- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — The 2007 General Assembly session ended quietly yesterday, but fireworks are expected later over the budget.

Late last night, negotiations to save the financially troubled Prince George’s Hospital System failed, County Executive Jack B. Johnson said.

State and local officials met earlier last evening to discuss the details of the plan, which would have created a state-county partnership for a long-term solution for the system.

“I thought we had a very good agreement, and we just didn’t get it done,” Mr. Johnson said.

Lawmakers left Annapolis after passing a series of fixes to clean the environment, change the voting process and ban smoking in bars and restaurants, but left looming budget battles.

“Our problem is going to be huge next year; no administration, no legislature has sat by idly when we have a problem this large,” said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore Republican. “When the governor blamed the legislature just last week and said we didn’t do our job, he was right.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley criticized budget leaders in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, saying they did not have the “political will” to make tough choices.

However, Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat who in November defeated incumbent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was less critical yesterday.

“I think this was a very positive first session, but we know we still have big challenges ahead of us,” he said. “We’re not going to repair the divisions of the last four years in the first 90 days of this new administration.”

Lawmakers face an estimated $1.5 billion shortfall next year, a result of state spending expected to outpace state revenue. As a result, the lawmakers are expected to battle over increasing taxes, legalizing slot-machine gambling or agreeing to a combination to generate more money to cut the shortfall.

“I think the die has been cast for major tax increases; there will be a major fight over that,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican.

State leaders yesterday also passed a $30 billion budget, one of their few constitutionally mandated duties, with $23 million for stem-cell research, a freeze on in-state college tuition and deferred payment of $53 million for the Intercounty Connector.

Fiscal watchdogs say increasing taxes and cutting spending are the hardest choices lawmakers face.

“The problem is …getting people to come together and compromise,” said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat and former delegate. “And it’s tough; politicians are not great risk-takers usually. People like to make other people happy.”

Among the toughest lawmakers to bring together in Annapolis are Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

They did not appear to grow closer this session, but the relationship was not as strained as it has been in past sessions.

“I’m used to the relationship, and we always seem to get to the finish line,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat. “In all honesty, we’ve had a pretty cordial session.”

Those relations stemmed from broadly supported measures not dealing with the shortfall.

On the hospital impasse, members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee wanted assurances from county officials that they were committed to their end of the plan.

Mr. O’Malley had proposed an eight-year funding plan to create a new health system.

But Mr. Johnson said local officials didn’t want the plan to last longer than their terms in office.

Mr. O’Malley put $20 million in a supplemental budget that could have been used as a down payment for the plan. Without passing legislation, however, the money was set aside to conduct an orderly closure at midnight.

Mr. Johnson said he hopes it won’t come to that. He said local officials will have to “figure out this terrible position we’re in.”

Lawmakers this session also banned oyster dredging in coastal bays and phosphates in dish soap. But they failed to ban capital punishment, driver’s licenses for illegal aliens, assault weapons and talking on cell phones while driving.

Taxes on cigarettes, development and services all failed.

Electoral reforms to push the 2008 presidential primary to Feb. 12, casting the state’s electoral votes for the national popular vote-getter and asking voters whether to approve an early-voting measure passed easily this session.

Maryland is set to become the first to require state contractors pay their workers a living wage and the second state to formally apologize for slavery.

State Republicans won a surprise victory this session with the passage of tougher laws for convicted sex offenders, named “Jessica’s Law.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports

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