The end is in sight. The last full week of Maryland's 90-day legislative session begins today, and for lawmakers that means crunch time.
On paper there's much to do: Senators and delegates have introduced more than 2,500 bills but a mere 46 have passed in both chambers. Still hanging are measures that would toughen supervision of sex offenders, reform the tenure process for public school teachers and determine whether drivers can use hand-held cell phones.
"That is the way we do things in Maryland," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat. "We wait till the end. It puts pressure on people to make decisions."
That is why despite sheaves of unapproved legislation, House Speaker Michael E. Busch still says the body is "in pretty good shape" with major legislative initiatives "moving along appropriately."
"Don't get me wrong," Busch added. "You have to come to a consensus."
Lawmakers at the 2010 session haven't done much with headline-grabbing issues such as legalizing medical marijuana or permitting poker and blackjack at the recently approved slots sites. And with the state facing a $2 billion budget shortfall, a number of groups heard the word "No."
Still, before the session ends next Monday, the body must come to terms with a slew of other matters that seem poised for passage into law. Compromises on key issues such as the cell phone ban "will probably formulate at the last 48 hours," Busch predicted.
"Guys don't want to give," he said. "They play a cat-and-mouse game."
Lawmakers will meet in every nook and cranny of the capital complex to smooth over differences between House and Senate versions of bills, and then rush to the floor so compromise versions can be passed.
The most critical conference committee - where House and Senate versions of bills are reconciled - is set to begin this afternoon to discuss the state's $13 billion spending plan. The Senate did not cut nearly as deeply as some leaders there had hoped - in the end their snips came in around the same level as the $125 million House reduction.
Nevertheless, big fights loom. Representatives from the two chambers will have to reach agreement on a proposal to shift responsibility for teacher pensions to local governments, a move that would pull millions of dollars from local coffers in years to come. They also must decide how much the state should take from an obscure account where local income taxes are collected - at the moment the two chambers differ by $100 million.
A potential sore spot will be the $11.5 million legislative scholarship program, which the Senate likes but the House cut. The program lets lawmakers award lump sums to students of their choice, and is popular in the upper chamber because each senator gets about three times as much discretionary funding as each delegate. In a move some delegates viewed as retribution, the Senate voted to jettison all local bond bills over the next two years, erasing a local earmark program favored in the House.
In previous years, the budget conference committee has met multiple times, recalled Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Western Maryland Republican. But the initial meeting, he said, is "nothing but theater" where both sides posture.
Across the capital complex, smaller groups will convene to hash out other differences. Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian E. Frosh anticipates a week of rushing from one meeting to the next, while being hassled by lobbyists and reporters between meetings. "You won't believe the blizzard of paper that will descend on the Senate floor," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
His committee also needs to work out differences between House and Senate versions of proposals to toughen supervision of sex offenders. "There are a lot of differences, but they are not irreconcilable," he said. On another matter, he's going to be negotiating technical differences in Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill to require mediation before foreclosures.
The smoothest route for any compromise is to avoid a conference committee: The House can pass a measure identical to one that already passed in the Senate, and vice versa. That's the hope for an administration effort to get tough on Medicaid fraud. The House Judiciary Committee approved a Senate-passed bill late Friday, but it still must be passed by another House panel before the full chamber will consider it.
The week is set to begin with a hot debate on gang legislation in the House, where Busch has thrown his support behind a measure that defines the word "gang," making it easier for prosecutors to use an existing law to build conspiracy cases against such groups as the Bloods and Crips.
A taste of that debate erupted Friday, with some members of the Legislative Black Caucus saying that the definition is too expansive and could result in filling the prisons with young African-Americans guilty of nothing other than knowing a bad guy.