Md. wind farm bill won’t make it this year

A plan to build one of the nation’s first offshore wind farms that was Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature environmental initiative of the year and the bill he lobbied lawmakers most intensely to pass will not receive an up-or-down vote before the General Assembly adjourns Monday.

Key lawmakers in both the House and Senate said Thursday that despite considerable arm-twisting by O’Malley (D), aggressive lobbying from environmentalists and labor unions, and more than 20 hours of testimony, there were still too many unanswered questions about the $1.5-billion project for it to even clear first committee votes in either chamber.

Lawmakers and a spokesman for the governor said the offshore wind proposal will be studied for the rest of the year and probably reconsidered when the legislature returns for its 2012 session in January.

“It’s sort of pointless” to vote, said Del. Derreck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), Economic Matters committee chairman, who in recent days had committed to voting for the plan.“I had resisted [a study] for a while because I wanted to allow for as much time as possible for the administration to present their case and to see if they could get everyone comfortable, but now, in these waning days, that’s no longer a realistic option.”

Despite broad support from a coalition of environmentalists and labor unions, O’Malley’s plan to create a subsidy for developers to construct 100 or more massive wind turbines off Ocean City ran into stiff resistance from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

For much of the session, their concern centered on the cost of a subsidy. The subsidy, which resembled systems in other states and in Europe , would have increased electric bills for almost all ratepayers across the state by imposing a surcharge. The governor’s office eventually allayed the concerns of some lawmakers by promising that the surcharge would be capped at $2 a month for residents and 2 percent for the state’s largest businesses.

But in a measure of the uncertainty about the plan, lawmakers in recent days had begun worrying that the legislation didn’t even spell out that the wind farm would have to be built off Maryland’s coast and that it could be located hundreds of miles away and benefit another state’s economy.

Despite O’Malley’s insistence in recent weeks at public rallies that lawmakers pass the bill, his spokesman Shaun Adamec on Thursday cast the decision to shelve the bill as a minor setback and not unexpected.

“Since the beginning of this process, since the beginning of the session, this has not been an entirely unexpected result. . . . History has shown that complex issues like this tend to be multiyear efforts,” he said. “This is essentially the creation of a multibillion-dollar industry for the state of Maryland. . . . If a study helps do that, then, you know, the governor is eager to use the results to bring the bill up again next year.”

O’Malley’s setback on wind power came as the House of Delegates took a step forward Thursday on a scaled-down version of another core element of O’Malley’s agenda.

That measure, known as Invest Maryland, would let insurance companies bid on future tax breaks and use the money as venture capital for investments in Maryland start-ups. Nearly every Republican in the House spoke out against the plan, saying it could be a boondoggle with taxpayer money. But the measure advanced on largely party lines to a final House vote Friday. The House already had reduced the plan from $100 million to $75 million. The bill would still need to be voted on by the Senate.

The verdicts on some of O’Malley’s key initiatives came as lawmakers Thursday debated several issues that will be decided before the session closes at midnight April 11.

After a lengthy and heated discussion, the House advanced one of the most controversial bills of the session, a proposal that would make illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition breaks at Maryland’s colleges and universities. If the bill clears the House on a final vote scheduled for Friday, the legislation returns to the Senate, which passed an earlier version of the measure last month.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he expects that the two chambers will be able to work out their differences, and O’Malley has said he will sign the bill.

Under the legislation, undocumented immigrants who graduate from Maryland high schools would be allowed to pay in-state tuition at community colleges if their parents are state taxpayers. Students who receive an associate’s degree could transfer to a four-year state college and pay the lower rate.

Republicans tried unsuccessfully to revise the bill Thursday with more than a dozen amendments, saying taxpayers should not be subsidizing tuition for illegal immigrants. They also questioned whether the state could afford the projected increase in college enrollment, and they said the measure violated federal law.

“It’s designed to help people who came here to game the system,” said Del. Richard K. Impallaria (R-Baltimore County). “It seems very unfair.”

Democratic legislators reworked the bill this week to try to win support from some fellow Democrats who had concerns about competition for a limited number of in-state slots at Maryland’s four-year institutions.

“No one is taking any in-state citizen’s spot,” said Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), who led the more than two-hour floor debate. Kaiser said the measure was worth the cost because it continues the state’s investment in students who have graduated from Maryland high schools.

Maryland would join at least 10 other states, including California and New York, with similar measures on the books. A similar bill passed the General Assembly in 2003 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

marimowa@washpost.com

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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