By John Wagner, Lisa Rein and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The Maryland General Assembly last night passed a hard-fought compromise that would end the practice of issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, capping a 90-day session in which lawmakers were greatly constrained by the state's financial challenges but passed numerous low-cost bills affecting residents' daily lives.
With barely an hour remaining before its midnight adjournment, the House voted 76 to 60 for a bill that would reconcile different solutions by the House and Senate to the challenge Maryland faces in complying with the federal security law known as Real ID. The Senate, which initially passed a more conservative approach, quickly followed with a 29 to 16 vote in favor.
Under the compromise, motorists who cannot prove they are in the country legally would be ineligible for a Maryland license as of June 1. But those who previously received licenses by providing foreign documents that lacked a U.S. visa stamp could get a one-time driving permit. The permits, which could not be used for access to federal buildings or commercial airplanes, would expire in 2015.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) had said he probably would call a special session on the issue if it was not resolved last night.
That bill was one of dozens debated in recent days that will bring changes to the lives of Marylanders without straining a state budget undercut by sagging tax collections amid the economic downturn.
Lawmakers banned the distracting practice of text messaging while driving, authorized speed cameras in work zones and school zones, lengthened the time teen drivers must hold learning permits, extended unemployment insurance to part-time workers and set aside money to enable a freeze on tuition at public universities again this fall.
"It was definitely the session for making policy on the cheap," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who described the fiscal situation as "the big, wet blanket that fell over the entire city."
An almost $14 billion operating budget that won final approval yesterday freezes spending at most state agencies in the coming year and includes substantial cuts in road funding and other state aid to Maryland counties. A federal stimulus package passed midway through the legislative session allowed lawmakers to avoid deeper cuts and layoffs of state workers.
The session was also noteworthy for several bills with longer-term aims, including a measure passed yesterday that seeks to curb greenhouse gas emissions and several growth-management bills pushed by the governor. A separate measure proposed by O'Malley to assert greater authority over the state's future energy supply died Saturday night.
Lawmakers also passed legislation in response to several emerging events. Final approval was given yesterday to a bill that gives the state additional tools to help keep the Preakness Stakes in Maryland after the owner of the prominent horse race, Magna Entertainment, declared bankruptcy. And limitations were put on undercover investigations by law enforcement officials in response to revelations that the Maryland State Police had infiltrated peaceful groups during the previous governor's administration.
Del. Murray Levy (D-Charles) lamented that lawmakers would be returning to another projected budget shortfall in January. "There's a lot of bills that might have otherwise passed, that have real social impact, that failed simply because of their budgetary impact," he said.
Debate over final passage of the coming year's budget was dominated yesterday by Republican concerns about diverting $2 million from a public financing fund for gubernatorial candidates to help pay for new optical scan voting machines next year.
Democratic leaders of the Senate pointed out that no candidate had used the fund since 1994 and suggested that it was not likely to be tapped now because of low spending limits on candidates who accept the public money.
But Republicans pointed out that the fund had accumulated from taxpayers who voluntarily offer money for that purpose. And at least one candidate has publicly indicated that he wants to tap the fund next year, they said.
"I think this is pretty unbelievable what is happening here," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's), who said it is "outrageous" given that O'Malley is facing reelection next year.
The most contentious debate of the day was taking place over the bill to curtail driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Maryland is one of just four states that provides them.
Under an agreement reached by House and Senate negotiators, the door would soon close to applicants who cannot prove their lawful presence in the country. But hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who are now able to drive could keep their driving privileges until July 2015, receiving a limited permit.
The House had passed legislation that grandfathered in those drivers but set no limits on how long they could keep driving. The more conservative Senate plan had no similar grandfather provision. Last night, House negotiators balked at the compromise, saying they had thought it would let immigrants who renewed their driving permits before July 1, 2015, keep them for five years, effectively extending the system until 2019.
They later backed off that position but initially struggled to sell the compromise to enough delegates. However, House leaders succeeded in pushing through the measure.
"Nobody likes this bill," said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery) as she urged her colleagues to vote for the compromise. "I don't like it, and I worked on it. But if we don't pass this bill, we'll be back in special session."
In the Senate, conservative lawmakers launched a short-lived filibuster before the bill was muscled through the chamber.
"This does not do what the citizens are asking us to do," said Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick). "They can't understand why we can't get it right."
House members also sparred over a late-developing bill that would authorize the state to exercise eminent domain over Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and all rights associated with the Preakness and the race trophy, the Woodlawn Vase.
The state also would have authority to issue bonds to finance their purchase, with the goal of finding a private buyer later. But the House passed the bill, which was approved last week by the Senate.
It would give the state the same authority over other Magna assets being sold in federal bankruptcy proceedings.