The final countdown

Lawmakers have six days left in Annapolis and a mountain of work to do.

(For the sake of simplicity and my sanity, I’m assuming the General Assembly will meet this week and wrap up on Monday without an extension or weekend session. The final day of the session is Monday, April 12.)

The budget will be at the forefront. The Senate passed its version in March and the House, after two nearly full days of debate, passed its version on Friday. They don’t differ much on the bottom line, but the conference committee meeting this week will have its work cut out for it to find common ground on shifting teacher pension obligations to counties and funding for a University of Maryland law clinic that has drawn the ire of many lawmakers.

Another difference between the Senate and House budgets is a $20 million transfer from the Injured Workers Insurance Fund proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. The Senate stripped the transfer out but the House kept it in. The transfer has big implications for the quasi-public worker’s compensation insurer of last resort, as it is tied to legislation that would move IWIF further from state control.

The state’s fiscal straits have also squeezed O’Malley’s proposed overhaul of the Historic Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit. O’Malley wanted to essentially guarantee $50 million in funding for the program over the next three years, but legislators balked at the prospect of squirreling away such a large lump sum during these uncertain times. The tax credit appears to be pegged at $5 million in FY2011, and will be up for a yearly appropriation after that. Lawmakers are fine-tuning the bill and expect it to move this week.

Lawmakers also have to act on O’Malley’s mortgage mediation plan. The bill passed the House on March 27 and the Senate is scheduled to take it up this week. The bill would allow borrowers to request a face-to-face meeting with their lender during the foreclosure process. It would also impose a $300 foreclosure filing fee to cover the mediation costs and fund nonprofit housing counselors.

Also on the docket this week are bills that would limit the fees and interest charged by payday lenders and another that would expand the rights of Maryland wineries and order a study on the direct shipment of wine from wineries to consumers.

So close, but so far on direct wine shipping

The Maryland Senate flirted Tuesday with the idea of letting state residents receive shipments of wine direct from wineries, but ultimately let the proposal slip by the wayside.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, tried to amend the controversial direct shipping bill, which will likely not make it out of committee, on to another winery bill on the Senate floor.

The move would have upset an uneasy compromise reached last week between proponents of direct shipping – a majority of the 47 senators – and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the head of the health committee and a unwavering opponent of the bill. They agreed to amend a direct shipping study to Conway’s Winery Modernization Act, a bill that includes a slate of technical changes to winery law. (Here’s our latest story on the winery legislation in the General Assembly, and our longer overview.)

Zirkin’s gambit prompted nearly 30 minutes of debate on the Senate floor, with some direct shipping proponents urging him to give up his amendment so as not to scuttle the modernization bill, and others clamoring for a chance to put the idea to a full-Senate vote.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, said her office received more than 900 calls from direct shipping supporters this year.

“I must keep my word and I must support this, because apparently it’s the only way it will come before us,” Kelley said.

In the end, Zirkin acquiesced to those who asked him to withdraw his amendment – “I wish you had done that 25 minutes earlier,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller deadpanned – but not before Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick and Washington, tried to force a vote on the issue. He took the unusual step of resisting Zirkin’s attempt to withdraw his own amendment, calling for vote on the motion.

Mooney was defeated 42-4 and the modernization bill, including the direct shipping study, moved closer to final Senate approval. The bill appears to have support in the House of Delegates as well.