Session 2011: The winners and losers

As last day of legislative session begins, a look at which proposals have pulled ahead — and which have fallen behind

April 10, 2011|By Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Going into the final day of Maryland's 428th legislative session, a marathon that is expected to last until midnight, hundreds of issues remain unresolved. Still, the session already has produced some sure winners and losers — and some conflicting messages.

Lawmakers largely avoided new taxes, though they had no problem imposing millions of dollars in new fees. They tightened up a prohibition on texting while driving, but shied away from letting officers pull over drivers who are chatting away on their handheld cell phones. And while legislators decried the use of bisphenol A in plastic materials, they decided they needed more time to explore the harm caused by trace amounts of arsenic in chickens.

A note of caution: In the topsy-turvy world of state government, anything can change at the last minute. A surefire bill can die at the desk if either House Speaker Michael E. Busch or Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller declines to bring it up for final passage. Likewise, legislation that appears dead can be brought back to life.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here's a scorecard as lawmakers begin their last day of the session.

Winner: Waste

Loser: Wind

Gov. Martin O'Malley sought funding to construct a huge wind turbine farm off the shores of Ocean City, but lawmakers grew nervous about the cost to ratepayers and opted to study the plan. Lawmakers felt better about trash, approving a plan to provide ratepayer-paid subsidies to facilities that generate electricity by burning household and commercial refuse.

Winner: Undocumented students

Loser: Same-sex couples

The Assembly's 188 lawmakers, 40 of whom were new to their positions, took on two particularly divisive issues this year: gay marriage and whether to extend in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities to undocumented Maryland students. In both debates, lawmakers were brought to tears by colleagues' personal stories. The Senate passed both measures. The gay marriage bill died in the House, but the in-state tuition measure is on track for passage.

Winner: Fees

Loser: Taxes

Lawmakers mulled a multitude of tax increases, but in the end turned to an assortment of fees to balance the state's $14.6 billion budget and patch up the Transportation Trust Fund. They voted to double charges for recording land deals, obtaining birth certificates, registering vehicle titles and having personalized license plates. Bus and train fares could also rise.

Winner: Talking

Loser: Texting

The legislature closed a loophole in the state's growing array of cellphone restrictions by making it illegal to read text and electronic messages while driving. Current legislation prohibits only writing and sending the messages. But lawmakers left open another gap concerning talking. Unlike texting, talking on a handheld cellphone remains a secondary offense, meaning a police officer can issue a citation only if there's another infraction, such as speeding. The House passed legislation to change talking to a primary offense, but a Senate committee rejected the idea.

Winner: Critters with fins and shells

Loser: Humans with badges

When news reports surfaced in early February of illegal nets filled with tons of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, lawmakers raced to sponsor and approve bills to crack down on poaching. They also moved swiftly to protect oysters in sanctuaries from serial poachers. But who's going to enforce the new laws? A bill to help the National Resource Police recover from a 50 percent reduction in manpower over the past two decades was gutted like a fish, and left with only a vague promise of money and hiring timetable. Citizens' arrests, anyone?

Winner: John Hanson

Loser: Harriet Tubman

Women legislators sought to recall founding father John Hanson from National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and replace him with Harriet Tubman, who led slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Senior senators rebuffed the trade: Hanson will remain in the Capitol with Declaration-signer Charles Carroll. Lawmakers want to ask Congress for a third statue so they can also honor Tubman.

Winner: Alcohol tax

Loser: Gas tax

The House gave an initial nod to hiking the sales tax rate on beer, wine and alcohol by 50 percent, taking a more aggressive stance than a Senate-passed proposal to phase in the increase over three years. Revenue for next year would go largely to education aid, the developmentally disabled and school construction in the biggest counties. The other much-discussed tariff this year was the gasoline tax; business leaders wanted to increase it by 10 cents and dedicate the additional revenue to transportation funding. But soaring prices at the pump quickly dampened enthusiasm.

Winner: Wine

Loser: Four Loko

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