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General Assembly enters the home stretch

ANNAPOLIS — While Maryland lawmakers will have plenty to do in the last week of the state’s legislative session, most of the high-profile measures backed by Gov. Martin O’Malley already have been approved by the General Assembly.

Members of the Maryland House of Delegates take their seats at the beginning of the 2013 session in Annapolis. While several major issues have been resolved, differences in gun-control legislation top of the list of things lawmakers are working to resolve in the session’s final week.

An increase in the state’s gas tax was passed last week — the first hike to gas taxes in the state in 20 years. O’Malley’s push to create a framework to develop offshore wind, which had failed two years in a row, also has passed. A repeal of capital punishment, a priority for the Democratic governor for years, awaits his signature. And the state budget doesn’t have the sort of controversial differences between the House and Senate that caused a budget deal to collapse at the end of last year’s session. A major funding plan for Baltimore schools has only minor details to be reconciled to enable the city to issue about $1 billion in bonds to build 15 new schools and renovate up to 40 others.

That leaves O’Malley’s gun-control measure as the main unresolved item of the session. The House of Delegates debated changes to the sweeping bill on Tuesday, with a vote expected as soon as Wednesday.

The House and Senate still will have to work out some differences before midnight Monday. However, they are largely in agreement so far on the main components of the legislation. For example, a new requirement for new handgun owners to be fingerprinted remained in the bill going into Tuesday’s debate. Both sides also have kept a provision limiting magazines to 10 bullets. A ban on assault weapons also is still in the bill, despite some misgivings some lawmakers in the House had about banning all of them.

Legislation to change the impact of a Court of Appeals ruling that designated pit bulls as an “inherently dangerous” breed also will take some work. The bill has been a tricky issue for the General Assembly, which failed to successfully reconcile different approaches in an August special session. An apparent agreement announced early in this session ran into turbulence after changes during the legislative process.

Now, the two sides will have to settle a main sticking point over how much of a burden of proof a dog owner would need to meet in court over a dog bite. The Senate has settled on a higher burden than the House. The breed-specific ruling by the state’s highest court has been problematic because in an attack involving a pit bull, plaintiffs in civil lawsuits don’t have to prove the animal’s prior violent behavior for the owner to be held liable for damages. The ruling also means landlords can be held liable in dog-bite cases on their property.

A measure to put the state on a path toward developing a medical marijuana program in the next few years also remains to be settled. The House of Delegates has passed the bill, which now awaits action by the Senate. The bill would create a state commission to oversee medical marijuana programs at academic medical research centers that decide to participate.

Lawmakers also will be working to put the finishing touches on legislation against distracted driving. Both chambers have passed a measure to make talking on a handheld cellphone a primary offense, meaning police would be able to pull someone over for that alone. Under the current law, drivers can be ticketed for talking on a handheld only if they have been pulled over for another reason.

Legislators will be working toward approving an expansion of early voting in the state to add more locations where people can vote and allow people to register on the same day they arrive at the polls.

A measure that failed last year appears to be moving forward to create a clearly defined framework for public-private partnerships in the state to help address infrastructure needs.

Some proposals that grabbed headlines early in the session already have died. One of them was a proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour. A bill that would have repealed a law designed to fight pollution by limiting the growth of septic systems in Maryland also has died.