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Democrats Approve Agenda in Final Push

Maryland Bills Include Gay Rights, Labor Issues; Slots Effort Fails Again

By John Wagner and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page A01

The Maryland General Assembly concluded a rancor-filled session last night, with Democrats galvanizing hefty majorities in both chambers to muscle through a liberal agenda that has been endangered under a Republican governor.

The final push came at the end of a 90-day session in which lawmakers denied Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) his top priority -- the legalization of slot machine gambling -- for the third year in a row and continued to chip away at the powers of Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation.

Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson (D) speaks with Sen. Ida G. Rubin (D-Montgomery) in the State House during the session's final day. (James A. Parcell --The Washington Post)

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"We saw a real partisan divide," Ehrlich said. "Some [legislative] leaders continue to fight the results of the 2002 election."

In the panicked final hours, with all bills facing demise if they could not pass by midnight, the Senate encountered an unexpected filibuster threat on an initiative expanding the rights of unmarried couples, including gay partners.

Final passage of the domestic partnership registry did not come until after 11 p.m., when Democrats took a rare vote to cut off debate. The Senate never got a chance to debate an even more contentious issue: state spending on embryonic stem cell research.

The waning hours of the session also brought stricter penalties for witness intimidation, tougher standards for teenage drivers and a possible name change for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Much of the Democrats' agenda this year appeared aimed at propelling them into the 2006 governor's race in a posture that will help both preserve their base and draw back support from the blue-collar workers who abandoned them in 2002.

"These are our swing voters," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "They were drawn to Bob Ehrlich once. If we want to hold on to our majority, we need to reach out and bring them back."

Toward that end, the assembly approved a $1 increase in the minimum wage that Maryland employers must pay and required the state's largest employers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll for health benefits. Ehrlich has pledged to veto that bill, which currently would affect only Wal-Mart. The governor has not said what he will do with the minimum wage bill or a measure, approved yesterday, that would help the working poor gain access to community health centers.

Election strategy also appeared to factor into passage of a constitutional amendment that would restrict the governor's ability to sell state parkland. It won easy approval last night and will go on the ballot in 2006.

Republicans have accused Democrats of pushing the measure to increase Election Day turnout of voters disenchanted with Ehrlich's land policy and to heighten focus on a proposal, pushed by his administration, to sell 836 acres of St. Mary's County woodlands to a Baltimore business executive.

The proposal unleashed the partisan tensions that have roiled this year's session. One member proposed tacking onto the amendment a second constitutional change, defining marriage as between a man and woman. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) ruled the proposal out of order, prompting a protest from Republicans.

"It speaks to the abuse and arrogance of power in this legislature," Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) said later. "It reminds me of how political dissent was put down in the old Soviet Union."

Two other bills that would limit the governor's powers -- restricting his appointments to the State Board of Elections and requiring him to get legislative approval before stating Maryland's posture on international trade deals -- were vetoed by Ehrlich on Friday. The Senate overrode both vetoes Saturday, and the House followed suit yesterday.

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