- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland General Assembly has left a long to-do list of legislation for its final day of work today — including bills that could raise rancorous debate on the chamber floors.

Lawmakers approved a $25.9 billion state budget after resolving a dispute over whether to cut property taxes and increase money allotted for building schools. They also signed off on legislation known as the “Wal-Mart bill” that would require the retail giant to spend more on health care benefits for its employees.

But much work was left to do on the marathon ending of the 90-day session, known as “sine die” — Latin for “without a day.”

Several of the bills have become tied up in emotional debates that focus on moral issues.

The Senate was to give a final weigh-in on legislation that would establish a registry for straight and homosexual domestic partners and give them medical decision-making rights. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. predicted that the bill would pass, despite conservative lawmakers’ concerns that the bill opens the door to legalizing same-sex “marriage” in Maryland.

The House approved the bill Saturday after adding an amendment clarifying that nothing in the legislation could be construed as an endorsement of same-sex “marriage” or civil unions.

Another bill up for consideration in the Senate today would give tax breaks to domestic partners who trade off property to each other. The benefit currently is allowed only to married couples.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, Washington County Republican, told fellow senators in debate Saturday that the bill opens a loophole “big enough to drive a truck through.” The House has approved the bill.

“I’m concerned about various bills that are clearly steps toward same-sex marriage,” Mr. Mooney said after Saturday’s debate.

A threatened filibuster on legislation that would endorse funding for stem-cell research so far has kept that bill off the Senate floor.

But it has a chance of making it into debate today, Mr. Miller said.

Sen. Paula Colodny Hollinger, Baltimore County Democrat who leads the committee that approved the bill, has been pressuring senators for support and trying to secure the votes to stop a filibuster.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for the first time since the start of the session, said publicly Saturday that he “supports embryonic stem-cell research.”

After the interview on WBAL-AM, Mrs. Hollinger said she hopes Republicans will take the Republican governor’s declaration as a cue to support the legislation.

A bill that would stiffen penalties for harming a fetus during an attack on a pregnant woman also was unresolved and set for debate today.

One piece of legislation that raised heated debate on homosexual rights won approval. A bill that would stiffen penalties for crimes motivated by another person’s sexual orientation is headed to Mr. Ehrlich’s desk.

Supporters said if Mr. Ehrlich signs the bill into law, it will signal the culmination of at least eight years of lobbying for the legislation.

Also unresolved was legislation to:

• Limit Mr. Ehrlich’s ability to sell conservation land.

• Rename the Baltimore-Washington International Airport after Maryland native Thurgood Marshall.

• Allow Marylanders to cast ballots in the days leading up to elections.

• Allow some testimony of intimidated witnesses who refuse to appear in court.

Democratic lawmakers on Saturday pushed through an amendment to an election bill that would change the 2006 primary from September until June, a move that could help Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate by allowing them more time to regroup and raise money before general elections in November. It is another piece of legislation left for today’s agenda in the House.

Also on the House’s list of chores for today are attempts to override Mr. Ehrlich’s vetoes of bills dealing with elections and international trade.

The Senate successfully overrode the vetoes Saturday, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he wanted to make sure he had as many members present as possible before trying for the 85 votes needed for an override.

Despite the work left to do, House and Senate leaders closed shop Saturday night saying they were optimistic. “I think we’re in very good shape,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat. “We’ll get the vast majority of our work accomplished.”

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