The rise of two-party government in Maryland came into sharp relief this week as the 2005 session of the General Assembly concluded with intense partisan battles over expanding rights for gay couples, increasing the minimum wage and financing stem cell research.
There were glimpses of cooperation during the 90-day session, as when Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Democrats who dominate the legislature compromised on bills aimed at bolstering the safety of teenage drivers, expanding health care for the needy and combating the growing problem of witness intimidation.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) is caught in a shower of confetti as the Maryland General Assembly session ends midnight April 12. Miller pushed an agenda designed to maintain the Democratic majority.
(James M Thresher - The Washington Post)
But a bill to legalize slot machine gambling again failed to win legislative support. A last-ditch lobbying effort by Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) did not sway House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), and the session ended without any movement on the issue.
Beyond legislative battles, much of the partisan divide centered on allegations that an Ehrlich aide had spread rumors about one of the governor's political rivals. Democratic lawmakers also claimed that Ehrlich loyalists were pruning Democrats from the state bureaucracy. Lawmakers have pledged to investigate the administration's hiring and firing practices in the months ahead.
Most of the defining policy issues were marked by hard-fought battles between conservatives and the legislature's liberal majority. They include:
Gay rights: Over strenuous objections from conservative Democrats and Republicans, Democratic lawmakers in the session's waning minutes ushered through an initiative allowing unmarried couples, including gay partners, to make some medical decisions for each other. Another initiative would allow for property transfers for such couples, and a third would add offenses motivated by sexual orientation to the state's hate crimes law.
Stem cell research: Bitter partisanship also marked the battle over whether to allow state spending on embryonic stem cell research. A bill to funnel millions of dollars in taxpayer money into the research failed to come to a vote late Monday, the session's final day.
Opponents say the research is the moral equivalent of abortion because it entails the destruction of a viable human embryo. Supporters argue that it holds great promise for treating Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and many other debilitating conditions.
Health care: Partisanship also fueled the debate over legislation to require the state's largest employers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health benefits or pay into the state's health program for the poor. The bill now applies only to Wal-Mart, which has about 15,000 employees in Maryland. Both houses approved the measure on a largely party-line vote. Ehrlich pledged to veto it, saying it sets a dangerous precedent by mandating how much private employers have to pay for employee health insurance.
Opponents said it will discourage businesses from coming to Maryland. Proponents said it will increase the number of low-wage workers who have health insurance.
Land sales: Democrats passed an initiative to amend the state's constitution to restrict the governor's ability to sell state parkland. The measure followed a proposal, pushed by Ehrlich aides, to sell woodlands in St. Mary's County to a Baltimore construction executive.
Minimum wage: The General Assembly approved a measure increasing the state's minimum wage to $6.15 from $5.15. The vote was largely along partisan lines, with Republicans voting against the bill because, they said, it would harm small businesses.
Accord on Driving Bills
There were areas of agreement between Ehrlich and the General Assembly's Democratic leadership, perhaps chief among them the effort to clamp down on teenage drivers.
A spate of fatal car crashes involving teenage drivers hit the Washington region in the fall, killing at least 19 teenagers and sparking cries for changes to Maryland's driving laws. Lawmakers responded with bills aimed at making driving safer for teenagers. With broad bipartisan support -- including the governor's imprimatur -- most of the bills passed.