Maryland lawmakers craft compromises as session winds down

By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It took almost every hour of this year's session of the Maryland General Assembly, but up against a midnight deadline, lawmakers late Monday approved bills to combat gangs and tighten restrictions on sex offenders in response to the tragic deaths last year of two Maryland children.

Following what police say was the killing in December of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl at the hands of one of Maryland's high-risk sex offenders, lawmakers voted to require lifetime supervision of sexual predators, update its online sex-offender registry, triple the mandatory minimum sentences for rapes and assaults of young children and make it harder for repeat offenders to get out of jail.

Advocates for victims of sexual assaults said that taken together, the bills would significantly tighten the web of laws designed to keep sex offenders in Maryland in check under wraps.

And to prevent a repeat of the kind of violence between school-age gang members that culminated in last year's beating death of a 14-year-old Crofton boy, lawmakers passed a first-of-its-kind measure to require schools and police to share information about students and set the stage for classroom interventions with those who that teachers believe think to be heading toward gang involvement.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who sponsored the bill, called it a collaborative success that would make Maryland schools safer. "This bill is a positive step forward in reducing crime and improving the education environment for our children," he said in an e-mail as lawmakers rushed to pass hundreds of bills.

In the General Assembly's final day of lawmaking, the legislature also reached a compromise on the first overhaul of the state's child-support guidelines in 20 years, voted to require utilities to buy more solar power and finalized the last portion of the state's budget.

Under the capital spending plan, the state will borrow an additional $250.million for school construction and set aside almost $17.million to purchase open space, over the objections of Republicans, who said Maryland is going too far into debt.

One of two education bills backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) also was approved. For weeks, both of the bills -- one to help Maryland compete for federal Race to the Top funding and the other to aid Catholic schools -- seemed headed for approval. But in the days leading up to the end of the session, their fates became less certain.

A watered-down version of the education changes passed the Senate near 11 p.m. and won approval in the House before midnight, but a plan to let businesses prop up private schools with tax-deductible donations appeared to have been upended by amendments that would have provided more direct funding from the state. Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), the powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that the amendments raised concerns about the separation of church and state and that her committee would not vote on the measures until Maryland's attorney general could issue a recommendation on them.

For most of the day Monday, the biggest surprise was that one of the sex offender measures suddenly seemed in danger of failing.

Like so many of the measures Maryland lawmakers focused on this session, sex offender legislation came in response to a crisis. One of the state's high-risk sex offenders was arrested in the Christmastime kidnapping and killing of Sarah Haley Foxwell, an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl. The case episode exposed a series of gaps in the state's laws to track and monitor supervise sex offenders.

Of the more than 50 bills lawmakers introduced to tighten restrictions on sex offenders, three ultimately formed the core of the General Assembly's expected reforms changes. Lifetime supervision and a measure to give new powers to an oversight board were well on their way to final approval. Yet one that would make it easier to track predators online got caught in a Senate-House battle with no clear resolution in sight.

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