Session leaves some big issues in limbo

General Assembly

April 10, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun Reporter

Maryland lawmakers approved a $30 billion budget, a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and a first-in-the-nation "living wage" for some government contract workers yesterday, but as the General Assembly adjourned last night, legislators left the State House with a sense of unfinished business.

The decision not to address this year the state's most pressing problems - including a projected budget gap of as much as $1.5 billion, a growing number of Marylanders without health insurance and the decline of the Chesapeake Bay - made for a quiet, largely drama-free final day for the General Assembly.

Gov. Martin O'Malley proclaimed the session a success, saying legislators tackled important issues such as education and school construction funding while working to re-establish a tone of cooperation after four years of divided government.

"We are not going to repair the divisions of the last four years in the first 90 days of this session, but I think we've made a lot of progress," said O'Malley, a Democrat.

Many lawmakers echoed O'Malley's idea that the tone in Annapolis has changed, but the assessment that the session was productive was not universal.

"I look at this session as kicking the can further down the road," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Some of these issues could have and should have been addressed this year. Instead, we've addressed some issues we knew were going to be passed - clean cars, which is important, and the [smoking ban] - but we're going to come back next year and face what will be a pressure cooker."

By yesterday, nearly all major issues the General Assembly tackled this year had passed or been effectively killed.

Legislation requiring cleaner automobile emissions, reforming Maryland's antiquated ground rent system and expressing "profound regret" for the state's role in the slave trade were finished days ago. Bills to repeal the death penalty, ban assault weapons and enact public campaign financing had been defeated.

One of the most contentious issues - a proposal to grant in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities to the children of illegal immigrants - never got a vote by a Senate committee. It was passed by the House of Delegates.

"There isn't a whole lot of drama," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Dundalk Democrat who is one of the longest-serving legislators. "This has really been a very laid-back session."

The pressure in Annapolis was almost nonexistent.

The House of Delegates rolled in at 11:40 a.m. yesterday, approved the budget and the smoking ban in the first 10 minutes, mopped up some other work and shortly thereafter took a four-hour break.

The House voted vote 100-40 to approve the smoking ban yesterday. O'Malley has pledged to sign the bill. Health advocates have been trying for a decade to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, the only businesses that were exempted from a law that passed in 1995.

The Senate debated the living-wage bill extensively but otherwise did little more than shuffle bills through the day and evening.

"It's been a journeyman-like session," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties. "We've done all we were required to do, but we didn't go the extra mile."

The one exception to the calm last night was an 11th-hour negotiation between the O'Malley administration and Prince George's County officials over the financially troubled Prince George's County Hospital. Although the state agreed in the last few days to increase its financial contribution to an 8-year, $440 million plan to save the facility, the deal collapsed last night when county council members refused to accept any deal that bound the county financially after their terms end in 2011.

With the deal shelved, O'Malley has committed $20 million to facilitate the orderly closure of the hospital and the transfer of its patients to other facilities.

Legislators say they think the capital was worn out after a contentious four years of divided government when Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Democratic-led General Assembly clashed repeatedly on issues including the minimum wage and slot machine gambling.

The vetoes, override votes and political gamesmanship of the past four years evaporated when lawmakers returned to Annapolis in January with O'Malley in charge, but that doesn't mean they are entirely happy with inaction on key proposals.

In the House, in particular, lawmakers are regretting a lost opportunity to pass a proposal to extend health care coverage to more than 100,000 lower-income Marylanders.

"The plus is everybody's being nice. That's a big plus," said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat. But, she said, "I feel a sense of loss that we didn't do a big health care bill. I understand their thinking, but that doesn't change the sense of opportunity lost."

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