And in other news

April 12, 2006

A funny thing happened in Annapolis this year. Despite the Maryland General Assembly's 11th-hour failure to address the Baltimore Gas and Electric rate increase, the numerous vetoes and the veto overrides, and the general sense of partisan rancor, it was probably the most productive 90-day session of the four-year term. That may amount to damning with faint praise, but the outcome was, overall, a pleasant surprise and made possible by a fortuitous nexus of events - higher tax revenues, a pending election and, perhaps most important, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s willingness to move toward the center politically.

Democrats may complain of having their initiatives co-opted, but Mr. Ehrlich's recent decision to support the Healthy Air Act, the law imposing new restrictions on power plant emissions (which he had claimed would lead to rolling blackouts just weeks earlier), and his willingness to finance embryonic stem cell research (a measure he all but ignored last year) demonstrated the power of strategic compromise and moderation. And a state budget that is a veritable cornucopia of education spending - with sizable increases for K-12 schools, community colleges and state universities - is also certain to play well with voters.

There were numerous missteps, of course, beyond the legislature's inability to keep BGE's rates from rising 72 percent this summer. But lawmakers handed out enough goodies - from a generous increase in teacher pensions to a $12 million tax break for retired veterans - to beef up their rM-isumM-is for the fall elections. The highlights - and lowlights - of the session include:

Budget and spending. The $29.4 billion budget approved by the General Assembly was an impressive $7 billion bigger than Mr. Ehrlich's first budget in 2003. But there was a dark cloud around this silver lining: While Annapolis may be flush today, there's still no plan to deal with the state's long-term structural deficit after next year.

Education. Surely the biggest winners of the session are schools of one kind or another, from a record $336.6 million dedicated to school construction to the increase in state-financed teacher pensions. College students also fared well - the governor and legislature supported a one-year cap on tuition.

Health care. Most notable was the $15 million stem cell research program. But legislators failed to close the loophole in the statewide ban on smoking in the workplace that exempts certain restaurants and bars.

Election law. Watching Democrats trump Republicans on voting matters wasn't pretty, but the results appear reasonable: Lawmakers scuttled last-minute efforts to replace Maryland's voting machines and forestall early voting. It's now up to the state and local election officials to make sure that neither decision will cause a less-accurate count or an increase in voter fraud.

Personnel. Legislators failed to approve any reforms to the state personnel system, reinforcing the Republican view that Democrats aren't serious about curbing abuses.

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