Democrats see victory as session concludes


General Assembly

April 08, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,SUN REPORTER

The General Assembly adjourned last night after an annual session that saw the passage of new protections for homeowners against foreclosures and new funding for consumer energy efficiency incentives but the failure of legislation authorizing statewide speed cameras and banning the use of hand-held cellular phones while driving.

Lawmakers worked nonstop yesterday, negotiating 11th-hour compromises on a number of bills in conference rooms and lounges. Gov. Martin O'Malley worked behind the scenes to ensure passage of his priorities.

Among the hundreds of bills that moved through the legislature before adjournment were measures to expand the state's DNA database used to investigate criminal cases, to govern growth arising from a national military base realignment that is expected to bring an influx of soldiers and contractors to Maryland, and a bill outlawing slot-like electronic gambling devices.

"This has been a session of very real and steady progress for the people of Maryland, even in these difficult times," said O'Malley, a Democrat. "This has been a tough few months, but we have come together."

O'Malley and legislative leaders highlighted their achievements in spite of an economic downturn that hampered their ability to roll out new spending initiatives. Much of the legislature's agenda this year has been dominated by O'Malley's priorities, because major spending bills introduced by lawmakers were generally rejected because of budget concerns.

Democrats, who have solid majorities in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, had modest objectives when the session began. Lawmakers reconvened just two months after a bruising special session in November, leading many to question whether the legislature would accomplish much. But several lawmakers said yesterday that they felt they had enacted a surprising number of initiatives that they could tout to their constituents.

"Despite the challenges, they came out with a package of real deliverables," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Michael Cryor.

Republicans, however, said that many new Democratic initiatives would hurt taxpayers and businesses. While O'Malley began his term last year saying that he would reach out to the other party, his relations with the GOP were strained by the special session and by an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by Republicans who wanted to invalidate the tax increases and slots gambling referendum approved in November.

"A lot of things we've done will be very damaging, especially the economic ones," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who represents Southern Maryland.

Among the early victories claimed by O'Malley was a package of bills addressing the rising number of foreclosures in the state. The measures stretch out the legal time frame before a home can be repossessed or sold and require banks to establish a borrower's ability to pay before making a loan. He also announced early in the session a subsidy funded by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield for seniors stuck in a Medicare coverage gap.

Yesterday, legislative leaders ticked off achievements they said residents would notice, including a continued freeze on tuition at state universities and hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to transportation projects aimed at easing congestion.

They also basked in the repeal over the weekend of the unpopular sales tax on computer services, which many said would drive away jobs. They replaced it in part with a higher income tax on millionaires.

"The citizens of Maryland can be very happy," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "We fully fund your education, your college tuition remains stable, while we build your roads, build your schools. Those things we left in during the toughest economic conditions."

In the final minutes of the session that officially ended at midnight, with O'Malley watching debate in the House, lawmakers passed a measure to bar gambling machines that have proliferated in Maryland in recent years.. Voters are set to decide in November whether to legalize 15,000 slot machines at five locations.

Also in the final moments of the session, lawmakers approved a bill classifying beverages such as Jack Daniel's Black Jack Cola as beer, which will allow them to continue to be widely distributed and to be taxed at a lower rate than spirits.

In other action, lawmakers approved the state's settlement with Constellation Energy Group, which includes one-time $170 rebates to BGE customers. A series of administration bills aimed at reducing energy consumption and boosting renewable power received final approval as well. Those bills include money for energy efficiency and conservation programs as well as small rebates for all consumers on their utility bills.

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