- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | The Maryland Senate voted 40-7 Wednesday to approve the state's $1.1 billion capital budget, which includes a one-time $150 million increase in borrowing to help address the state's budget problems.

The capital budget contains funding for state infrastructure. It includes about $278 million in total relief to the state's nearly $14 billion operating budget through borrowing and fund transfers.

The budget includes $52.5 million to buy three new medevac helicopters to start replacing an aging fleet. It also includes about $260 million in general obligation bonds for school-construction work; roughly $308 million in general obligation bonds for higher-education projects; and $28 million in bonds for hospitals, senior centers and juvenile-services facilities.

The House has approved a similar plan. The two versions will need to be worked out before the General Assembly adjourns Monday.

Senate approval came after a skirmish over a proposed amendment to tie funding for public colleges and universities to whether they follow through with developing policies relating to the showing of pornographic films. The amendment sought by Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican, was ruled out of order after senators appeared fatigued over the issue.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, said he has received phone calls from constituents who are struggling with financial difficulties and frustrated by the Senate's distraction.

“This needs to go down, because it needs to stop here today,” Mr. Pipkin said in a fiery speech expressing exasperation that the matter has carried on for days.

The proposed amendment was in response to plans at the University of Maryland at College Park, to show a pornographic movie at a theater in the Student Union. The university ended up canceling the showing once the Senate considered a budget amendment last week to restrict funding. A partial showing took place in a lecture hall Monday night with a discussion of free speech and censorship issues before the clips were shown.

A joint committee of Senate and House members that is working out differences in legislation containing the state's general fund has proposed budget language to require public colleges to create policies about showing pornographic films by Sept. 1.

In other legislative matters:

c The president of the Maryland Senate said he doesn't see much opportunity for compromise as lawmakers consider whether to allow illegal immigrants any access to driver's licenses.

The House of Delegates and the Senate have voted to stop giving licenses to illegal immigrants this year. The House, however, wants to allow those who already have state identification to renew their licenses and receive a distinct card that could not be used to board planes or enter federal buildings.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Wednesday that he doesn't see a compromise emerging, and that either he or House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, will have to “turn the votes” in their chambers.

c Utilities in Maryland are proposing relief plans to help customers behind on their payments.

State regulators asked the companies for the plans after customers' bills spiked this winter.

Utility representatives who appeared at a Public Service Commission hearing Tuesday said they support offering no-interest payment plans as long as the debts are repaid before bills start increasing again next winter.

In March, Maryland regulators temporarily barred utilities from shutting off gas or electricity service to more than 120,000 delinquent residential customers until a plan could be devised.

Baltimore Gas and Electric and Potomac Electric Power Co. have blamed a variety of factors for the increases, including colder-than-normal temperatures and rising energy costs.

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