Dozens of illegal immigrants celebrated in Annapolis Tuesday as Maryland officially made them eligible for tuition discounts at colleges and universities — an issue that ignited impassioned opposition during the legislative session and is already subject to a repeal effort.
Gov. Martin O'Malley made good on a long-standing promise to sign the controversial measure that extended in-state tuition rates, making Maryland the 11th state to grant such rights to undocumented residents. His action came the same day that President Barack Obama said he will renew a push for federal legislation that clears a citizenship path for illegal immigrants.
"This will allow us to have a more highly educated workforce," O'Malley said shortly before a bill-signing ceremony began.
But the measure still faces hurdles. Even as illegal immigrants feted the new law, opponents collected signatures to put the measure on the 2012 ballot, giving voters the last word.
The immigration measure was among 230 bills O'Malley signed Tuesday; others allow Marylanders to have wine delivered by mail, nudge the state toward legalizing medical marijuana, and create incentives to entice a developer to build a casino at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Western Maryland.
The bills, like many passed in the 2011 legislative session, focused on extending consumer rights and tweaking existing programs. The persistent budget crisis — Maryland still faces a projected deficit for next year — put a damper on ambitious initiatives.
The in-state tuition bill was by far the most controversial measure and attracted throngs of illegal immigrants, many of whom had made repeated trips to Annapolis to show support during the legislative session.
Dustin, who did not want to give his last name because he is not in the country legally, watched Tuesday's ceremony and posed for one of the five official photos of the bill-signing.
He said he came to Maryland from Mexico City three years ago in search of a better life, leaving his parents and family behind. Once here, Dustin said, he secured a job at a Mexican restaurant and began attending high school.
"I wanted to improve myself," he said. Dustin said he'll graduate from high school this year with a 3.8 grade point average and would like to enroll in college this fall — paying the in-state rate.
Opponents, however, are working hard to prevent that from happening.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, who frequently fights efforts to extend rights to illegal immigrants, called a news conference at his Essex office to denounce O'Malley's decision to sign the bill.
"He can take that pen and stick it in the back of taxpayers," McDonough said in an interview. He says the bill violates federal immigration statutes and the state can't afford the program. Fiscal analysts estimate it will drain $3.5 million by 2016, though McDonough and other critics say that number is too low.
McDonough said he spent most the day fielding over 100 phone calls from Marylanders who want to help the effort to put the law on the 2012 ballot. The Baltimore County Republican said the group is "on track" to come up with the 18,500 signatures needed for an initial deadline at the end of the month.
The bill is scheduled to take effect July 1. But if the petition drive is successful, the measure would be put on hold until the November election.
Most of the bills O'Malley signed don't go into effect for months. An exception was a law that punishes power companies if they allow customers to languish without electricity after a storm.
The bill was the state government's answer to power companies like Pepco that left customers in the cold this winter with days of outages. Del. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat, called the law a "critical first step" to holding the utility accountable for lingering outages.
A measure that lowers the state tax rate on gambling revenues from Rocky Gap also became law. The state slots commission is expected to seek bidders in mid-June. Two previous efforts to attract a developer were unsuccessful.
The day had a festive feel, with the governor's staff corralling hundreds of advocates in a marble hallway, and trying keep the two-hour ceremony moving along at a reasonable clip.
As O'Malley signed each bill he was surrounded for a few moments by people who'd supported it. Click, click went the cameras. Then red-coated staffers ushered them away to make room for the next group.
The occasion reunited lawmakers and advocates who'd slogged together, in some cases over multiple legislative sessions, before finally savoring victory.
"It took us five years," said Sarge Garlitz, a commander with the American Legion, who came to Annapolis to mark a law that will allow 10 veterans' halls in Wicomico County to install video lottery machines. "We've been patient. We've had to wait."