Maryland lawmakers go to work on a mountain of bills

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In the next three weeks, Maryland lawmakers might require drivers who talk on cellphones to use hands-free devices. Legislators could overhaul the state's child-support guidelines for the first time in two decades. And there's still a chance they could lift a ban that prevents residents from having wine shipped to their homes from out of state.

Those issues -- and dozens more affecting the lives of millions of Marylanders -- were among those awaiting resolution Monday as the General Assembly prepared to handle a crush of legislation in the closing weeks of its 90-day session.

By the time the confetti fell on the final night of last year's session, nearly 800 bills had been sent to the governor. Although lawmakers expect similar output this year, only three resolutions and one bill had cleared both chambers by Monday afternoon. And the pace isn't all that unusual.

"You're at that point of the session where time is an enormous factor," said veteran Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano. "Everything comes to a crescendo."

After nine weeks dominated by committee hearings and lobbyist-paid dinners, looming deadlines are certain to prompt votes on literally hundreds of bills, including the state budget, changes to teacher tenure rules and a plan to allow gambling on card games at a Prince George's racetrack.

Much of the immediate action is being driven by what is known in legislative parlance as "crossover." Bills that have not cleared at least one chamber by Monday face additional procedural hurdles that can doom them.

To handle the increased load, House leaders have already announced their intentions to hold two-a-day floor sessions toward the end of the week and to come in for a rare Saturday session. In the Senate, "it's going to be a 47-ring circus this week," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery).

The outcome of several relatively high-profile issues this year is all but certain. Barring major surprises, lawmakers will send Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) a package of bills by the close of session toughening penalties and tightening restrictions on sex offenders.

Lawmakers are on track to pass a bill offering businesses a $5,000 tax credit for each previously unemployed worker they hire. And they are close to passing a bill that would overhaul the state's unemployment insurance system, providing some short-term relief for struggling companies.

The outcome of other bills is less clear.

The Senate has passed a bill, for example, that would gradually increase the age at which high school students can drop out, from 16 to 18, provided the governor includes funding in his budget for the additional enrollment. The House has not acted on the measure.

Both chambers are debating bills that would require drivers to use a hands-free device to talk on a cellphone. First-time offenders would be subject to a $100 fine in the House version and a $40 fine in the Senate version.

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