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Md. Legislators Hit Crunch Time

With Less Than 3 Weeks to Go, Hundreds of Bills Zip Through the Assembly

By John Wagner and David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page B04

The Maryland General Assembly has long tended to procrastinate like a typical college student, partying as much as working early on and then cramming as the end of the session draws near.

Yesterday offered a sober reminder of how much remains to be done during the legislature's final three weeks, as both the House of Delegates and Senate made a concerted push to send dozens of bills to the other chamber in time to meet an upcoming deadline. This year's crunch, veteran lawmakers said, seems among the worst in recent memory.

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Full Report

More than 150 bills were debated on the floors of the two chambers yesterday, including measures to overhaul the state's adoption system, raise the minimum wage, allow early voting in elections, permit pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception and give "life partners" who are not married the right to make certain medical decisions for each other.

A constitutional amendment to restrict the governor's ability to sell state land could hit the Senate floor today, and the House is aiming to pass a bill by the end of the week to provide state funding for embryonic stem cell research.

"This is the toughest week," said Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee. "It is a nightmare for a chairman like myself because members are desperate to get their bills voted on. . . . Everybody needs a little Prozac at this point."

Under the legislature's rules, any bill not passed by one of the two chambers by Monday will face additional procedural hurdles, making passage by the April 11 end of the 90-day session considerably less likely, particularly if the legislation is controversial.

That includes the stem cell legislation, which calls for spending $25 million a year on the research. Hurson said his committee today will debate cutting that amount to as little as $5 million, though the outcome remains unclear.

Senate debate continued yesterday on another controversial bill, one that would allow pharmacists to dispense without a prescription "Plan B" emergency contraception after intercourse.

Supporters argue the measure would help prevent unwanted pregnancies. Opponents, many of them Republicans, have questioned in recent days whether an after-the-fact pill could terminate a life -- a notion supporters vigorously disputed. Yesterday, senators added a GOP-backed amendment requiring that information about sexually transmitted diseases be distributed along with the pills. A final vote on the bill is expected this week.

By week's end, the Senate also is poised to pass a bill that would allow voting in primary and general elections up to eight days before Election Day, following the lead of Florida and other states that allow the practice. Republicans unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill yesterday so that the ballots of people who vote early but die before Election Day would not be counted.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said that an avalanche of legislation is typical this time of year -- though it seems busier than usual because of a slow start to the session. He attributed that in part to December's bruising special session on medical malpractice.

"That really took a lot out of people," Miller said. "There was no start-up time, no getting ready for school."

Always the rowdier chamber, the House in the past two days has at times acquired the feel of a bus terminal, with members shuttling in and out -- chatting, eating, laughing, sipping coffee -- while a seemingly endless flow of bills flies through.

Amid the long days and interminable sitting, delegates sometimes seek respite in unusual ways. Del. Warren E. Miller (R-Howard), for example, briefly amused Baltimore Democrats Tony E. Fulton and Marshall T. Goodwin on the House floor yesterday by playing a Bud Light commercial on his laptop.

Once the vast majority of bills has reached the House floor, there is little discussion and no debate. The bill that conjures even a question or two on the floor is the rare exception.

But there was some sharp back-and-forth yesterday on a measure to raise the state's minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15. Several Republican lawmakers stood to say the effort would harm small businesses, which they said would be forced to choose between raising wages or firing workers.

The bill's sponsor, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's) defended the measure, saying that exempting small businesses would discriminate against employees working there. A different version of the bill already has passed the Senate.

Yesterday, one of the Senate's busier members, P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), stopped to chat in the Senate office building as he dashed between the voting session on the floor and a hearing of the Budget and Tax Committee, of which he is vice chairman.

He was carrying lunch: five candy bars, including Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Nestle Crunch bars.

"There's not enough hours in the day," he said between bites of a Mounds.

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