General Assembly session ends in flurry of votes

Police could pull you over for talking on a hand-held phone while driving. Some patients could legally use marijuana. And veterans would get a new assist in getting jobs under legislation approved by the Maryland General Assembly on its final day.

As they worked toward a midnight deadline, lawmakers considered — and shelved — hundreds of bills Monday on issues as small as designating a state sandwich and as dramatic as halting new fees designed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

An effort to overhaul the state's speed camera law died in the session's final hours, as did an attempt to undo a court ruling that declared pit bulls "inherently dangerous."

But the General Assembly had approved every piece of Gov. Martin O'Malley's agenda. Most of the high-profile bills — including a gas tax increase, death penalty repeal and a tough new gun law — were passed in the preceding 90 days.

"Are we the Southern state that we used to be? No, we're not. We're more progressive," Senate President Thomas Mike V. Miller said. "Bills that are passing today would not have seen the light of day 20 years ago."

Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, a Republican whip, said the legislature has drifted further left than most Marylanders under the leadership of O'Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"Unfortunately, again, the taxpayers get the raw end of the deal from this legislature," she said.

Under the cellphone bill, which an aide said O'Malley will sign, drivers will be able to make a call at a stoplight but can be pulled over if chatting while in motion. The first ticket would come with a $75 fine that would increase with the next two offenses, according to the bill sponsored by Del. James Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Talking on a phone while driving is already illegal, but under current law, drivers on the phone cannot be stopped unless they are breaking another traffic law. Lawmakers decided against penalizing drivers with points, which could be reported to insurance companies and used to raise rates.

"We don't need to stick it to people," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who helped resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of the cellphone bill. "We just want them to not to talk on the phone because it's not safe."

During the flurry of activity Monday, the Senate voted 40-4 to approve a medical marijuana program, making Maryland the 19th state to do so. The legislation calls for doctors and nurses to distribute the drug through academic centers that also must study the program's effects. The structure of the state's plan is relatively conservative compared to states that allow private companies to set up dispensaries.

O'Malley's administration backs the bill, which passed both chambers with bipartisan support.

"It just shows you how far we've come and how we're seeing this in medical terms, which is how it should be," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a physician and Baltimore County Democrat who had introduced the measure for several years.

Critics have said the program is so complicated it will not be up and running until 2016. Morhaim expects it to be ready before then because some institutions have already written letters asking to be part of it.

Lawmakers also passed an O'Malley bill to expand early voting, which has grown in popularity. Many centers experienced long lines during the 2012 election season. More days will be added to the calendar, more voting centers will be opened in the state's most populous jurisdictions and all centers would be open longer.

The bill will add Maryland to the growing number of states that allow for same-day registration and voting — though it will only be allowed during the early voting period.

Another O'Malley bill will create an expedited professional-licensing process for veterans in transition to the civilian workforce and award college credits for certain military experience, measures praised by Department of Defense officials for being among the best state proposals to help veterans obtain work.

Legislation that would have tightened the state's speed camera program in the wake of an investigation by The Baltimore Sun, which found erroneous tickets and other problems, failed in the Senate.

A late-developing proposal to delay a new stormwater fee program was approved by the Senate but died in the House. It would have put off for two years the collection of money from residents and businesses to pay for treatment of polluted runoff. A last-minute bill approved by both chambers will put a constitutional amendment before voters in the next general election. It calls for a "lock box" to prevent money from the Transportation Trust Fund from being used to fund other parts of the budget.

The topic has long been a source of criticism from Republicans, who have accused the Democratic majorities of raiding the fund. It is expected to grow by as much as $700 million a year thanks to the newly passed increase in the gas tax.