- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The General Assembly’s 90-day frenzy of filing, debating, killing and approving bills begins Wednesday — a session that will see now-perennial efforts to legalize slot machines, as well as legislation to allow embryonic stem-cell research, ban homosexual “marriage” and cut air pollution.

Leading Democratic lawmakers say the issue of medical malpractice insurance reform has been “put to bed,” and they are moving on to other agenda items. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has promised a veto of the legislation, passed in an emergency session over the holidays. Mr. Ehrlich has vowed to reintroduce his malpractice reform bill this month if Democrats override his veto.

All this while closing a budget gap anticipated at $300 million.

“The top three issues this year are the budget, the budget and the budget,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County. Mr. Barve and other Democratic leaders are apprehensive about Mr. Ehrlich’s 2006 budget.

Mr. Ehrlich has until Jan. 19 to introduce his spending plan. So far, he has released only tidbits, such as a $43 million increase in spending for colleges and universities. Still unknown is which programs the governor will cut. Over the summer, Mr. Ehrlich asked state agencies to submit spending plans with proposed cuts of 12 percent, leaving some lawmakers to fear the worst.

As for the malpractice debate, any further legislation from the governor could meet a swift end, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat.

“I think medical malpractice is pretty much put to bed,” Mr. Miller said. “People seem very happy we’ve done our task,” he said of the bill, which will slash rate increases from 33 percent to 5 percent this year.

Mr. Ehrlich maintains that the bill is “lighter than air” on tort reform and does nothing to stem long-term increases in insurance premiums.

Mr. Miller predicts the Senate will pass a bill to legalize slot machines. Mr. Ehrlich’s slots bills have stalled in the House for the past two sessions, and his communications director, Paul Schurick, says the governor won’t spend time on the issue this year unless he is sure it has a chance of House approval.

“Nothing has changed since last year,” Mr. Schurick said. He added, though, that Mr. Ehrlich “welcomes the debate.”

Mr. Ehrlich’s administration again will introduce a bill broadening penalties for those found guilty of intimidating criminal witnesses.

A similar package of bills gained wide support in the 2004 session but died in a legislative committee.

Also among the hundreds of bills to be introduced will be one by Mr. Miller that would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to a not-yet-decided amount. Another would establish early voting in Maryland.

Fearful the state will lose its edge in the competitive field of biotechnology, two Democratic lawmakers will sponsor legislation to foster human embryonic stem-cell research in Maryland. The bills by Sen. Paula Colodny Hollinger of Baltimore County and Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore would create a legal framework for conducting stem-cell research and provide state funds to underwrite research.

“It’s our hope that it won’t be controversial,” Mr. Barve said.

But the legislation is sure to meet resistance from pro-life lawmakers who oppose using state funds to pay for embryonic stem-cell research because they consider destruction of the embryo to be destruction of human life.

Opponents of homosexual “marriage” have vowed to introduce a constitutional amendment to ensure the courts cannot overturn Maryland’s ban on same-sex “marriage.” Democrat-controlled committees killed a similar measure last year, and the legislation is expected to meet with opposition again this year.

On the environmental front, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation is pushing a bill from two Prince George’s Democrats, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky and Delegate James W. Hubbard, to force power plants to reduce mercury pollution from emissions. The legislation, called the “4-P” or “four pollutant” bill, also would force reductions in nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.

The foundation also is lobbying for legislation to require the state to put more money in a fund for land preservation. Mr. Ehrlich’s cuts from Program Open Space have disrupted a longtime revenue strategy set up by lawmakers, in which money for state preservation programs comes from the real estate transfer tax.

As more land is sold for development, more money is dedicated to preservation. The large stream of cash, up to $100 million a year, is attractive to state officials trying to make up a shortfall. Sometimes up to half of it is diverted to other programs.

Other bills would ban the toxic gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. Leading lawmakers say they doubt that a prohibition will pass. Delegate Maggie McIntosh, Baltimore Democrat, has said she also has concerns that burning alternative fuels raises levels of certain air pollutants.

The committee has to balance those concerns with what is known about MTBE, which has been identified as a potential carcinogen. MTBE has been found in Maryland groundwater.

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