Monday will be a cliffhanger day for Md. assembly

By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 12, 2010

The final day of lawmaking this year in Annapolis will be a cliffhanger Monday with a number of divisive proposals in limbo, including measures to better track sex offenders, require significantly higher child-support payments, allow Las Vegas-style gambling at a Prince George's County racetrack, and give schools and police new powers to combat youth gangs.

A bill to legalize medical marijuana remains alive but is a long shot. And a handful of lawmakers have vowed to make a last run at prohibiting Maryland from recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

Many of the most controversial bills that remain typify the deep social-policy debates that have dominated this year's session. With funding shortages precluding the General Assembly from expanding or creating new programs -- or even paying for ones it approved -- social-policy questions that didn't come with obvious price tags but turned into election-year politics drew the most debate.

"The budget cast a pall over this entire session, but that didn't mean there wasn't going to be controversy," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said Saturday as both chambers scrambled to pass dozens of bills. "We'll see how it all ends on Monday." The legislature is scheduled to adjourn at midnight.

Many of the last-minute negotiations are expected to center on whether Maryland should continue its traditionally conservative approach of adopting new law-enforcement rules governing everything from penalties against drunk drivers to sexual predators.

Advocates for victims of sexual abuse, for example, want the state to go beyond what some powerful Democratic state lawmakers consider Maryland's measured approach to sentencing guidelines and increase mandatory minimums for first-time sexual offenders from five years to 15 or 20 years.

Senators on a key conference committee are also holding up a bill that would make it easier for residents to track sex offenders online and to classify them based on the seriousness of their crimes, in accordance with federal guidelines. They have added two controversial provisions to it: allowing county state's attorneys to introduce far more information in court about offenders' prior records, and permitting the institutionalization of sex offenders beyond their prison terms.

Senators seem to be willing to give up on the latter, but both sides seem to be betting that the other will blink first rather than let the legislation die, because it has been a priority of state leaders since last year's killing of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell on the Eastern Shore. Her death and the arrest of one of the state's high-risk sexual offenders in connection with it exposed gaps in Maryland's web of laws on how sexual offenders are prosecuted and supervised.

On Saturday, more tension was on display in the Senate over a measure designed to fix a law to make it easier for state's attorneys to prosecute suspected gang members. A two-year-old law to let police charge gang members as conspirators and toughen penalties on those thought to be running gangs has not resulted in a single conviction. House lawmakers last week settled on an update to that law introduced by Del. Gerron S. Levi (D-Prince George's). But tempers flared during Saturday's debate on the bill, and all 10 African American senators opposed it on a preliminary vote.

"This is a discriminatory bill," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), adding that it could disproportionately target minorities who may often come in contact with gang members. "It targets African Americans, Asians and Latinos."

"If you want to kill the bill, go ahead -- we don't have to care about gangs," Sen. James N. Robey (D-Howard), a former police chief, said sarcastically.

Several lawmakers said they expect that toned-down versions of both measures -- similar to a milder compromise reached on a ban of hand-held cellphone use behind the wheel -- would win approval before midnight.

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