The Maryland General Assembly concluded its 90-day session last night riven by the same partisan feuding in which it began, with a divisive plan to spend state money on embryonic stem-cell research dying under the threat of a Senate filibuster that never came to pass.
The political jockeying between Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and a Democrat-controlled legislature intensified in the third year of the governor's term and looks to continue through the next election.
FOR THE RECORD - A listing of legislative session winners and losers in yesterday's Sun incorrectly stated that Baltimore County Democratic Dels. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., James E. Malone Jr. and Eric M. Bromwell voted in 2004 in favor of a tax-increase package backed by House leadership. In fact, the three delegates voted against the version of the bill that contained the tax, which was rejected by the Senate.
With confetti dropping inside the State House at midnight, Democratic leaders said they had done right by working Marylanders this year, increasing the state's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour and by imposing a tax on large corporations - effectively just Wal-Mart - that do not spend a prescribed percentage of payroll on employee health benefits.
Ehrlich said he would veto both measures and was pondering whether to support a bill that would create a registry letting gays and other unrelated partners make medical decisions on each other's behalf, which won final passage last night.
The specter of a filibuster hung over the Assembly all day, as Republican Senators prepared to lead a session-ending debate over the morality of using human embryos, which otherwise would be discarded, in research to find cures for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.
But the legislation never came up for a debate in the Senate, though Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had said he would allow discussion in the final hours. Supporters did not muster the 29 votes needed to halt debate - called cloture.
A defiant Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would return next year. "We will bring it out early and they can filibuster it all session," she said. "The governor could have helped. Now he is allowing scientists to wave goodbye to our state."
Just a few minutes before midnight, the Assembly passed a bill that allows polling places to open eight days before the primary and general elections, and legislation that contained major revisions to how the governor is allowed to sell state parkland. Earlier in the day, lawmakers gave final approval for a constitutional amendment that would appear on the 2006 ballot asking voters if the Assembly should sign off on the sale of state parks.
Both the amendment and the land bill were sparked by a controversial Ehrlich plan to sell a protected forest in Southern Maryland to a politically connected contracting company owner. The issue would follow the governor to the ballot box if he runs next year as expected - and Ehrlich said he supported the concept.
"We're happy to add more transparency" to the land-sale process, Ehrlich said yesterday.
The amendment was one of many proposals this year that would chip away at the governor's power. Clashes over who should appoint members to the state board of elections and who should claim credit for tax breaks bitterly divided Republicans and Democrats.
Leaders say they don't expect the rifts to close.
"I don't expect anything of major significance happening in the next session," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "This is the first time we've had split government in over 40 years. It's a new experience for most of us."
The Senate was chastised Saturday by a high school page, who Miller said took the chamber's microphone, "telling us we are not supposed to be voting along party lines. ... I've never seen that before," Miller said.
Party manuevering continued to the final minutes. Well after 11 p.m., the House of Delegates overrode Ehrlich's veto of a bill that would change the way members of the state Board of Elections are selected, removing some authority from the governor and protecting the appointed elections administrator. Ehrlich had tried to remove administrator Linda H. Lamone last year by packing the board with Democrats of his choosing.
"Just because we have the power to do something, doesn't mean we should do it," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican.
Grasping for successes after a season in which politics trumped policy, Ehrlich and lawmakers said they performed well in the only task they are required to do: adopt a balanced budget for the state's next fiscal year.
"I think it's actually been a very productive session," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "The challenges were meeting the goal for school construction. We did it in a bipartisan fashion."
The state's capital budget, which received final approval yesterday, contains $250 million for school construction and renovation, about $100 million more than first proposed by Ehrlich.
The state's $26 billion operating budget, which includes no new taxes and contains a record amount for K-12 education, was passed last weekend.
"The bottom line on the budget is it's great for students, state employees, the environment and taxpayers," the governor said.