Md. Democrats to start session on the offense

January 11, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER


If there were any question about the top priority of legislative Democrats during this year's General Assembly, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller cleared it up Tuesday afternoon.

First order of business after the assembly convenes today is to "declare Independence Day" on Thursday, when the Senate expects to consider overrides of Gov. Robert Ehrlich's vetoes from last year - including the Fair Share Health Care Act, which would force large employers to contribute 8 percent or more of payroll on health care, and a bill to increase the minimum wage. And then, Miller said, Democrats will continue to go after the Republican governor - and any other Republicans they can whip - until after the election later this year, when "from Leonardtown to Hagerstown, we're gonna be singing 'Happy Days Are Here Again.'"

Tuesday was a big day for Democrats in Annapolis, as most of the icons in the state party's pantheon converged on the state capital on the eve of the legislature's opening for a luncheon calculated to rally the troops.


Retiring U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes received a standing ovation from the crowd, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski and U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin, now a candidate for Sarbanes' seat, were among the speakers. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, decried Ehrlich's veto of the Fair Share Health Care Act - the so-called "Wal-Mart Bill" - and credited Del. Galen Clagett, D-Frederick, with quipping that Ehrlich had changed Maryland from "the Free State" to "the fee state."

While the Democrats maintain a sizable majority in the General Assembly, they are determined to unseat Ehrlich and thwart Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's campaign for Sarbanes' seat.

But it was after the luncheon when House Democrats got down to business. According to Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, the House leadership is keyed on about half a dozen priority issues. They include:

  • The attorney general's sexual predators bill - Attorney General Joseph Curran has proposed legislation to tighten up monitoring of sex offenders, and House leaders plan to press for passage. Ehrlich has proposed his own package of bills to crack down on sex offenders, and several individual legislators plan to introduce their own measures. Both Curran and Ehrlich propose lifetime supervision for certain sex offenders as well as broader reporting requirements for the state's Sex Offender Registry.

  • Benefits for soldiers - Donoghue said the leadership wants to pick up tuition costs for college-age children of active-duty soldiers who leave Maryland to serve, for example, in Iraq. Also on the table is a proposal to provide a $50,000 death benefit, similar to that provided to police and firefighters.

  • Agricultural land preservation - The final form of this proposal isn't available yet, Donoghue said, but he said it would include agreements between farmers and environmentalists.

  • Stem cell research - In addition to the bill that died in the Senate last year that sought state funding for embryonic stem cell research, Donoghue said other, less controversial, bills are expected.

    On Tuesday, Ehrlich announced he will include $20 million in next year's budget to pay for stem cell research, setting up a potential fight in the legislature with lawmakers who oppose use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes.

  • Health care - The leadership likely would push several health-care bills this year, Donoghue said.

  • Property taxes - Dueling tax relief measures are expected. Ehrlich already has proposed a property tax cut, and the Democratic leadership plans to sponsor a tax cut proposal of its own.

But if the Democrats were strategizing, the Republicans weren't twiddling their thumbs.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said his party was formulating its own strategy during two caucus meetings Tuesday to deal with the veto override attempts as well as its own list of legislative priorities, which he declined to divulge.

Shank expected the override votes to be close. And he left no doubts about where he stood on the Wal-Mart bill.

"It seems to me that the governor's veto was prudent," Shank said, and overriding, he added, "sends a very bad message to the business community."

The General Assembly begins today at noon.

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