- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The General Assembly is in the stretch run of its legislative session and will consider several key bills Thursday, as just five days remain before the session ends.

The House agenda Thursday includes bills that would allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, change the parole process for criminals on life sentences, and establish a state-run venture-capital program.

House committees could also pass a Senate-approved tax increase on alcohol sales and an O’Malley administration-backed proposal to develop offshore wind energy, as legislators scramble to finish business before Monday’s scheduled adjournment.

The tuition, parole and venture-capital bills are scheduled to reach the House floor Thursday morning for possible amendment and could get final chamber votes by the afternoon.

The venture-capital bill, which would establish the Invest Maryland program, is one of two proposals backed by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley that are gaining late-session traction after more than two months of bipartisan skepticism.

The House Ways and Means Committee finally passed the investment bill Tuesday, after sponsors agreed to reduce its funding from $142 million to $100 million. The program would allow insurance companies to purchase tax credits in return for their investment in technology startup companies throughout the state.

A Senate committee is also considering changes to the bill. The legislation would have to pass the House, a pair of Senate committees and the Senate.

As with all bills amended in both chambers, any Senate changes would go back to the House, which would either accept them or choose to negotiate with the Senate in a conference committee.

A second proposal by Mr. O’Malley, which would require utilities to purchase wind energy over the next 20 years, could on Thursday pass the House Economic Matters Committee, where Chairman Dereck E. Davis, Prince George’s Democrat, voiced his support for the bill this week.

Both bills have languished in committees for months as legislators questioned Invest Maryland’s feasibility and the wind bill’s likelihood of increasing Marylanders’ monthly utility bills.

“Quite frankly, the committees have got to find a way to limit the costs” of wind energy, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat. “With gas prices and consumer prices, and wages not catching up with inflation, we’re very concerned about whether this is necessary at this time.”

Heated debates are expected in the House on bills to limit the governor’s role in the parole process for life sentences and on the Dream Act, which would allow in-state tuition for many college-age illegal immigrants.

The parole bill would give the governor a limited window of time, possibly 90 or 180 days, to deny parole recommendations for parole-eligible criminals who have served 25 or more years on a life sentence, before the criminal would automatically be released. The governor currently has an unlimited amount of time to respond.

The Dream Act, which passed the Senate last month, has been heavily amended by Senate and House committees to require that qualifying immigrants start at community colleges and come from taxpaying families.

The House Ways and Means Committee changed the bill this week to require that in-state illegal immigrant students register with the Selective Service. Members also added a stipulation allowing colleges not to count the students toward in-state student quotas, to prevent such students from taking spots normally reserved for legal Maryland residents.

The House Ways and Means Committee could vote as soon as Thursday to approve an increase in the state’s alcohol sales tax, from 6 percent to 9 percent. The proposal has already passed the Senate, though legislators might still consider a proposal by Mr. Miller to immediately install the 9 percent rate, rather than increasing the tax by 1 percentage point each of the next three years.

Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson said she expects the committee to pass the bill, but is unsure how it will be received in the House.

“We’ll be doing a count on people [in the full House], but haven’t done it yet,” the Montgomery Democrat said.

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