Budget, Cell Phone Ban, Sex Offenders Dominate Final Days of Legislative Session

ANNAPOLIS (April 13, 2010)—Budget woes, sex offenders, same-sex marriage, cell-phone use while driving and medical marijuana were just some of the issues that dominated the General Assembly's legislative session, which drew to a close late Monday night.

Debate over these issues will likely carry on into this fall's elections, including the rematch between incumbent Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. O'Malley unseated Ehrlich in 2006.

O'Malley praised what he called the collegial and cooperative tone of the session at a bill-signing Tuesday.

"(It's) a tribute to the leadership in the House and the leadership in the Senate to bring people together and move our state forward in difficult times," O'Malley said.

Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said the state was still a long way from a full economic recovery.

"We made great steps (this year)," Miller said. "But we have more strides to make before we get the job done."

Absent from Monday's flurry of last-minute debate was the state's $13.2 billion operating budget, which the House and Senate had each passed by Saturday. Last year, the budget was not resolved until the last day of the session.

The fiscal year 2011 budget adopted by the legislature is fundamentally unchanged from what O'Malley proposed in January. Legislators made few cuts and maintained the governor's extensive use of accounting mechanisms to close a $2 billion shortfall.

Republicans blasted the budget for not closing a projected, long-term multibillion gap between revenues and expenditures, accusing Democrats of refusing to make tough but necessary cuts in an election year and setting the stage for future tax increases.

"We didn't go nearly far enough in solving Maryland's overspending," House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert, said Tuesday. "We borrowed a lot of money from the federal government and a lot of other one-time sources that will run out next year."

Democrats countered that O'Malley's series of fund transfers will help Maryland maintain services until the economy recovers. They also pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts—including several dozen state employee layoffs—and some measures taken to address the state's structural deficit.

Democrats further cited the state's retained AAA bond rating—announced in February—as evidence that Maryland has continued to be fiscally prudent.

In addition to passing the budget, lawmakers tightened laws concerning sex offenders after the December kidnapping and death of an 11-year-old girl on the Eastern Shore.

A series of bills increasing sentences and supervision for sex offenders passed with strong bipartisan support, with legislators approving the final details Monday. Changes included tripling the minimum sentences for some offenses against minors to 15 years, and requiring lifetime monitoring of violent and repeat offenders.

Both O'Donnell and Senate Minority Whip Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, praised the tougher sex offender laws.

"That was huge," Jacobs said.

O'Donnell said the legislature succeeded in "waking Gov. O'Malley out of his stupor to realize that child sex offenders are a serious problem."

Another much-publicized issue was same-sex marriage.

Last month, Delegate Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, brought impeachment charges against Attorney General Douglas Gansler on the House floor, citing "willful neglect of duty" by Gansler in issuing an opinion that Maryland should recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

After some floor debate on rules and procedure, the House voted to uphold a decision by Busch to send the impeachment issue to the Judiciary Committee, which roundly rejected the motion for impeachment.

The General Assembly expanded on last year's texting-while-driving ban to include any use of a hand-held cell phone. Motorists cannot be pulled over only for using phones, but cell phone users who are stopped for other offenses could face an extra $40 fine. The ban goes into effect Oct. 1.

As federal lawmakers worked to pass President Obama's health care overhaul, Maryland lawmakers were making changes to the state's health-care policies.

The legislature established civil penalties for filing false health claims. Lawmakers say the legislation, which failed during last year's session, will help the state regain millions of dollars in Medicaid funds from false claims.

A bill legalizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes passed in the Senate but didn't make it out of committee in the House.

"The House was being a 'fraidy-cat about taking up medical marijuana," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, a co-sponsor of the bill. "The Senate courageously took up the bill."

Advocates for the disabled were disappointed with the defeat of a proposed dime-a-drink alcohol tax. The money would have been set aside to fund substance abuse prevention programs. The funds would also have helped reduce the waiting list for Developmental Disabilities Association services, which stood at more than 19,000 people in January. Neither chamber voted on the tax.

