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A Disappointing Finale Belies Accomplishments
New Laws Address Air Pollution, Teacher Pensions, Tuition

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

Prince George's County fell short in its effort to block a proposed liquefied natural gas storage facility in Chillum. And, on the final night, the clock ran out on a bill to change the way the county school board is chosen. Under current law, each school board candidate this fall will face voters countywide when elections resume after four years of an appointed board. The legislation that died Monday night would have set up nine distinct districts and allowed two appointed members to remain on the board for two years.

An Anne Arundel County measure that would have given voters a bigger say in who sits on the county's appointed school board also failed to muster the support needed.

Lawmakers did come together to pass a bill making Maryland one of the first states in the country to spend state dollars on stem cell research.

Federal support has been limited for embryonic stem cell research in the wake of a 2001 executive order by President Bush that pushed debate down to the statehouses. Though the science is said to hold great promise for those with Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and other debilitating conditions, it is controversial because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.

The bill lawmakers passed will allow up to $15 million in state grants next year for work on embryonic cells, but money will also be available for work on adult stem cells. Those are derived from a variety of sources, including bone marrow, and do not draw the same moral objections.

Ehrlich signed this year's bill after remaining largely silent on a similar bill last year that was unsuccessful.

The governor also signed into law some of the nation's most far-reaching air pollution controls for the state's oldest and dirtiest power plants. At least six of Maryland's coal-fired plants will be forced to cut emissions that contribute to acid rain, as well as to asthma and other health problems.

Other accomplishments came over Ehrlich's objections.

The session began with lawmakers overriding several vetoes, including one that raised the minimum wage in the state to $6.15 an hour, $1 above the federal standard.

Lawmakers also overrode Ehrlich on legislation that would effectively force companies with 10,000 or more employees to spend more on health benefits. The measure, which drew national attention, was dubbed "the Wal-Mart bill" because the retailing giant is the only known company that will be affected. A business group has sued to block the legislation on Wal-Mart's behalf.

The veto overrides "set the tone for the legislative session," said Michele Lewis, political director of the state chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "People said right from the get-go, we're going to look out for working people."

Some of the final bills passed this session also moved in that direction.

Legislators overwhelmingly backed a measure to expand retirement benefits for public school teachers and state employees. The $120 million package requires workers to contribute more -- from 2 percent to 5 percent -- toward their pensions, and the more generous funding formula for calculating a retiree's benefit applies retroactively to 1998.

Lawmakers also passed a bill, over Ehrlich's objections, strengthening collective bargaining rights for state employees.

It was one of several late-session vetoes. Other bills muscled into law block state seizure of 11 troubled Baltimore schools, designate early-voting polling places and prohibit members of the university system's board of regents from raising money.

Left behind was legislation that would have required the state's voting machines to produce paper records and toughened restrictions on sex offenders.

The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to ditch the touch-screen machines for one year and lease an optical-scan system that relies on paper ballots. But the measure, also supported by the governor, never made it to a vote in the Senate. Lawmakers said switching systems so soon before the upcoming election would be too difficult for election officials.

Negotiations over a sex offender bill bogged down in the final hours of the session. After the confetti fell, Miller said it was possible that lawmakers could take up the issue again before next year -- in a possible special session focused on electric rates.

Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this story.

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