Md. Bans Smoking, Approves Wage Bill
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
A deal between state and county leaders to save the financially troubled Prince George's County hospital system was on the verge of collapse late last night as Maryland lawmakers neared adjournment on the frenetic final day of a legislative session that also brought final approval of a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.
In the waning hours of the General Assembly's 90-day session, legislators also pushed through a measure to make the state the first to require its contractors to pay their employees significantly more than the minimum wage and passed a $30 billion state budget that reflects the first-year priorities of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). Those include record spending on public education, a freeze on university tuition this fall and an increase in spending on stem cell research.
The burst of activity, scheduled to end at midnight with traditional showers of confetti, capped a session notable for its civil tone and a looming budget crisis left unaddressed but also for what Democrats were able to accomplish having regained control of the governor's office after four years.
Still, the jubilant atmosphere belied what a key lawmaker characterized as a failure by the O'Malley administration, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and the County Council to craft a financial deal to avert the likely closure of a hospital system that serves 180,000 people a year.
"They could not come to an agreement, so that effort is now off the table," Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's) told his colleagues shortly after 10 p.m. as O'Malley administration officials and Johnson continued to meet.
That issue notwithstanding, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), echoing the views of many lawmakers, said the "journeyman-like" session had provided O'Malley most of what he wanted but left lawmakers plenty to do in the year ahead.
"He wanted us to keep his campaign promises," Miller said. "Now we need to do the real tough stuff."
O'Malley, who last year defeated the state's first Republican governor in a generation, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., suggested to reporters that the less-confrontational tone established during the session would make the road ahead easier.
"I've seen a lot more cooperation and communication than we'd seen heretofore," O'Malley said. "We're not going to repair the divisions of the last four years in the first 90 days."
Despite Democrats' firm grip on the capital, several of their boldest initiatives fell victim to growing concerns about the projected $1.5 billion deficit that O'Malley inherited.
Legislative casualties included House-approved plans for the largest expansion of subsidized health insurance in years and a new fund to help with the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. A proposal by O'Malley to mandate millions of additional dollars in education spending in Montgomery, Prince George's and other counties where providing an education is more expensive also failed.
Both chambers waited until the session's final day to approve a budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts in July. That budget is balanced, but only by draining nearly $1 billion from a state reserve fund. Several lawmakers used yesterday's votes to say they should have done more to prepare for the expected shortfall.