Lawmakers Approve Tuition Break for ‘Illegal’ Immigrants, New Sales Tax on Alcohol

… In final hours of 2011 session General Assembly passes historic, divisive measures …

By Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

12:06 AM EDT, April 12, 2011

Maryland’s Democratic General Assembly passed a pair of historic — and divisive — measures in the final hours of the 2011 legislative session Monday night, increasing the tax on alcohol for the first time in more than a generation and making Maryland the 11th state to extend in-state college tuition breaks to illegal immigrants.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has said he approves of both plans; his first round of bill signings is set for Tuesday.

Beginning July 1, the sales tax for beer, wine and spirits would jump from 6 percent to 9 percent, raising an estimated $85 million per year. Lawmakers chose to dedicate the funds to school construction and aid to Baltimore and Prince George’s County, as well as to programs for the developmentally disabled.

The in-state tuition proposal would enable undocumented students who have attended Maryland high schools for at least three years, and whose families pay state taxes, to pay in-state tuition rates at community college. After completing 60 credit hours — the equivalent of two years of full-time study — a student could transfer to a four-year state college for the in-state rate.

Before the traditional midnight confetti drop, the two controversial ideas consumed much of the final day of the session. Republicans and conservative Democrats fought the legislation with amendments and speeches.

Working for more than 12 hours Monday, lawmakers ushered through dozens of bills, capping a session in which they closed a deficit projected at roughly $1.5 billion in next year’s state operating budget and engaged in a prolonged — and ultimately dead-end — debate on whether to legalize gay marriage.

Democrats from conservative areas of the state cited fiscal concerns for their votes against both in-state tuition and the alcohol tax.

“People’s expectation was that we come here and get our finances in order and work to create jobs,” said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a member of the House budget committee. The St. Mary’s County Democrat voted against both measures.

But supporters said the bills would prove wise economic policies for Maryland.

“It was never about immigration,” said Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George’s Democrat who sponsored the in-state tuition bill. “It’s about what to do with the intellect of our children. Do we invest in them, or kick them to the side? The people win with this bill because we’ll have a more educated work force.”

Advocates of the alcohol tax increase argued that the money it is to generate for school construction would create jobs.

Last-minute moves also sent bills on a medical marijuana study, prescription drug monitoring, incentives for the development of a slots casino at Western Maryland’s Rocky Gap resort and a provision to allow outdoor dining with dogs, among many others, to the governor’s desk.

O’Malley’s centerpiece economic development plan, Invest Maryland, gained passage Monday — a better fate than many of his other proposals, including an offshore wind farm and a septic system ban, both of which were consigned to summer studies.

Republicans came to the State House on Monday ready for a fight on both the alcohol tax and the in-state tuition bill.

House Republicans labored to derail the 50 percent increase to the sales tax on alcohol by talking for two hours in the afternoon and another 90 minutes at night.

Minority caucus members took advantage of a rule that enables each lawmaker two minutes of floor time to explain his or her vote.

Some who opposed the tax complained loudly about the way the revenues were set to be distributed. Baltimore and the large counties get tens of millions. The smaller counties split a couple of million dollars.

Bohanan agreed with the concern and explained the method of distribution this way: “It gives you the votes you need to pass the bill.”

Later, as Democratic leaders ended discussion on how spend the new revenue, House Republicans shouted “point of order!” again and again.

“Once again the voice of the minority has been stifled,” said Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican.

In the Senate, Republicans put up comparatively little resistance, offering amendments on how the money would be spent, but declining to debate the increase itself.

Many lawmakers noted that O’Malley had made taxes a campaign issue last fall, painting Republican opponent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as a big spender because he raised fees during his term as governor.

“I never took the pledge that I would never sign any taxes or any fees,” O’Malley said.

He defended the allocation of the tax revenues, which under a House-passed plan would flow in the first year largely to the biggest and most Democratic-leaning counties.

Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties receive $21 million. Eight Eastern Shore counties would split $1.25 million. The Senate was still debating late Monday night whether to accept that division.

But the governor said the figures should be examined in a larger context.

Over the past five years, he said, the Eastern Shore counties have “fared very, very well in school construction. … Better than many would have predicted.”

Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative President Vincent DeMarco, a longtime proponent of the alcohol tax, called it “a smart revenue source.”

“States are struggling with how to raise revenue,” said DeMarco, as he hugged and kissed supportive legislators, telling some that he loved them. “This is a great funding source, and it will reduce underage drinking and alcohol abuse.”

On the tuition break for illegal immigrants, Sen. David Brinkley rose to begin a filibuster when he saw that some Democrats who had voted for the initial Senate proposal had voted against the House version.

The sticking point: A House amendment that would have mitigated a requirement that an undocumented student show that his or her family has paid taxes to the state.

The change would have allowed students to sidestep the requirement if they could show that they had a “serious and substantial reason” for failing to pay taxes — an illness, for example.

The Senate first adopted that language on a preliminary vote of 24-23 — not enough to overcome a filibuster.

Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, began to read from Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” — a book about distance running. Democrats scurried to develop a new plan of action. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said his party could not reach the 29 votes necessary to end the filibuster.

Instead, Democrats rallied to reconsider their narrow vote for the House measure, and then stripped out the House amendment. That allowed the legislation to pass both chambers with minimal discussion.

“We made history tonight,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland. “This shows that Maryland is a progress state and a pro-immigrant state. This legislation is going to impact these kids’ lives forever.”

Unlike last year, when O’Malley’s agenda passed unscathed, this year the governor acknowledged “a couple of disappointments.”

He lost two of his three key initiatives: a measure to create a wind farm in the waters off the Eastern Shore and a prohibition against septic systems in many new developments.

The governor said in an interview that the two ideas were difficult because they required “a shift … in the way we think and the way we act.”

“The forces of tradition … always have a lot more stakeholders in the hallways of the State House than the people who stand to benefit from a new way of doing this,” O’Malley said.

He added that the “size of one” and “the sweep of the other” caused the General Assembly to “choke” on the two bills.

Miller shot back Monday afternoon that he wished O’Malley had “choked” before announcing the septic tank legislation, a measure he unveiled during his State of the State address in January without consulting lawmakers in advance.

The governor scored a legislative victory Monday with the passage of his Invest Maryland venture capital fund, which he said will help fertilize the “delta of opportunity” between the high level of federal research money that pours into Maryland’s universities and the comparatively low rate of startup companies that capitalize on innovations.

Lawmakers narrowed the size and scope of Invest Maryland, reducing funding for it from about $100 million to about $75 million. The legislature also wants the Department of Business and Economic Development to distribute about one-third of the money; O’Malley had sought 50 percent involvement for the state agency.

Shortly before midnight, a bugler sounded his horn to herald the passage of O’Malley’s package of incentive for the state’s beleaguered horse racing industry.

Maryland will study how to develop a medical marijuana distribution system, and decriminalize small amounts of pot for sick people, under legislation now headed to O’Malley’s desk for a promised signature.

The more controversial portion of the two-part bill would allow an “affirmative defense” for sick people arrested with 1 ounce or less of marijuana, as long as they were not ingesting it in public. If the person convinces a judge or jury of a “medical necessity” for the drug, he or she would be found not guilty.

The new law would go a step further than what Maryland already has on the books. Right now, a person showing medical necessity receives a lower sentence — a $100 citation — but still has a conviction on his or her criminal record.

Also under the legislation, the state will begin to study how to develop and implement a medical marijuana distribution system. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun


… As has been legislatively pointed out numerous times over the years, you just can’t fix stupid.  This year was no different in MD.  ‘Illegal’ is still ‘illegal.’ …


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