By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009
The Maryland legislature could be summoned back to Annapolis for a special session on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants if it does not reach an agreement on the thorny issue, Gov. Martin O'Malley said, although he expressed optimism that a deal will be struck before the annual 90-day session ends tomorrow.
In a wide-ranging interview, O'Malley (D) also blamed the fate of a bill on energy regulation that died last night on "a tremendous amount of nervousness" about the complex issue and acknowledged that he is not likely to succeed in repealing the death penalty before standing for reelection next year. O'Malley is instead preparing to sign a compromise bill sent to him by lawmakers that tightens evidence rules for capital cases.
"After three years of deliberation and debate on this . . . I think this issue is resolved, certainly for this term," he said.
O'Malley's assessments came in the waning days of a session in which much of his agenda is on track for passage, with a few exceptions, most notably a repeal of the death penalty and the energy bill.
Lawmakers have agreed to extend unemployment benefits to part-time workers. They made it easier to confiscate firearms from domestic violence suspects. And they have authorized the use of speed cameras in school zones and work zones.
The legislature is also on track to pass a series of growth-management measures sought by O'Malley as well as a series of bills, after some changes, that tighten restrictions on drunken drivers and teen drivers. And despite a very tough budget year, lawmakers agreed to set aside funds to allow a tuition freeze again next year at public universities. The final say on that rests with university regents.
Much of the remaining drama in the session centers on an issue that has not been at the forefront of O'Malley's agenda: legislation requiring drivers to prove they are in the country legally in order to comply with the federal security law known as Real ID. Maryland is one of four states that offer licenses to undocumented residents.
Senior House and Senate members scrambled behind the scenes yesterday to reach a compromise on competing plans to end that practice.
The House bill would allow undocumented residents to keep their licenses and renew them for a driving permit that would deny them access to federal buildings or commercial planes but would shut the door June 1 to those seeking new licenses.
The more conservative Senate legislation would not grandfather in what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of undocumented residents with licenses.
O'Malley said that if the chambers do not resolve their differences, they would probably have to come back in coming months to try again. But, he said, "I'm confident that House and Senate leaders will resolve the lawful-presence issue before the session ends."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said yesterday that they remain hopeful the issue will be resolved by tomorrow.
Busch said there have been informal conversations between House and Senate leaders but acknowledged that if there is no resolution, a special session will be necessary. "It would be much wiser to resolve it now," he said.
"We're going to get it resolved," Miller said.
O'Malley reiterated his preference for the House bill, calling it "a pragmatic and practical approach." But he said he is willing to sign either bill or "anything in between."
"I think [the House bill] is an approach that's also more compassionate," he said. "But there are a lot of members of the General Assembly. . . . The important thing is we can no longer be the only state east of the Rockies that is not requiring proof of lawful presence, and that has to be addressed."
O'Malley also said he had hoped that the House would pass, in some form, an energy regulation bill he was pushing. The Senate voted this month for the legislation, which would have given state regulators new tools to order utilities to build power plants, moving the state back toward a more regulated system for residential customers.
A House committee voted the bill down 21 to 2 last night, with most members saying they had not had enough time to study it.
Although the bill would not have provided immediate rate relief, supporters said it would have been an important step toward reversing a 1999 policy of deregulating utilities that has led to a jump in energy rates in recent years. Many longtime lawmakers still feel stung by their votes for deregulation.
"We did not fully anticipate the nervousness that a lot of House members have about voting on anything that changes the regulatory framework on energy in our state," O'Malley said.
O'Malley said that after spending two years seeking the advice of experts, he was convinced his bill was "the best and most prudent way forward."
O'Malley also expressed frustration at the failure of a lower-profile bill, one to significantly increase the state's ability to recover false claims made against Medicaid and other health programs.
The bill, which failed by one vote in the Senate, would have authorized private citizens to file a civil action on behalf of the state against a person who has made a false claim. It was vigorously opposed by doctors and hospitals, whose representatives said it would increase lawsuits and drive up health-care costs.
"That one surprised me a bit," O'Malley said. "I guess we need to spend more time on it next year. . . . We were pretty confident everyone would be against false claims and Medicaid fraud. . . . I think the doctors and the hospitals didn't have enough to lobby against this session."
The governor was more accepting of the legislature's refusal to back his bill to abolish the death penalty. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that will require either DNA or biological evidence, videotaped confessions or a videotape linking a suspect to a murder for a capital case to proceed.
"It has to be one of the most restrictive death penalty statutes in the country," O'Malley said. "I think that's a positive step forward."
Although O'Malley has said he is hopeful the legislature will one day repeal the death penalty altogether, he said he does not see that happening in the final year of his term.