ANNAPOLIS (April 15, 2009) - A legislative session dominated by financial woes ended Monday night just minutes after the General Assembly approved a compromise on a controversial immigrant driver's license bill, fittingly capping a frenzied final day of a busy session which saw several major policy debates.
Lawmakers also gave final approval to a Preakness rescue bill and the state budget Monday before confetti fell from the balconies of the ornate State House chambers, celebrating the end of this year's 90-day session. The last-day action followed a session featuring heated debates on the death penalty, education funding and partial energy re-regulation.
Leading Democrats said they managed to protect taxpayer priorities despite making $867 million in cuts to next fiscal year's budget made necessary by a declining economy.
"We were able not only to maintain (our) safety net, we were able to strengthen it," said Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The state used more than $1.4 billion in federal stimulus money to balance the $13.8 billion operating budget, plugging holes created by plunging revenue projections. The federal money prevented 700 state employee layoffs and drastic cuts to education.
But despite the injection of stimulus money, the state might face a budget gap of $1 billion next year, leading some lawmakers to see the session as a missed opportunity.
"We have not solved our long term budget problems," said Senate Minority Leader Allan Kittleman, R-Carroll. "We lost the opportunity to make a real change in the way we structure our budget."
The session came to a close only after the House and Senate reached an agreement on a bill to bring Maryland driver's licenses into compliance with the federal Real ID Act Monday night. The compromise legislation passed 76-60 in the House and 29-16 in the Senate.
The final legislation will go into effect June 1, when new applicants will have to provide proof of lawful status in order to receive a license. Those already possessing a license will be allowed to renew it without such documentation but cannot use it for federal purposes or airline travel.
By July 1, 2015, all licenses in the state will require proof of lawful status.
In another late-session move, the General Assembly approved a bill backed by O'Malley authorizing the state to purchase or use eminent domain to take over Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and the rights to the storied Triple Crown race.
O'Malley signed the bill Tuesday, less than a week after it was introduced.
Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp, which owns the racetracks and the rights to the Preakness, filed for bankruptcy in early March and has asked a judge for permission to auction off its assets. State leaders are worried Maryland could lose the Preakness Stakes in a bankruptcy auction, either through a direct sale or from the sale of Pimlico to an owner not interested in hosting the race.
Throughout the session, O'Malley stressed the need to protect education spending from deep budget cuts.
The budget includes provisions to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition for a fourth consecutive year, one of O'Malley's top legislative priorities.
Funds for public school construction will surpass $1 billion over a three-year period and the Thornton Bridge to Excellence in Education Plan, which provides more money to counties where the cost of education is greater, will be fully funded.
Community colleges were spared some of the deep cuts proposed at the start of the session and ended up receiving nearly a 4 percent increase in funding. However, that increase is still $34 million less than prescribed by state funding formulas.
Clay Whitlow, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, said "we feel very fortunate" the legislature recognized the role community colleges play in helping the state weather a recession.
"I think the funding we received is recognition by the governor and the legislature of the importance of community colleges," he said. "We're part of the solution to the problem and I think they recognize that."
A few of O'Malley's major initiatives failed to reach his desk for signing.
Lawmakers rejected a proposal that would have given the state the ability to pursue civil lawsuits against people filing fraudulent claims with state health insurance programs. They also turned back an electricity re-regulation bill that would have allowed the state to order utility companies to build new power plants or buy electricity.
"There hasn't been any new generation of energy in years and years and years," O'Malley said. "And there won't be any new generation in our state until the Public Service Commission has the authority to order it."
O'Malley said he plans to bring back the re-regulation and Medicaid fraud legislation next year.
O'Malley also failed to win a full repeal of the death penalty, instead settling for a compromise that merely restricts its use. The final bill, as amended by the Senate, limits use of the death penalty to cases with biological or DNA evidence, videotaped voluntary confessions or video linking defendants to a crime.
Lead sponsor Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, said she would introduce a full repeal bill again next year, and offer an amendment for repeal to every bill related to the issue.
The session also saw disappointing returns on the state's efforts to bring in bids for slots machines, a move O'Malley touted as necessary to support the state's schools and its horseracing industry. The state received qualified bids for only 6,550 of the 15,000 machines legalized in a November referendum.
Two of O'Malley's other initiatives proved more successful. The General Assembly passed a bill authorizing the use of speed cameras in highway construction zones and school areas throughout the state, as well as domestic abuse bills that would require the seizure of guns for final protective orders and grant judges the discretion to remove them for temporary ones.
Environmental groups gained a major victory with the passage of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, which pledges a 25 percent reduction from 2006 greenhouse gas levels emitted in the state by 2020. The General Assembly also passed legislation requiring new septic systems in areas immediately surrounding the bay and its tributaries to have nitrogen-removing technology.
However, the state cut funding to the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund to $10 million, a $15 million reduction from the governor's initial budget proposal. And while the General Assembly passed a bill requiring annual progress reports from local governments on smart growth initiatives, the Senate removed a key provision that would require counties to concentrate 80 percent of new construction inside designated growth areas.
At a bill signing ceremony Tuesday O'Malley called the session "difficult" but praised the General Assembly for its work.
"It's easy to make progress in easy times," O'Malley said, "but it's even more important to make progress in hard times."
Capital News Service Staff Writers Dylan Waugh, Michael Frost, Erich Wagner and Erika Woodward contributed to this report.