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Restraint In Bleak Times For Md.

On the final day of Maryland's legislative session, House Speaker Michael E. Busch speaks to the media after the afternoon session. Bills with sizable price tags were largely shelved during the 90-day regular session.
On the final day of Maryland's legislative session, House Speaker Michael E. Busch speaks to the media after the afternoon session. Bills with sizable price tags were largely shelved during the 90-day regular session. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By John Wagner, Lisa Rein and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In its final hours before adjournment, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill yesterday expanding the collection of DNA from crime suspects but balked at authorizing speed cameras in school zones and neighborhoods, capping a session in which the state's continuing fiscal challenges greatly shaped what was attempted and what occurred.

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Bills with sizable price tags were largely shelved during the 90-day session in favor of those that tightened regulations at little cost to the state, including sweeping reforms of mortgage-lending practices and further restrictions on shoreline development, both priorities of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

"This has been a session of very real and steady progress, even in these difficult times," O'Malley told reporters, acknowledging that the sour economy "undermines our ability to do as many things as quickly as we'd like to do them."

Not everything O'Malley sought passed by the scheduled midnight adjournment. A House panel voted down an ambitious bill intended to curb greenhouse gases, and a compromise speed-camera bill died in the Senate amid a filibuster threat.

But lawmakers did overcome a disagreement to approve a bill implementing a settlement to provide $2 billion in rate relief to customers of the state's largest electricity provider. And they approved a bill to phase out video bingo machines that have sprung up in Southern Maryland.

Both chambers also approved a capital budget for the coming fiscal year that includes $333 million for public school construction, the second-highest allocation in state history but less than the $400 million approved last year.

The annual session, which ended with traditional bursts of confetti, began in the wake of a special session in the fall in which lawmakers raised $1.4 billion a year in taxes in a bid to fix the state's long-term finances. Those efforts have since been undercut by a sluggish economy that has slowed tax collections and prompted budget reductions.

Virginia lawmakers exercised similar spending restraint during their legislative session this year, advancing few new initiatives outside the area of mental health. Those proposals emerged in the aftermath of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech.

Maryland Republican leaders argued that the Democratic-led legislature should have done more to curtail spending, given the uncertain economic outlook.

"The government continues to grow at a time when we can least afford it," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert).

Among the most notable action during Maryland's regular session was the repeal of the most unpopular tax enacted during the special session: a levy on computer services. A bill sent to the governor Saturday would replace part of the $200 million in lost revenue with a surcharge on the income of millionaires.

The casualties of budget cuts made during the regular session included a new Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund. Lawmakers had planned an initial allocation of $50 million to the fund but scaled back the amount to $25 million. Other new spending initiatives were relatively modest. Even O'Malley's leading public safety proposal -- an expansion of the state's DNA database to include samples taken during arrests for violent crimes and burglaries -- has a relatively small fiscal effect: about $1 million a year in state funds. Lawmakers reached a compromise on that bill yesterday afternoon and sent it to O'Malley.


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