By John Wagner, Lisa Rein and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The Maryland House and Senate passed conflicting proposals yesterday to curtail the state's practice of issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, setting a difficult course for compromise in the remaining two weeks of the legislative session.
The action came as lawmakers labored into the night to meet a key deadline on dozens of bills. Legislation giving judges more authority to take firearms from people accused of domestic violence won Senate approval. And the Senate advanced a bill to partially return to state regulation of Maryland's energy supply -- although that measure's ultimate fate is far from certain.
After impassioned debate, the House voted 77 to 60 in favor of a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants holding driver's licenses to keep them but shut the door to new applicants June 1. Maryland is one of four states, and the only one east of the Colorado Rockies, that grants driving privileges to illegal immigrants.
Hours later, the Senate voted 36 to 11 for more conservative legislation that would require all license applicants to verify their legal presence in the country to receive a license.
Both bills would comply with a federal security law known as Real ID, which calls on states to issue a nationally recognizable, secure driver's license. Critics of the House approach said it would allow the fraud that has plagued the system to continue, keeping Maryland a magnet for immigrants from other states who seek licenses.
"We're creating permanent amnesty for people who came here uninvited," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County).
But supporters of the House bill said that denying licenses to those who have them would compromise driving safety because undocumented immigrants would continue to drive with neither license nor insurance.
"You want to call it amnesty? Let's call it amnesty," said Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George's). "It means that you have a heart. What do you think is going to happen to [the immigrants] when they can't take their kids to school? . . . I respectfully ask you to let them keep their licenses."
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) suggested his colleagues had "become caught up in fear" over the politics of immigration.
Bills that did not pass at least one chamber by the end of yesterday's floor sessions will be subject to additional procedural hurdles in the remaining weeks of the 90-day legislative session.
Votes in the Senate all but assured that gun restrictions on domestic abuse suspects, a top priority for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), will become law this year.
Under one of the bills, approved 31 to 16, a judge could order abuse suspects to give up their guns when served with a seven-day temporary protective order if they had threatened violence or threatened to use a gun. The other bill, approved by the same margin, would require judges to confiscate guns from anyone issued a more serious final protective order.
The House has passed similar legislation.
Late last night, the Senate advanced one of the session's more controversial measures, a bill that would give the Public Service Commission the authority to order power plants to be built, moving the state back toward a more regulated utility system. Lawmakers deregulated the utilities in 1999. But a final vote was put off until later this week.
The idea has support in the Senate, although Senate leaders acknowledge that customers would not see any immediate relief from higher heating and electricity bills.
The legislation faces hurdles in the House, where leaders say they have not had time to examine it. The energy industry, led by BGE parent Constellation Energy, is lobbying furiously to kill the bill. Whether the House will take it up remains unclear.
Not all legislation that failed to clear one chamber by last night's "cross-over" deadline was necessarily dead for the year. The Senate, for example, put off until today a bill that would authorize the use of speed cameras in work zones across the state. Currently, only Montgomery County is authorized by the state to use the cameras.
Debate was abruptly ended after an amendment was floated to add school zones to the legislation. Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings, predicted a close vote on that provision and the bill itself. But if the legislation clears the Senate, he said, he expects the House to give it full consideration, even though the cross-over deadline will have passed. The House has been more friendly to such bills in recent years.
"I don't think it's in trouble in terms of timing," Frosh said.
On another issue affecting drivers, the Senate approved a bill that would require teens to hold a driving learner's permit for nine months, instead of the six now mandated by law, before advancing to a restricted provisional license. The House has passed a bill on the issue, but its version also imposes new restrictions on young driver's ability to carry passengers.
The House gave final approval to bill that would make Maryland the first state to ban the use of bisphenol-A, a plastic hardener linked to a wide array of health problems, in baby bottles sold in the state.
That chamber also signed off on a bill to bump up the percentage of slot machine proceeds used to subsidize racing purses. And the House agreed the Prince George's Hospital Authority should be given more time to find a private buyer for the troubled county-owned system.