ANNAPOLIS – Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly engineered the override of several key vetoes by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Monday night as the state Legislature ended its regular session in the same intensely partisan way it began three months ago.
Now, exhausted legislators still must face the possibility that they will be called right back to Annapolis to deal with some unfinished business – the search for a way to soften impending electricity rate increases for the 1.1 million Baltimore Gas and Electric Company customers in Central Maryland.
“This is status quo politics,” Ehrlich complained at a press conference a few minutes before the midnight end to the 90-day session. He called the series of election-related bills passed over his veto by the Democratic majority “silly,” and termed the Assembly’s insistence on blocking a state takeover of 11 failing Baltimore City schools his “worst moment in 20 years of public service.”
GOP lawmakers have been saying much the same during the last 90 days, claiming that the Democratic agenda was simply one political jab after another to discredit the state’s first Republican governor in a generation as he embarks on his reelection bid this year.
“It was unusually partisan,” said Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Lower Shore, of his 16th year in the legislature. “I think it’s going to hurt the other side (in the elections), the public doesn’t like this fighting.”
But Democrats have been quick to counter with accusations of their own – Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Southern Maryland, previously called the attempted Baltimore City school takeover “right-wing malarkey” designed to “subjugate” Democratic Mayor Martin O’Malley, a leading contender to challenge Ehrlich this fall.
Ehrlich’s veto of the bill was overturned by the House of Delegates Saturday and then by the Senate Monday morning.
“Kids lost today,” Ehrlich said after the override was completed. “I’ve never seen so many people celebrate so much over complete dysfunction.”
The move to stall that state takeover was put together by Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, who said he was optimistic that progress will be made in the city schools without state guidance.
“It means we have a lot of work to do,” McFadden said after the override. “We have to roll up our sleeves, we still have a problem.”
The schools controversy, like the BGE rate increase, came out of nowhere in the last few weeks of the session and dominated a General Assembly that had already been bracing for an unusually strong dose of election year politics.
Three other veto overrides completed Monday will establish early-voting polling locations, prohibit University System of Maryland regents from participating in campaign fundraising and ease restrictions on collective bargaining by state employees.
“All in all, it was a great session,” Miller said a few minutes after he gaveled the session to a close and endured the traditional confetti shower from the galleries above. “It was a huge win for anyone concerned with education.”
Indeed, members of both parties were quick to point out increases in education funding, a bolstered financial aid program, revamped teacher pensions and tuition freezes for the state’s public universities.
“Higher education has been an incredible winner this year,” Ehrlich said, tallying up legislative victories this session.
Healthcare and environmental issues were at the forefront as well, with legislators and the governor both pushing for stem cell research funding and clean air initiatives.
Members of both parties supported some form of stem cell research, but conservative lawmakers were able to gather enough votes to force a preference for the more-controversial embryonic stem cell research out of the bill before its passage. The law now includes $15 million in funding to be distributed by the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, a business development group.
The Healthy Air Act, which imposes restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants, was also passed and signed by Ehrlich, despite his claims that it closely resembles his own rules announced last summer.
But several items were still on the table as the clock struck midnight, including a heavily amended bill that would have toughened the sentencing and monitoring of sex offenders.
Ehrlich blamed the lack of a sex offender bill on what he characterized as the Assembly’s spending too much time on political bills aimed at embarrassing him. “By any measure, these misplaced priorities are a result of partisanship,” the governor said.
The sex offender bill stalled in the Senate Monday night as debate erupted over portions of the bill that would impose minimum sentences on first-time offenders who have been convicted of raping young children.
“I think we spent too much time trying to be partisan and trying to override vetoes,” said House minority whip Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Southern Maryland, in explaining why time ran out on many high-profile bills. “It didn’t help the citizens of Maryland.”
Four of Ehrlich’s most controversial vetoes were also left intact. One would have given the Senate more oversight over the governor’s cabinet. The other three were bills that lawmakers had been using as bargaining chips with BGE.
The override battles Monday night were reminiscent of the opening week of the session in January when the overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses mustered enough votes to override Ehrlich’s vetoes and enact 17 contested bills into law.
The laws ranged from the “Wal-Mart bill,” which requires the mega-retailer to pay at least eight percent of its payroll toward employee healthcare, to a $1 increase in the state’s minimum wage, to provisions that require local election boards to open some polls in their districts up to eight days before Election Day.
Despite the breakneck pace that Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, set throughout the final day, and the partisan warfare in both chambers, members had at least one collegial moment when the University of Maryland women’s basketball team paid a visit to celebrate their national championship victory.
“Hail to the Terps,” yelled Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George’s, over the roar of the chamber’s third standing ovation. “See you next year,” McFadden called as the team filed out.