The session

2003 Legislative Session Closes

April 08, 2003

Here are highlights of the 2003 Maryland General Assembly session, which ended shortly before midnight yesterday. Bills approved by the legislature need the governor's signature to become law.

Baltimore: City leaders were caught in a stalemate with the Senate president over municipal elections, leaving the next primary in September. The state's historic tax credit program, a key tool for Baltimore redevelopment, will be capped at $23 million and $15 million for the next two years.

Crime: Lawmakers killed all gun control measures as well as a top initiative of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - a mandatory sentencing program for gun-related crimes, called Project Exile. The governor secured a deal with the U.S. attorney for federal prosecutors to more actively pursue gun cases. Ehrlich's pro-death penalty stance played a key role in defeating an extension of a moratorium on executions.

Education: Colleges and universities were big budget losers. The governor and General Assembly delivered a $67 million cut to the University System of Maryland, and aid to private colleges was cut 8 percent. At least for this year, the legislature kept its commitment to increase aid for public schools under the Thornton legislation approved last year. Charter school legislation passed, but the bill is weaker than Ehrlich wanted.

Environment: Senate Democrats won a fierce struggle to defeat the governor's choice for environmental secretary. The Department of Natural Resources and a legislative oversight committee agreed to relax former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's crabbing restrictions, letting watermen harvest smaller crabs part of the year. Legislators agreed to increase fines for water pollution.

Gambling: The centerpiece of Ehrlich's agenda went into the session with an aura of inevitability but ran into determined opposition from House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Despite the administration's multiple missteps, the bill passed the Senate, 25-21. But Busch, who said lawmakers need a year of study, flexed his political muscle and mustered a 16-5 vote to kill the bill in committee.

Health: After the state insurance commissioner rejected a plan for CareFirst BlueCross Blue-Shield to convert to a for-profit company and be sold to a California company, the Assembly swept in to restructure the board and increase oversight. A more independent board was created to oversee how doctors are licensed and regulated. Lawmakers passed a bill to lessen the penalty for marijuana usage by seriously ill people if they can prove it was for medical necessity.

Motorists: A bill to prohibit people from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving failed again. The Assembly approved a measure to allow local jurisdictions to install cameras to monitor speeders in residential and school zones and then issue tickets and fines.

Taxes: The Assembly passed a budget that includes a 5-cent rate increase in the state portion of property tax bills, as well as an increase in annual corporate filing fees. Ehrlich has vowed to veto a bill containing a 2-percent tax on HMO policies, a corporate income tax surcharge and so-called corporate loophole closings, which would create a $135 million hole in the 2004 budget and most likely force more program cuts.

Etc.: Competing sides on the abortion debate struggled to a draw this year: An effort to toughen the state's parental notification law was defeated, but so was a proposal that would have allowed pharmacists to dispense so-called morning-after pills. Walkers can rejoice: after being looked down upon by joggers, the Assembly designated their activity as the official state exercise.

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