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Down to the wire

November 13, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - It's a little like cramming for finals.

As the legislative season wanes in Annapolis, floor sessions and committee meetings grow longer and bills fly fast and furious from chamber to chamber as the General Assembly attempts to beat an April 11 deadline for getting legislation approved before the 2005 session becomes a memory.

And as legislators vote on a plethora of bills dealing with everything from selling wine at county festivals to the weighty issues of health care and bioethics, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch sound almost like auctioneers as they move the floor debates along in the House and Senate chambers.

The test will be to see how much proposed legislation survives.

The only action the General Assembly is required to complete before the session ends is to approve a state budget, and in a show of unity that has been rare during this particularly partisan session, both houses voted to approve budget bills this week. There are some differences in the House and Senate versions, however - the House bill, for example, includes a modest property tax cut that is absent from the Senate version - that will have to be resolved during the two remaining weeks of the session.

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"There are some things in the budget that I and my Republican colleagues don't particularly like," said House Majority Leader George Edwards, "but there's more good than bad, so I will vote for it."

But some of this year's other dominant issues still were dangling as legislators completed their most grueling week yet, with House members staying late this holiday weekend for Saturday sessions.

Party to division

This year's General Assembly has been played against a backdrop of deep partisan conflicts that had their origin in divisions over reform to the state's medical malpractice laws during a special session of the legislature last December. Since then, the parties have fought over Gov. Robert Ehrlich's initiatives in several areas, from his continued efforts to get malpractice law reforms to his personnel policies.

The latest point of contention has been Miller's decision to hold up confirmation of about 200 Ehrlich appointments to state boards and commissions unless Ehrlich appoints the Democrats' picks for two Democratic slots on the state board of elections.

And with Miller and Busch promising legislative investigation of the administration's hiring and firing practices as a result of allegations former Ehrlich aide Joseph Steffen had served as the administration's "hatchet man," outing state employees disloyal to Ehrlich, the party bickering could continue after the session and set the stage for next year's election campaigns.

Slots, tots and torts

But the divisions haven't been limited to Democrats and Republicans.

Chances once again were slim for approval of slot machine gambling despite Ehrlich's promise of more money for school construction if a slots bill was approved. That's because Busch and Miller, both Democrats, are miles apart on the issue.

For the first time this year, the House approved a slots bill despite the speaker's opposition. Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, predicted when the session began that Busch would bow to pressure to allow a slots bill out of the House Ways and Means Committee so that the full House could vote on it.

But the House bill differed greatly from a slots bill approved by the Senate, and although talk surfaced this week that Miller might consider trading more malpractice reform for some compromise on slots, Busch wasn't in the mood for compromise this week, saying talk of "slots for torts" would not fly "because it doesn't have wings."

Meanwhile, both houses have approved an implementation bill to make the malpractice premium stopgap fund effective, but the House Judiciary Committee still was considering more than a dozen malpractice law reforms last week. Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, predicted the committee would send some "mild" reform to the full House.

Local agenda

Local bills sponsored by the Washington County Delegation to the General Assembly are on a fast track for passage, with several winning House approval last week. They now will go to the Senate for consideration.

But the most substantial local bill - a revision of the county's building excise tax - still was pending in the House Ways and Means Committee last week. Differences between delegation members and the county commissioners over the bill appear to be ironed out, although a local developer, Zenith Construction Co., is seeking to amend the bill in the Senate to exempt developments that already planned from the tax revision.

Legislators and commissioners say the amendment would gut the bill, which changes the tax from a square-footage computation to a flat fee of $13,000 per residential unit, and raises the cap on the excise tax for commercial development to $5 per square foot.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said that even if a sponsor is found for the amendment, it is unlikely it would survive the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Munson serves on that committee, and said he doubted the committee would support the amendment over a local legislator's objections.

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