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Md. Democrats: We’re passing legislation that people want

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Maryland has long been one of the nation's most Democratic-leaning states, but its progressive politics seem to have ramped up even further of late.

The General Assembly's passage last week of a bill repealing the death penalty was the latest of several progressive proposals to pass the legislature in recent years.

State lawmakers made national news last year by legalizing same-sex marriage and in 2011 they approved the Dream Act, which allows in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants. They are also considering a bill this year that would ban assault weapons and strengthen the state's gun laws, which are already among the nation's toughest.

The wave of liberal legislation has been matched in few states and has been worn as a badge of honor by Democrats who say Maryland is setting positive trends for the country, even as outnumbered Republicans argue they are moving too far.

"Maryland is a state that is founded on freedom, justice and tolerance," Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat, said Friday during debate over the death penalty bill. "Today's historic vote is a long time coming."

Maryland is one of 37 states whose legislature and governor's mansion are controlled by a single party, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and it easily passes much of its most contentious legislation with little to no support from Republicans.

Despite the advantage, conservative Democrats have at times stood in the way of proposals but they have been less resistant of late.

Until this session, yearly bills to repeal the death penalty stalled as conservative Democrats on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee refused to budge and as recently as 2011 House Democrats killed the state's first serious effort to legalize gay marriage.

At times the assembly has even passed fairly conservative legislation, such as a 2009 law that attempted to phase out driver's licenses for illegal immigrants by 2015. This year, lawmakers are considering a bill that would overturn that law.

The recent run of progressive legislation has come as state leaders have been emboldened by their continued dominance in state elections and President Obama's two election victories, said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

"I think they're looking at the numbers and reading into it that Maryland is becoming a more progressive state," he said, adding that Maryland ranks with states including New York and California as the most liberal. "You can understand why the Democrats in the assembly, heading into a [2014] election year, are not shying away from these issues. They don't see that there's a downside."

Democratic lawmakers have generally said their proposals reflect the will of the state's residents and point to ballot victories last fall for gay marriage and the Dream Act as proof that lawmakers are not too liberal for their constituents.

Nonetheless, Republicans have criticized Democrats for their passage of a death penalty ban despite multiple polls this year showing that Maryland voters prefer keeping capital punishment.

Opponents have accused Democrats of catering to urban and liberal parts of the state while ignoring constituents outside of major population centers.

"There's this huge disconnect because you've got Montgomery County, Baltimore and Prince George's County controlling the state," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford Republican. "I've been [in the Senate] 19 years and it's not the same legislature by a long shot."

While state Democrats are confident that their approach is preferred by voters, Mr. Eberly said he could imagine some backlash if the assembly delves too deeply into fiscal progressivism in the form of tax increases.

He said the 2014 elections will go a long way toward proving whether Democratic leaders are carrying out the will of voters or pursuing their own agenda.

"Without there being the benefit of Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, that's going to provide some answers," he said. "I'm not sold on their interpretation of events. They might be in for a bit of a surprise."

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