A Disappointing Finale Belies Accomplishments
Thursday, April 13, 2006
During the dramatic final hours of this year's General Assembly session, all attention was focused on electricity rates.
When the finish came without a solution to looming price increases, lawmakers departed Annapolis subdued by the outcome. But as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said at the first in a series of bill signing ceremonies this week: "One bill does not make a session."
Despite all the focus on what didn't pass in the final days, the legislature and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) completed several major initiatives that will affect the lives of most Marylanders.
They approved stricter air pollution rules for the state's coal-burning power plants and more generous pensions for teachers. They agreed to freeze tuition this fall at public universities and to provide financial backing for stem cell research. For the state's poorest residents, they increased the minimum wage and reinstated health care for legal immigrants who have been in the country less than five years.
In the opening hours in January, they overrode Ehrlich vetoes of the $1-an-hour minimum wage increase and of a bill requiring Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other large employers to pay more for employee health-care benefits.
Within weeks of the session's opening, a Baltimore circuit judge invalidated the state's ban on same-sex marriage, kicking off an emotional debate over that divisive issue. Many lawmakers argued that only a quick reversal in the legislative would prevent the subject from dominating the 2006 campaign season.
But after marathon hearings, Democrats in the House of Delegates blocked efforts by some Republicans to get a vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gays and lesbians from marrying. The court's ruling is stayed pending appeal.
Lawmakers continued an investigation into the Ehrlich administration's overhaul of the state workforce, which occurred shortly after he took office in 2003. A special committee of legislators heard testimony from former employees who described being poorly treated and, some argued, singled out because of their political views.
But the panel could not gain traction as other legislative work ate into their schedules, so the investigation was extended into the summer.
For local governments, the session's results were decidedly mixed. A boost to the capital budget brought millions more for school projects across the state. And the Ehrlich administration agreed to release $25 million for local road projects that it had held up.
But the large suburban counties again were unable to secure support for a change in the education funding formula that would bring more money their way. And several of the individual bills pushed by local delegations failed to make it through the legislative logjam.
Montgomery County made no progress on legislation that would have given the county Planning Board more tools to deal with the kinds of violations discovered at Clarksburg Town Center, where hundreds of homes were built too tall or too close to the street.