- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — State lawmakers will likely pass no new gun legislation this year with less than two weeks remaining in the 2004 General Assembly session.

“I think the gun debate died when [Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr.] decided he wasn’t going to support any kind of ban,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

Mr. Giannetti, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s Democrat, is considered the swing vote on the Senate’s 11-member Judicial Proceedings Committee that is scheduled to decide today whether to impose a ban on assault weapons in Maryland.

With just 11 days left in the 2004 General Assembly session, passage of almost every major piece of legislation introduced this year is being threatened by disagreements among the House, the Senate and the governor.

“We’re at loggerheads,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat, said yesterday .

Most of the important work of legislative sessions is usually completed in the final week or two of the annual 90-day meeting. But this year, legislative leaders acknowledge there are no solutions in sight to their differences over such key issues as taxes, slot machines, health care and the environment.

Typically at this point in the session, a conference committee of Senate and House fiscal leaders would be negotiating an agreement on the state budget.

But Mr. Miller has not appointed Senate members of the budget conference committee. He is waiting for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, to schedule a vote on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s slot machine bill, which the Senate passed more than a month ago. Mr. Busch has not said when the slots vote will take place.

Neither side anticipates major problems over the budget when negotiations begin, but there are disagreements among the House, the Senate and the governor about a separate bill that provides revenue to balance the budget.

The House proposed $670 million in new fees and taxes that includes increasing the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent and a temporary increase in the income tax rate for affluent Marylanders, but it has not voted on Mr. Ehrlich’s slot machine bill.

The Senate approved a more modest revenue package of about $100 million. Mr. Ehrlich is willing to accept some fees and perhaps some taxes, but is adamantly opposed to the House tax package. Mr. Ehrlich said he would not agree to increases in the sales and income taxes to win legislative approval of his bill to authorize 15,500 slot machines at as many as six locations.

At a hearing on the slot machine legislation Tuesday, the governor and his budget secretary, James DiPaula, said if the slots bill does not pass, Medicaid and local aid will be targets for the big spending cuts that will be required to balance the fiscal 2006 budget that they will present to the legislature next January.

Mr. Miller said legislative leaders and the governor’s staff were meeting yesterday and today to discuss the budget, taxes and slot machines.

The meetings ended last night with Mr. Ehrlich saying nothing had been resolved.

None of Mr. Ehrlich’s legislative proposals have been passed; most have been killed or are languishing somewhere in the legislative process.

The most promising outlook is for Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to increase fees to raise money for transportation. The governor had asked for $300 million, but a scaled-back plan of $220 million has passed the House and is scheduled for a vote today in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, committee chairman and Prince George’s Democrat, expects the committee to accept the House bill with perhaps some minor changes.

Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal to impose a fee of $30 a year on sewer bills to help pay for $1 billion worth of sewage treatment plant upgrades is buried in a Senate committee because of a disagreement about whether fees also should be assessed on septic tank owners to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The governor’s anticrime bill that would allow juries and judges to impose a death sentence for intimidation of witnesses in criminal trials was quashed in a House committee.

Mr. Ehrlich and lobbyists for the health care industry began the session with a push for legislation to reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance. The only bill still alive would set up a task force to examine the problem.

The House of Delegates has approved a series of measures that would transform Maryland’s troubled juvenile justice system. The legislation mandates that every young offender in the system be assigned a mentor and receive year-round education.

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