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Session Leaves an Aftertaste

Disputes Linger as Md. Assembly Prepares to Convene

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page C06

They wait, their binders thick with arguments touting stem cell research or teen driving restrictions, warning against witness intimidation or same-sex marriage, seeking money for school construction or mental health services.

As Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and the Maryland General Assembly remain locked in a dispute over medical malpractice legislation produced in a special session last month, scores of advocates and lobbyists are preparing for the legislative session that begins Wednesday -- and waiting for their own priorities to emerge from the shadow of this partisan brawl.

_____Md. Government_____
Malpractice Session Clips Md. Fundraisers (The Washington Post, Jan 4, 2005)
Md. Doctors Make House Call -- and Drop In on Senate, Too (The Washington Post, Dec 29, 2004)
Differing Bills Face Same Fate: Ehrlich's Veto (The Washington Post, Dec 29, 2004)
More Government News

Some wonder if they ever will.

"The unfortunate result of the special session is that the partisan lines are drawn more clearly than they were, and there seems to be a lot of focus on the 2006 election and not so much on getting stuff done," said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, a group advocating a statewide living wage and the public financing of elections, among other issues.

Typically, the legislative session that falls in the third year of Maryland's four-year election cycle -- as is the case this year -- is when much of the work of government is accomplished, after the governor has settled into the job and before electioneering overtakes the agenda.

This year could be different.

A nagging budget shortfall and Ehrlich's resistance to tax increases could make funding new initiatives difficult. Unresolved issues -- particularly the slot machine gambling debate that has dominated the past two legislative sessions -- could command much of the General Assembly's attention. And the politics dividing the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature could thwart progress on other fronts.

Ehrlich has remained largely silent about his legislative agenda and has released few details of his proposed budget. With a projected shortfall topping $300 million, the governor has asked state agencies to submit spending plans with proposed cuts of 12 percent.

"Obviously, everyone is waiting to see what the governor puts out in terms of his budget proposal," said Peter Berns, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, a coalition of more than 1,500 groups. "From where we sit, once you take off the budget table some of the areas where the state's not likely to cut, like K through 12 education or Medicaid, pretty much everything else is destined to come under the budget ax."

When legislators meet Wednesday morning to officially open the session, the budget will dominate from the start, said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who predicted "severe cuts."

That could play into the hands of lawmakers who will seek an additional revenue source -- slot machine gambling.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has said he will again push to legalize slot machines at horse racing tracks, which he said could give a boost to the horse racing industry while generating hundreds of millions for the state treasury.

Miller said he also will propose increasing the state's minimum wage from $5.15 an hour and imposing further restrictions on power plants.

Lawmakers also could return to the topic that brought them to Annapolis the week after Christmas: medical malpractice. With the state's doctors facing soaring malpractice insurance rates, Ehrlich convened the General Assembly and introduced a bill that would have provided temporary relief on premiums and placed long-term limits on malpractice lawsuits.

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