ANNAPOLIS – The General Assembly may be teetering on the edge of overtime, according to Gov. Robert Ehrlich, with a mountain of controversial bills yet to be decided and only 26 days left in the regular 90-day session.
The governor said Wednesday during a press briefing he was concerned about the lack of progress on some important bills, especially medical malpractice legislation.
“I’m not threatening a special session, but we’ve tried to frame medical malpractice as a health care access problem,” Ehrlich said. “Speaker (Michael) Busch has been very enthusiastic about the bill . . . but I’m concerned if we don’t make progress we’ll end up in a dire situation.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the House leadership has experienced just as many problems as the administration in stirring up enthusiasm for medical malpractice reform, and credited a bipartisan work group for its efforts in moving the governor’s bill forward.
Ehrlich’s proposal limits non-economic damages and redistributes and recalculates the cost of claims – all designed to put the brakes on rising malpractice insurance rates. The proposal is still being weighed by committees in both chambers.
The speaker also said House committees have made a concerted effort to work through the administration’s agenda.
“The committees have been busting their backsides,” Busch said.
The House has already considered the governor’s proposal to clean up and redevelop abandoned property, an administration bill to levy a user fee on wastewater usage and is scheduled to take up Ehrlich’s transportation plan this week.
The budget, slot machine legislation, an assault weapons ban and the governor’s transportation package represent some of the most prominent issues pending.
The Virginia General Assembly – facing a similar budget crisis and the challenges of a divided government – was ordered into special session by Democratic Gov. Mark Warner this week after the House and Senate failed to pass a budget by the end of their biennial 60-day session.
Ehrlich also said he was concerned about efforts to restrict the governor’s budget authority, calling them “troublesome.”
Those contentious bills included a bill passed in the House to constrict the Board of Public Works’ budget-cutting power. Another attempt to give the Legislature more control in the budget-making process was killed in the Senate last week, after strenuous lobbying by the governor.
“It’s not a personal thing; it’s more partisan,” Ehrlich said. “It really goes to the culture around here.”
The governor and lawmakers started the session on a discordant note – the Legislature reversed three vetoes, most notably the Maryland Energy Efficiency Act, within the first week.
The tension over Ehrlich’s revised slots proposal only added to the rancorous atmosphere. The bill passed a Senate committee last month and a House panel is scheduled to take it up in about two weeks.
After meeting with Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, the governor said progress was being made.
Neither Busch nor Miller would divulge details of their recent meeting with Ehrlich.
“Loose lips sink ships,” Miller said.
The slots bill calls for 15,500 machines distributed among licenses awarded competitively to three racetrack locations and three off-track sites.
Despite the fiercely partisan atmosphere in the Assembly, Ehrlich called for a measure of civility in the last four weeks of the session: “I would respectfully ask that these bills be voted on based on their merits and not on politics.”