A Wrap In Annapolis

Our View : Facing A Recession, Hot-button Issues And Low Expectations, Lawmakers Take A Cautious Approach And End Up With Little To Show For It

April 15, 2009

This year's General Assembly session ended on a cool and dreary note. Perhaps it was befitting a dismal 90 days in Annapolis as the worst recession in a generation or three caused lawmakers to turn timid on numerous fronts.

Remember when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told the business community some years ago to "get dangerous" with legislators? He should have recommended a rise in unemployment rates. That seemed to capture the attention of senators and delegates as powerfully as any super-lobbyist with an expense account.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's biggest losses of the session came courtesy of those employers who vigorously opposed his plans to crack down on Medicaid fraud and to re-regulate electricity. Lawmakers may have complained they needed more time to study the complexities of utility re-regulation, but it's an issue that has been simmering for several years.

The real problem is that it meant large-scale buyers of power no longer would be able to negotiate rates more favorable than what Mr. and Mrs. Average Ratepayer can find. When companies argued that higher electricity bills would translate into shrinking payrolls, no woolen blanket was enough to warm legislators' suddenly frost-bitten feet.

The governor's Smart Growth legislation got similar treatment as it was passed but only in a dilute form. Interestingly, Mr. O'Malley's biggest wins came in the form of legislation that had little impact on business - setting higher standards for death penalty cases, toughening the laws regarding guns and protective orders, and protecting funding for initiatives such as Program Open Space, the cap on in-state public college tuition and K-12 schools (although, as we've noted before, federal stimulus aid made much of this possible).

And while Mr. O'Malley's successful effort to give the state authority to acquire Maryland racetracks by eminent domain could hardly be regarded as pro-business, his motivations were largely the same - protecting local jobs.

Lawmakers will no doubt boast about many of the bills they passed. But does anyone believe that a ban on sending text messages will have a profound effect on highway safety? Even the last-minute push to find a compromise over driver's licenses merely allows Maryland to comply with the federal Real ID law while trying to reduce the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the roads. One can only hope Congress will finally tackle immigration reform and make the matter largely moot.

Still, there were some significant wins. Pro-environmental legislation will reduce harmful septic runoff near the Chesapeake Bay, restore authority to local comprehensive plans and give legal standing to those who oppose potentially harmful development. Broadening the use of automatic cameras to help enforce speed limits may actually make work zones and some neighborhoods safer.

Finally, although seldom noted outside the State House, one of the more curious developments was the defrosted relationship between House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. With the issue of slots now behind them, it could be they've called a truce - or perhaps in a difficult year, they've been given enough troubles without the usual inter-chamber squabbling.

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