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Legislators gear up for big issues on final day of session

ANNAPOLIS – The creation of a state-run venture capital fund, an alcohol tax hike and a financial Band-Aid for Maryland horse racing await lawmakers Monday, the final day of their legislative session.

Those are among the largest business issues remaining among dozens of other pieces of unfinished business and high-profile social legislation, including a transgender antidiscrimination bill and a measure that would allow illegal immigrants living in Maryland to pay in-state college tuition.

Among the other bills not yet passed are changes to the Rocky Gap slots license to sweeten the pot for potential developers and the framework of a public health insurance benefit exchange.

All face a midnight deadline that sets up a mad dash to the finish that begins even before the chambers convene at 10 a.m. and could leave some business left undone.

“You can’t fall in love with bills here,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. admonished Saturday. “You get your heart broke every time.”

Raising the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent is the most contentious piece of business legislation remaining. A pair of bills that would institute the tax hike and send $87 million in expected proceeds to mental health and education initiatives will be up for a final vote in the House of Delegates before heading to the Senate.

The Senate previously approved a three-year phase-in of the tax increase, but has not yet considered legislation that would implement the tax hike all at once. Delegates debated the plan late into Saturday night, finally giving preliminary approval at 11 p.m. over protests led by Republican lawmakers about the speed with which the bills were moving and potential impact on rural counties and businesses.

Vigorous debate on the issue is all but certain to resume Monday, after opponents bristled at moves by Democratic leaders to delay discussion of the bills, HB 1213 and SB 994.

“For all the jobs I’m going to lose in Ocean City, for all the business I’m going to lose, you can keep your money,” Del. Michael A. McDermott, R-Wicomico and Worcester, said during the debate Saturday night.

Senators will consider a set of changes to the Invest Maryland proposal. The largest would require the governor to appropriate money directly to the program if the state’s fiscal health improves later this year, and others seek to ensure rural counties are ensured a share of the investments.

Under the plan approved by the House last week, the state would auction $100 million in tax credits for as little as 70 cents on the dollar to raise at least $70 million to fuel a venture capital fund. The governor had sought $142 million in credits to raise about $100 million for the fund.

The funds raised would be used to make investments in small, high-tech Maryland companies. One-third of the money would be controlled by the Department of Business and Economic Development, which would focus its investments on entrepreneurial and early-stage companies. Two-thirds would be invested on the state’s behalf by private venture capitalists, with a focus on larger, growth-stage firms.

DBED Secretary Christian Johansson said Saturday after seeing the Senate’s proposal that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the bill’s prospects.

“The capital really plays to our strengths,” he said of the plan in HB 173. “I think it will have a significant impact on the state’s economy.”

If passed by the Senate, the House would be given the option to concur with the upper chamber’s version of the bill, or settle the differences in a conference committee.

The governor’s call to subsidize operations at the ailing horse tracks will follow the same path. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee further limited the aid available under HB 1039 on Saturday and it will be debated on the floor Monday.

Under the committee’s amended legislation, the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, would have to reach a deal by July 1 to simulcast races with Rosecroft Raceway to be eligible for up to $6 million in operating subsidies in 2012.

And to qualify for another year of state assistance, the club would have to craft with horse breeders and owners a sustainable plan for the future of the industry that lawmakers find acceptable. That plan would be due Dec. 1, 2011.

O’Malley’s original proposal called for an uncapped subsidy for the jockey club from 2012 through 2014. The House capped the subsidy at $6 million and limited it to two years.

“It makes sure we have racing this year and next year, and gives everybody time to come up with a plan that works for them,” said Joseph C. Bryce, O’Malley’s chief legislative officer.