Wrap-up for `grueling' time

Officials complete session by signing foreclosure, computer tax bills

General Assembly

April 09, 2008|By Bradley Olson and Gadi Dechter | Bradley Olson and Gadi Dechter,Sun reporters

Gov. Martin O'Malley and top General Assembly leaders capped off a whirlwind legislative session yesterday, signing into law the final piece of a foreclosure reform package and legislation that repealed Maryland's new computer services tax.

After the traditional post-adjournment bill signing ceremony yesterday, O'Malley said he was looking forward to putting behind him a "really grueling" period.

"With the conclusion of this session, my sense is that some of the dark clouds have passed ... and the road ahead is clear," he said.

The legislature adjourned at midnight Monday, ending a session that was dominated by fiscal issues and the state's weakening economy.

Asked whether Marylanders would feel the effects of the additional budget cuts passed this year, O'Malley said, "Hopefully, if we've done our job, we'll be able to do cuts without biting into their priorities."

Together, the O'Malley administration and legislators cut more than $500 million in state spending during the 90-day session.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said despite the challenging fiscal times, the result "wasn't all bad."

"The legislature knew we didn't have money to spend" and took a close look at every expense, he said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he was pleased the General Assembly managed to balance the budget and still find money for education, school construction and pay raises for state workers. Lawmakers also provided enough to maintain the tuition freeze at Maryland colleges and universities for a third year in a row.

While the mood at the bill signing was genial and relaxed, not everyone shared the sunny outlook of the state's top Democrats.

"The 2008 legislative session has been another disappointing example of Gov. O'Malley's failure to provide responsible fiscal leadership," Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland, said in a written statement. "Government continues to grow virtually unchecked, and the appetite for taxes has not been satisfied."

The major pieces of legislation signed yesterday include a bill that will require mortgage lenders to verify a borrower's ability to repay a loan. It was the last piece of a far-reaching package of legislation designed to help combat the rise in foreclosures in Maryland.

O'Malley held his first bill-signing of the year last week to enact three other laws dealing with foreclosure that took effect immediately. They stiffened criminal sanctions for mortgage fraud, cracked down on fraudulent foreclosure-rescue schemes and lengthened the duration for foreclosure proceedings from 15 days to more than four months.

The governor and top legislators also signed the bill repealing the "tech tax," which became a cause celebre in Annapolis in recent months after the $200 million levy was passed in November's special legislative session.

Legislators voted to replace it with a combination of budget cuts and a temporary surcharge on personal incomes over $1 million.

Many at the event said they were relieved that the repeal of the computer services tax was finally official.

"The computer tax came from left field and put an unfortunate pallor on what we had done" during the special session, O'Malley said.

Information technology industry executives and workers shared that sentiment.

John Eckenrode, a Catonsville businessman and co-founder of a new computer services lobby that successfully fought to repeal the levy, said watching the tech tax be signed out of existence gave him a "tremendous sense of relief, a tremendous sense of accomplishment."

Plus, he got a souvenir. "The governor personally handed me a pen," Eckenrode said. "I think I'll put it in an envelope and put it away someplace as a memoir."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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