State budget, `living wage' await last-minute resolution

Hate-crime law, tax shelter are also among the items on session's agenda today

General Assembly

April 12, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

With the legislative session in its final day today, dozens of bills remain and some risk dying if differences aren't resolved by the Senate and House of Delegates before the balloons and confetti fall at midnight to mark the session's end.

Awaiting final passage is the General Assembly's No. 1 priority and lone constitutional obligation -- passing the state budget. House and Senate leaders worked through their disagreements Saturday, but they must vote on the package before sending it on to the governor.

"We're going to balance the budget, adopt some new revenue streams that the governor could veto," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "I think, all in all, the governor will say that ... he's not satisfied with the session because he wanted the slots bill passed."

The full Senate is expected to consider legislation today that would expand the state's hate-crime law to include offenses motivated by the victim's sexual orientation. A juvenile justice reform bill in the Senate will likely fail because Senate leaders say they ran out of time to give it serious examination.

In the House, a bill to establish a $10.50 "living wage" for those hired to work on state contracts is up for final passage. The bill is strongly opposed by the Ehrlich administration.

The living-wage bill "is going to be very controversial," said House Majority Leader Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Agreement sought

Both chambers have passed versions of several other significant measures but must meet in conference committees to come to an agreement. Those measures include:

Legislation that would shut down the so-called Delaware holding company tax shelter that has allowed dozens and possibly hundreds of corporations to avoid Maryland taxes.

A proposal to alter but maintain the state's historic preservation tax credit, which has sparked Baltimore's revitalization efforts.

A bill that would require the state's new electronic voting machines to produce paper records of cast ballots.

Slots referendum?

The House is considering legislation to make the slot-machine issue a referendum question on the November ballot, which would likely trigger heated debate on the last day of the session.

But even if a slots bill does not make it through this year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did see some of his initiatives move through the legislature. He is awaiting final approval on some bills, including a proposal for a sewer bill surcharge, known as the "flush tax," which goes to the full House today for consideration, and his scaled-back proposal for drug treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent offenders called RESTART.

"No one will be resting on their laurels," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman. "You'll see some very strong efforts from the governor and the lieutenant governor personally to navigate administration's agenda through" today.

Final crush

The legislature usually faces a crush of bills in the final moments of the session as last-minute deals are cut on a range of legislative initiatives.

This year's bottleneck is largely the result of a weeklong stalemate over slot machine gambling, sales and incomes taxes and the budget. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller refused to organize a conference committee to discuss differences in the budget with the House until Speaker Michael E. Busch allowed a vote on a slots proposal.

After days of closed-door meetings and threats of extending the legislative session, Ehrlich and the two legislative leaders could not reach agreement, and Miller broke the impasse by moving forward on the budget without slots and sales and income tax proposals.

"The stalemate hasn't been broken; it's just been ignored," Barve said. "It's starting to look like it's all going to end on time."

State leaders had produced a balanced budget for fiscal year 2005, which begins July 1, but they were working on plans to generate additional revenues to resolve the so-called "structural deficit" -- money that will be needed in the future to avoid going into the red.

Before the budget bill goes to the governor for his signature, the House and Senate will have to resolve some differences between the two chambers on how exactly to balance the budget. Lawmakers will also decide what state revenues will be used to balance the budget.

"I don't think anyone is going to claim satisfaction until midnight," Fawell said. "Hopefully, at that point we can point to a number of accomplishments, from transportation to the environment to health and minority business enterprise."

Some of those possible accomplishments embrace traditionally Democratic issues that the Republican Ehrlich has claimed, including the flush tax and RESTART.

"That's what politics is all about: holding onto your base while moving into your opponents'," Miller said.

Some times, in the course of the political games, the needs of the people also are met, Miller said. "It's nice when they can coincide."

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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