One significant piece of legislation that did pass allows all persons under guardianship due to mental disability the right to vote unless a court specifically decides the individual is incapable. Currently, no one under guardianship with a mental disability can vote. The new law will go into effect June 1.

Legislation calling for an expansion of Maryland gambling laws to include games such as poker and roulette failed to make it out of House and Senate committees. O'Malley and Busch have both said they want to focus on getting the state's slot machines up and running before talking about expanding gaming.

Maryland public schools got a boost from the fiscal 2011 budget, with a record $5.7 billion going to K-12 education. But the budget also saw the end of the four-year, in-state tuition freeze for higher education. The legislature passed a modest increase of 3 percent, pending approval of the university system.

Lawmakers also approved a package of education reforms expected to make Maryland's bid for a possible $250 million in federal Race to the Top funds more competitive. The legislation increased the minimum length of time before a teacher is eligible for tenure from two years to three years and required student performance data to be used in evaluating teachers and principals.

A controversial plan to shift a portion of the cost of teacher pensions from the state onto the counties gained traction in the legislature this year. A budget amendment proposed by Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, passed the Senate but was struck from the House version of the bill.

Madaleno said Tuesday that the problem wasn't going away, and pointed to the difficulties in states like California, where pension funds assume a greater return on their investments than they're actually getting.

A new commission established to study the retiree benefits system for state employees, including teachers, will deliver a report to the General Assembly in December.

"There's potential for incorporating those recommendations into the budget that will be before us in the '11 session, Madaleno said.

A proposed 75 percent income tax credit for businesses that make donations to scholarships and enrichment programs for public and private schools was voted down in subcommittee this session despite bipartisan support in both chambers. The Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers, or BOAST, bill appeared to have increased momentum this session, including an endorsement from the governor.

The bill had the support of Catholic groups but drew fire from teachers' unions and the American Civil Liberties Union. It passed the Senate for the second time this year, but was once again stopped in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Department of Juvenile Services faced heavy criticism this session following a series of incidents including the February slaying of a teacher at Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, introduced a bill that would close the Thomas J.S. Waxter Center for female juvenile offenders in Laurel, as well as a bill requiring gender parity in services for girls in the system, including job training. Both bills died in committee.

Last month, girls who have lived at Waxter reported through the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland that the Waxter facility was dirty, bug-ridden and potentially unsafe in the event of an emergency.

Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore said Waxter would stop accepting girls into its high-security program, leading to charges by advocates that girls would be sent out of state for treatment.

Of the many oyster-related bills that brought watermen off their boats and into Annapolis this session, only one managed to pass through both houses of the assembly. The legislation allows fishermen to use a special metal device known as a "devil diver" when dredging for oysters.

Watermen also supported other bills, including one that would limit the scope of oyster sanctuaries in the bay. They opposed a measure to increase the percentage of viable oyster habitat designated as sanctuary. Neither bill made it out of the chamber where it was introduced.

Environmentalists didn't spend the entire session talking about oysters. Two bills passed that ban chemicals believed to be harmful to children. Bisphenol-A, or BPA, a chemical commonly used in hard plastic bottles, will be banned in baby bottles and children's products. A flame retardant, Deca-BDE, will also be eliminated from electronics, mattresses, couches and other uses.

New stormwater pollution rules will take effect in May for construction sites, though some projects will be grandfathered in or waived from the restrictions.

The General Assembly also passed a bill to create the Chesapeake Conservation Corps, a state environment-related public service organization. And legislators added $2.5 million to the $20 million Gov. Martin O'Malley requested for the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, which funds projects that reduce pollution in the bay and its tributaries.

Capital News Service Reporters Jennifer Hlad, Brady Holt, Adam Kerlin, Daniel Leaderman, Rachel Leven and Shauna Miller contributed to this report.

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