- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Maryland General Assembly debated into the night in their last legislative session Monday, taking up unfinished business such as the state budget, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and eminent-domain authority before their scheduled adjournment at midnight.

Among hundreds of bills laid over to the final session, the state Senate voted 38-9 to approve the state's $13.8 billion budget. The new budget, proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in January, will include more than $866 million in spending cuts, mostly in the form of state aid for local governments. About $160 million earmarked for local transportation projects, including road paving and snow removal, was included in the cuts.

The spending plan includes $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money. Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Carroll County Republican, said the state should not be relying on the federal government to make ends meet.

“In two years, we are going to have to find money to keep up this spending,” he said. “It seems the forgotten man out here is the person who pays the taxes.”

Lawmakers described the process of figuring out this year's budget as unprecedented, given the severe economic recession gripping the country.

“We've never been here before; these are tough cuts because these are tough times that are reminiscent of the Great Depression,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

The Senate also approved a ban on sending or writing text messages while driving. The bill, now on its way to be signed into law by Mr. O'Malley, would fine motorists a maximum of $500 and go into effect on Oct. 1.

The House of Delegates approved a bill that would allow the state to exercise eminent-domain authority over horse-racing's Preakness Stakes.

The chamber voted 93-43 in favor of the bill, which would give the state authority to exercise eminent domain over the Preakness and the race track it is run on, the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. The bill was introduced by Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, last week amid fears that the Preakness would be moved to another state because the race's current owner, Toronto-based Magna Entertainment Corp., filed for bankruptcy last month.

Critics of the bill deem it unlikely that a federal judge will grant the state the power to take over the Preakness, because federal law forbids a state from using eminent domain to seize the assets of a bankrupt company.

“This bill is political cover, so the government can say we did everything we could do. We're acting a little bit haughty in thinking we can do this,” said Delegate Anthony J. O'Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican.

Supporters say that the authority will give the state the necessary leverage during Magna's bankruptcy proceedings to ensure the Preakness stays in Maryland.

“[The Preakness] is our lunch. Don't allow someone else to eat our lunch,” said Delegate Shawn Z. Tarrant, Baltimore Democrat. “The Preakness belongs to the people of Maryland.”

Lawmakers from both chambers debated a compromise on the issue of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Maryland is one of four states that do not check immigration status when issuing a license, and legislators are hard pressed to ensure that the state is compliant with the federal REAL ID Act, which forbids such practices.

A Senate version of the bill would forbid the state from issuing a driver's license to someone who cannot prove lawful presence in the country, while a bill approved by the House of Delegates would allow those who already have a license to renew it indefinitely.

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