The State House in Annapolis, Md. on the last day of the legislative session. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington…)
The Maryland General Assembly completed one of its busiest sessions in years Monday, giving final approval to bills to legalize medical marijuana, expand early voting and help launch the construction of a new regional hospital in Prince George’s County.
Lawmakers also stepped up restrictions on using cellphones while driving and passed legislation that would encourage private investors to pay for highways, bridges and other major projects. With a midnight deadline looming, they also approved a campaign finance bill that would raise the amount donors can give while seeking to clamp down on corporations that use a loophole to make multiple contributions to the same candidate.
The final day capped an extraordinarily productive 90-day session that was filled with several high-profile bills, many of them decidedly liberal. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who was seeking to cement his legacy before he risks becoming a lame duck next year, pushed through a full agenda, including several bills that previously failed.
Even before lawmakers arrived Monday, O’Malley had secured wins on one of the most sweeping gun-control packages in the nation; the state’s first gas tax increase since 1992; the repeal of the death penalty; and a measure to broaden Maryland’s use of renewable energy by providing incentives for an offshore wind farm.
Other bills passed in recent days would expand a program that allows illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and grant additional authority to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) over the governance of his jurisdiction’s schools.
“Are we the Southern state that we used to be? No, we’re not,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) told reporters during a break between voting sessions. “The state has become more progressive, there’s no doubt about it. Maryland does look liberal. . . . That’s good news to some, bad news to others.”
A relatively clear path to adjournment Monday stood in marked contrast to last year’s session, when brinkmanship over the state budget and gambling legislation led to the session’s collapse on an acrimonious final night.
The traditional midnight confetti and balloon drops were scotched, and O’Malley wound up summoning lawmakers to Annapolis for two special sessions to finish their work.
“This has to be the most orderly conclusion that I’ve seen,” said O’Malley, speaking of the seven regular sessions that have taken place since his arrival in 2007. His second terms ends in January 2015.
There were several reasons that measures that had failed before reached a tipping point this year. Some benefited from more sympathetic lawmakers elected in 2010. And some were helped by outside events.
The governor’s gun package, which includes an assault weapons ban and tough licensing requirements for gun purchases, emerged in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings. Talk got far more serious in Maryland about a transportation funding package after a plan was championed by Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican.
Other bills were scaled back to make them more palatable.
That was true of the medical marijuana bill, which received final approval from the Senate in a 42 to 4 vote. This year’s approach was more limited, allowing distribution only by academic medical centers.
Under the bill, the centers would be required to monitor patients and publish their findings, an approach that health officials in O’Malley’s administration have characterized as cautious enough to win their support.
Legislative analysts say it is unlikely that dispensing medical marijuana would begin before 2016. It is also unclear how many institutions might choose to participate. Two of the state’s most prominent — the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins University — have been reluctant to get involved.
But supporters of the bill hailed it as a significant step toward a compassionate treatment option for people with such illnesses as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Eighteen states and the District have enacted similar laws.
“I’m proud to be a part of this,” said Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Worcester), whose wife died of cancer two years ago.
Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), the chief sponsor of the bill, suggested that institutions would come on board now that the legislation has passed.
“I appreciate their cautious approach,” Morhaim said. “They wanted to see what the bill looks like before they go ahead, and now they can.”
Meanwhile, separate legislation, passed last month in the Senate, that would have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana remained bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee. Asked whether he planned a vote on the bill, the panel’s chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), said: “No, no, no. Bad message to the kids.”