but only if he would have "compromised a fundamental principle."

"We could have had slots, but the price in my view was too high - a major sales or income tax hike," Ehrlich said in an interview. "You all would have written `Ehrlich got his slots bill,' but I would not have slept in nine months."

Many wonder if stark partisan differences will define the remainder of Ehrlich's term, and top Democrats are openly questioning the effectiveness of the new Republican administration.

"They set the bar at ankle height and tripped over it repeatedly," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County.

Before leaving Annapolis yesterday, legislators added a $5 fee to vehicle registrations to pay for the state's underfunded emergency trauma centers.

The House last night also gave in on its position on how doctors are regulated and licensed because time was running out.

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