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2006 session steered clear of controversy

April 09, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

As the Maryland General Assembly enters the final day of the 2006 legislative session Monday, pundits and politicians alike already have begun tallying winners and losers.

To some degree, legislators have steered clear of controversial issues in this election year, but did reach a compromise of sorts on embryonic stem cell research.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich had put $20 million for stem cell research in his original budget proposal; bills specifically written to include embryonic stem cell research and sponsored by Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, and Del. Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, sought $25 million.

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Despite objections from conservative legislators who contended embryonic research destroyed human life, the legislature ultimately voted to approve $15 million for stem cell research, including embryonic. Ehrlich signed the bill into law last week.

But despite overwhelming support by Republicans - and a few Democrats - an early proposal for a constitutional amendment to define marriage in Maryland as between one man and one woman never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee.

An issue that sparked fireworks last year when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller outmaneuvered Ehrlich on medical malpractice bills during a special session perished with hardly a whimper this year.

Ehrlich sought comprehensive reforms, but Miller pushed through legislation that created a stopgap fund to temporarily subsidize rocketing malpractice liability insurance premiums.

Further efforts to reform the state's medical malpractice laws were killed this year in the House Judiciary Committee, even though physicians throughout the state, including several from Washington County, journeyed to Annapolis to testify in support.

Failure to get further changes surprised no one, however. Whether reforms come in future years could have more to do with what happens in November than with any testimony during legislative hearings.

"I hate to be too political about it, but a lot depends on the outcome of the next election," lobbyist Don Murphy, a former legislator hired by physicians' groups to press malpractice legislation, remarked mid-session. Right now, too many powerful lawmakers, as well as most of the state's trial lawyers, oppose it.

A controversial bill that produced more heat in Hagerstown than in Annapolis officially failed last week.

At the request of constituents in the southern, fast-growing portion of Washington County, local legislators filed a proposal to create a task force to study whether the county should change the method of electing school board members from at-large to district.

Opposition from the Board of Education persuaded Bennett Bozman, chairman of the education subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, not to advance the bill.

And ongoing questions about what a bill to revise the county's excise tax authority should include kept the bill in limbo until the end. On Friday, the Senate gave unanimous approval to the amended bill, which allows the county to waive the tax for new businesses, but requires the county to waive the tax for existing businesses that want to expand - up to 50,000 square feet.

But because the bill was amended, it had to go back to the House for a vote on the amendments - reminiscent of last year, when amendments stalled the bill until the final moments of the legislative session. The House finally got to vote on the bill just minutes before midnight on Sine Die, the last day of the session.

Most other local bills already have passed; one still awaiting Senate action on Friday was a request to let fire companies appoint more fire police. Only three fire police may be appointed per fire company now; the bill would allow up to 12.

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