- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — State lawmakers say the upcoming elections will only intensify long-standing partisan wrangling in the General Assembly over such key issues as same-sex “marriages,” election laws and eminent domain.

“It will be very brutal,” said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, Montgomery Democrat and the Senate’s president pro tem. “Last year was pretty bad, and I suspect this year, the partisanship situation will be that much more devastating.”

The Democratic-controlled legislature is expected to start the session today by attempting to override at least two vetoes by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican facing fierce competition from Democrats this year in his bid for re-election. The voting is expected to begin tomorrow.

The votes will target Mr. Ehrlich’s veto last year of a bill increasing the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour and one requiring large businesses to pay employee health insurance.

House and Senate leaders are confident that they can secure the three-fifths majority vote needed to reverse the vetoes, despite nearly unanimous opposition by Republicans.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in the legislature.

Supporters of the wage increase say it will improve the standard of living for the working poor. Supporters of the mandated health-insurance coverage — the so-called Wal-Mart bill — say it will protect employees of large corporations.

Mr. Ehrlich and other opponents of the bills say they will cost the state jobs. They say that a higher minimum wage will force small businesses to eliminate jobs at the bottom of the wage scale and that the Wal-Mart bill will drive big business out of state, including jeopardizing Wal-Mart’s plan to open a region distribution center in job-starved Somerset County.

The parties also will face off over the budget, particularly how to use a projected $1.7 billion surplus on requests such as transportation, school funding and increased pension benefits for teachers and state employees.

Mr. Ehrlich this week proposed spending nearly $90 million of the surplus to cut the property-tax rate by 2 cents — to 11.2 cents per $100 assessed value.

The cut would erase nearly half of the 4.8-cent rate increase that Mr. Ehrlich helped pass in 2003 to help close a $2 billion budget deficit inherited from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

Lawmakers typically are reluctant to deny constituents a tax cut in an election year for fear of losing votes. However, some key Democrats have already voiced opposition to a property-tax reduction.

Partisan disagreement is also expected over Democrats’ efforts to restore voting rights for felons and expand protections against voter intimidation at the polls.

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican, said that such changes are “not necessary” and that they “open the election process to fraud.”

Republican lawmakers will likely face opposition to a constitutional amendment they have proposed to restrict state power to seize private property for economic-development projects. The amendment would limit eminent domain authority to projects for roads, parks, schools and some government-sponsored redevelopment projects.

Republican leaders have called the constitutional amendment one of their chief legislative priorities this year.

It aims to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London, Conn., which is widely viewed as an expansion of eminent domain powers.

“There will be resistance to putting it on the ballot,” Mr. Harris said. “I don’t think the Democrats want what they see as a Republican issue on the ballot.”

Democrats are expected to oppose a Republican constitutional amendment to ban homosexual “marriage.”

Maryland law already defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman. However, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge is considering a lawsuit that says the law is discriminatory.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment say it is needed to protect traditional marriage from such court challenges.

Democratic lawmakers have blocked past attempts to get the question on the ballot.

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