Decision time

April 08, 2005

BEFORE THE START of the General Assembly session, aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. warned that this would not be a year of monumental legislation. Well, mission accomplished. So far there's not much to brag about. And with just days left before the 90-day session concludes Monday night, legislators will have to scramble to get some important measures passed - or else have 2005 remembered as a year of monumental inaction.

One of the session's most prominent failures is the state Senate's inability to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research. A majority of the legislature backs the proposed state funding, but there's a threat of a filibuster on the Senate floor. Advocates say they are just one vote short of the 29 needed to cut off debate.

What are the consequences of gridlock? Certainly, it would be a major setback for efforts to promote a biotechnology economy in Maryland. But more important, it represents another lost opportunity to fully explore the promise of potential new therapies for a host of debilitating diseases, from diabetes to Parkinson's.

Lawmakers have not yet approved the state budget, but a reasonable compromise was worked out last night, by keeping the state's property tax rate at the current level and raising school construction spending to $250 million. Negotiators reached as good a deal as could have been expected under the circumstances, and now it's up to the full House and Senate to give their approval.

Some of the other bills of consequence still trapped in the legislative gears include:

The governor's witness-intimidation legislation. The House version significantly limits the use of statements from absent witnesses and awaits Senate approval. (Assuming the House version ultimately prevails, Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. should be on notice: If this new hearsay exception is unworkable, he needs to revisit the issue next year to accommodate prosecutors.)

The package of teen driving restrictions, including tighter limits on teenagers' provisional licenses and greater penalties for drunken or drugged driving. The outlook for passage before Monday is promising, however.

A bill to require the state's elections administrator to study and evaluate independent verification systems that might create a "paper trail" of votes cast in an election.

The closing of loopholes involving limited liability companies and partnerships. One loophole lets LLCs avoid real estate transfer taxes; the other lets owners bypass normal limits on campaign donations. The Senate has so far failed to act on either.

A measure to rein in public land sales. Opposition from House Republicans may hold up the effort to prevent another debacle like Mr. Ehrlich's aborted effort in St. Mary's County. This is a surprise, because the bill has the blessings of Senate Republicans and the governor.

Legislation establishing a legal "Certificate of Life Partnership" so that qualifying couples can make medical decisions for each other.

Inaction can also be a blessing, of course. Odds are good that Marylanders are about to become thrice favored in this regard: Proposals to legalize slot machines will likely die for the third time in three years when time expires Monday.

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