Pressing matters in days ahead

Lawmakers to consider tax breaks, state pensions, curbs on sex offenders

General Assembly

April 03, 2006|By DAVID NITKIN AND ANDREW A. GREEN | DAVID NITKIN AND ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTERS

The Maryland General Assembly enters its final full week today with major issues unresolved despite an unprecedented rush to pass legislation in time to override expected vetoes by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Lawmakers shoved important tasks to the back burner over the past several weeks as they scrambled to confront rising electric rates and push through a moratorium on a state takeover of 11 failing Baltimore schools.

As a result, work remains on several of the issues that appeared most pressing when the Assembly convened in early January. The Assembly is set to adjourn at midnight next Monday, and lawmakers and Ehrlich have little desire to go into overtime; a prohibition on state officeholders collecting campaign contributions for the fall election ends when the session does.

Over the next several days, lawmakers will resume debate on improving pension benefits for teachers and other state employees, imposing tougher restrictions on sex offenders and granting tax breaks to retired veterans.

They will also finish work on whether the state needs a paper-producing alternative to its electronic touch-screen voting machines for this year's election, and whether the power of local governments to seize private property for economic development should be restricted after a Supreme Court decision last year upheld the practice.

"The final seven or eight days of the session, we're going to be sending up significant pieces of legislation, which we hope the governor would sign," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "We still have major pieces of legislation that still have to be passed."

Divided State House

The pace and partisan bickering of this year's session is like nothing State House veterans say they have seen before, thanks to divided government in an election year.

A Democrat-controlled Assembly started the session by overriding vetoes of 17 bills rejected in 2005 by Ehrlich, a Republican, and then set about to prevent the governor from achieving major victories.

The Democrats have largely been dismissive of bills that he has introduced, preferring to work instead on similar measures sponsored by fellow party members. They have worked to wrest control from the governor on major issues, such as the Baltimore Gas and Electric rate increases.

Electric rates for the utility's 1.2 million customers are set to rise 72 percent July 1 with the expiration of rate caps instituted six years ago as part of the state's deregulation of the industry.

"The one bit of genuineness is they told us they would be uncooperative," Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick said last week. "They told us they would be partisan. They told us they would kill everything from the governor. That may be the only way they kept their word this session."

The governor's slot machine proposal died for the fourth consecutive year, this time killed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who had been the governor's ally on expanded gambling for the three previous years.

At this time of year, lawmakers are typically completing work on the state budget. But the state's $29.4 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was completed days ago, thanks in part to a healthy economy that is producing enough tax revenue to meet almost all priorities while saving money.

Instead, Democrats in the Assembly turned to legislation they predicted the governor would veto and scrambled to pass it by last Friday. That timetable gives lawmakers a chance to override vetoes before adjournment.

Overrides are an important consideration this year because of a wrinkle in state law. The Assembly that meets in 2007 will be elected this fall, and those members won't be able to overturn this year's veto decisions by the governor.. So unless lawmakers want to call a special session - an unlikely prospect in an election year - the Assembly must complete its overrides in the next several days.

Delegates and senators left Annapolis on Friday night exhausted, saying that they are ready for a calming of the intense partisan tensions that gripped the capital last week. But Schurick said he's not betting on it.

"I can't imagine what next week brings," Schurick said Friday. "I am certain this group has the potential for even more shenanigans and chaos."

Undecided issues

Some of the major remaining issues include:

Pensions: The Maryland State Teachers Association has pushed this year to secure improved pensions for Maryland educators, which union officials say are among the worst in the nation. Any improvement in teacher pensions, by law, also improves benefits for other retired state employees.

The teachers proposed a plan that would be applied retroactively and cost nearly $500 million a year. But it came as concern unfolded over unfunded liabilities for state retiree health care - estimated at about $1.4 billion a year - and fiscal projections of billions of dollars in deficits over the next several years.

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