A final week's dense docket

Immigrant IDs, electricity rules, budget on tap

General Assembly 2009

April 06, 2009|By Gadi Dechter , Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman | Gadi Dechter,Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com and julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com and laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

The thorny questions of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and how aggressively to regulate electricity markets await the Maryland General Assembly as it enters its final week of the 2009 session.

And there's still a budget to balance amid the country's worst fiscal crisis in decades. Senators and delegates have yet to resolve several fiscal disagreements, such as funding to buy land for preservation and how much to cut aid to local governments.

Still, the discord could have been worse.

A big infusion of federal stimulus dollars has made the budget-balancing task easier than expected, and measures on the death penalty, speed cameras and climate change have already been dispensed with.

"We've done a lot of the heavy lifting," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat and the House majority whip. "I think we're about there, but you never know what's going to pop up at the last minute."

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller held out the possibility that a bill designed to strengthen the state's hold on the Preakness could still be introduced. Miller and other state leaders are concerned that in the aftermath of the bankruptcy of the owner of Maryland's thoroughbred racetracks, the historic Baltimore race could be moved.

"We've only got a week left," Miller said. "It will be difficult, but it's possible."

The leading Republican in the House welcomed the approaching end of the 426th session, saying that sending lawmakers home will protect Marylanders from additional "nanny state" laws and spending initiatives pushed by the Democratic majority.

"Once the legislature adjourns ... the liberty and possessions of the citizens will be more secure," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland.

But before the final gavel falls, lawmakers hope to resolve their differences and adopt a stricter driver's licensing policy that requires applicants to prove they are in the country legally - something all but three other states already do. Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders have acknowledged that they must take action now because a deadline looms in October for complying with "Real ID," a federal security act passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

If the state fails to meet that deadline, residents face the prospect of not being able to use their licenses to board airplanes or enter federal buildings.

The House prefers a two-tiered system that would enable people already licensed in Maryland to renew without documenting their legal status. Those licenses would be marked "not federally compliant."

The Senate is insistent on a more straightforward approach. Under its version, neither those seeking renewals nor first-time applicants would be able to obtain a Maryland driver's license without documents proving lawful presence in the United States.

With tax revenue falling far below expectations, both the House and Senate have pared the state's roughly $14 billion annual operating budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. Negotiators began work on Saturday to reconcile dozens of differences, and the conference committee will continue to meet early this week before sending the compromise measure to the floors.

Among the differences are how much money to devote to stem-cell research and whether to freeze inflationary formulas for several areas of the budget in future years. Education advocates have objected to proposed changes in funding formulas for public elementary and secondary schools.

While many education and other cuts were averted with the influx of federal funding from the economic stimulus package this year, revenue shortfalls are projected for the next several years, and lawmakers are wary of future commitments.

"We're going to have to take steps so we don't have a deficit facing us every year we come back here," said Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and an Eastern Shore Democrat.

Lawmakers also must finish work on the capital budget and decide how much to devote to replacing an aging medevac helicopter fleet and how to fund the state's land preservation program.

It remains unclear whether lawmakers will approve O'Malley's proposal to re-regulate the electricity market for residential and small commercial customers, a reversal of the legislature's 1999 decision to deregulate on the theory that competition would lower rates and boost power supplies in the state. While the plan, which calls for a surcharge to pay for new generation, has been approved in the Senate, it faces resistance in the House.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, said the panel could vote late this week and send a bill to the floor. But that leaves little time to work out any differences with the Senate on the complicated proposal.

"We would absolutely have to hustle," said Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who says he personally opposes re-regulating at this time.

Senators and delegates have already reached consensus on issues that could have become protracted battles.

O'Malley's bid to end capital punishment in Maryland was rejected by a closely divided Senate, but the General Assembly agreed on evidentiary restrictions that make it harder for prosecutors to seek executions.

Statewide speed cameras - an issue that lingered into the final minutes of last year's session - appears to have been resolved this year. The Senate, which blocked cameras by failing to take a final vote last year, has agreed to a plan allowing them in highway work zones and within a half-mile of any school. House leaders said their chamber is likely to approve the Senate's plan this week.

Both chambers have approved legislation that would make Maryland one of a handful of states to commit to reducing global-warming pollution.

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