First Click, Maryland: Emotions run deep in Senate budget debate
Your morning download of Maryland political news
Wednesday, March 24, 2010:
Senate staffers and state budget officials in Annapolis will begin Wednesday deep in the weeds of a $31.9 billion budget proposal, aiming to clean up spending bills that were amended and re-amended nearly 250 times during a marathon floor debate that ended after 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
By the time staffers finish their work and the bills are printed and ready to be voted upon later Wednesday, they will be scrubbed of all the emotional debate that on Tuesday night offered a rare look into the deep social and geographical schisms that exist within Maryland's deep shade of blue on national political maps.
In perennial fights, Maryland Republicans and the state's socially conservative Democrats sought to block or at least reduce the millions in funding for abortions paid for with Medicaid and embryonic stem-cell research.
"I think our public policy actually promotes abortions and steers people away from alternatives," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford), drawing sighs and eye rolling from some of the state's more liberal lawmakers from Montgomery County.
That was just the beginning: Rural lawmakers from both parties tried to gang up on urban districts to beat more than $200 million in cuts to funding for local highway improvements. Prince George's lawmakers objected to a $58,000 cut to fund one vacant position to promote diversity (one of 500 vacant positions the would be eliminated under the Senate spending plan).
And a hyperbole-fueled debate over educational independence and whether to clamp down on a student law clinic at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Law nearly ended in name calling. (The budget includes money to require the school's environmental law clinic to report on the clients represented and expenditures made over the last two years following lawmakers' concerns about a lawsuit filed against an Eastern Shore farmer).
Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George's) and other union advocates from Montgomery County also passionately objected to an amendment the Senate passed by a vote of 28 to 19 to begin shifting teacher pension costs to counties. Pinsky said Maryland has no business piling on debts to local governments when it hasn't closed gaping corporate tax loopholes.
Little of those debates -- or similar ones upcoming in the House of Delegates -- will ever be reflected in the documents that become state budgets and spending policy next month. But Tuesday night was a reminder that the differences do exist just under the surface, and that they do run deep.
Dozens of the unsuccessful amendments proposed Tuesday -- especially those by Republicans regarding abortion and stem-cell funding -- appeared ready made for stump speeches as the party aims to capture the five Senate seats necessary in November to allow it to filibuster. If successful in picking up those seats, Maryland's budget battle on the floor of the Senate next March could look dramatically different. It also probably wouldn't be over in one night.
News You Should Know
Unemployment insurance overhaul heads to O'Malley
"An overhaul of Maryland's jobless benefits cleared the General Assembly on Tuesday, moving the state closer to capturing $126.8 million from the federal government to shore up its bankrupt unemployment system," writes Nicholas Sohr in The Daily Record. "The 101-33 vote in the House of Delegates ended months of negotiations and near-compromises as lawmakers and administration officials navigated a tightrope between business and labor interests. The final product differs greatly from Gov. Martin O'Malley' s original proposal. But O'Malley was nonetheless 'very pleased' with the passage of SB 107, a spokesman said."
Medical fraud bill clears Senate year after defeat
"State senators voted overwhelmingly Tuesday for legislation intended to combat Medicaid fraud, a year after rejecting a similar measure amid strong opposition from the state's hospitals," writes The Baltimore Sun's Annie Linskey. "The bill approved Tuesday included a compromise with the hospitals that lawmakers said would protect them against frivolous lawsuits. It passed, 37-8. 'It is a great day,' said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who has been lobbying for the bill on behalf of the O'Malley administration. The legislation encourages whistle-blowers to bring fraud lawsuits, and allows them to share in damages awarded. But under the deal struck with the hospitals, the state would have to sign onto their suits for the cases to go forward."
Death penalty bill sought by Miller, others derailed
"Death penalty opponents appear to have derailed a bill sought by the Maryland Senate president that would have loosened rules passed last year on prosecuting capital cases," writes The Post's John Wagner. "Under the year-old law, prosecutors can now seek the death penalty only when at least one of three kinds of evidence are available: biological or DNA evidence; a videotaped confession; or a video recording linking the defendant to the crime. A bill co-sponsored this year by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), at right, would add fingerprints and photographs to the categories of acceptable evidence. Death penalty opponents have fought the bill, saying it was a step in the wrong direction after Maryland adopted some of the tightest restrictions in the nation."
Owner of Laurel, Pimlico calls off auction of tracks
"The bankrupt owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course has called off an auction of the horse tracks because it has come to an agreement with creditors where its parent company would become the owner, according to parties involved with the deal," writes The Sun's Andrea K. Walker. "Magna Entertainment Corp., which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last March, had been scheduled to auction off the tracks Thursday, but now ownership would go to MI Developments, which owns Magna. The deal would be a part of Magna's reorganization plan, which must be approved by a bankruptcy judge. Six bidders had expressed interest in the tracks, including the Cordish Cos., Penn National Gaming Inc. and Joseph A. De Francis and his family, the former owners of the Maryland tracks."
Washington region grows through recession
"New census statistics released Tuesday show that the Washington region's population has continued to grow at a brisk pace since the onset of the economic downturn, another indicator that the area has weathered the recession better than other parts of the country," writes The Post's Carol Morello.
Quotables (from Tuesday night's budget debate)
"How did the former mayor of Ocean City know that it was human waste and not chicken waste - the taste?"
-- Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) during a low point in the debate over whether the state should require the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Law to report on the clients represented and expenditures made by its student law school clinic. The budget includes money to require a report on the clinic's activity following lawmakers' concerns about a lawsuit filed against an Eastern Shore farmer. The case has centered in part on whether discharge was human waste taken to the farm from Ocean City, or improperly stored animal waste.
"This is straight out of communist China."
-- Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) arguing that the state should respect the law school's educational integrity and not require it to report on its clinic's activities.
"We're going the way California has gone. We're taking things out of the general fund and bonding them."
-- Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) arguing for an amendment he proposed to permanently reduce the state's funding for stem cell research. The amendment failed.
"If you get the votes, you can do pretty much anything."
-- Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. responding jokingly to a question about the legality of a proposed budget amendment to take money earmarked for education to cover costs so state employees would not have to take furloughs.
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Aaron C. Davis
March 24, 2010; 6:15 AM ET
Categories: Aaron C. Davis , First Click , John Wagner
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