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‘Collaborative’ legislative session ends with flurry of bills

ANNAPOLIS — With most big ticket items passed days and weeks ago, the General Assembly session strolled to a close Monday night with a controversial “lockbox” bill and persistently pesky dog-bite bill dominating rhetoric in the State House in the final hours.

Michael Busch

Confetti and balloons rain down on House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, at the conclusion of the General Assembly session. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

When student pages finally dropped trash bags filled with black, red and yellow balloons from the second-floor galleries of the Senate and House of Delegates, the “lockbox” – meant to prevent raids of the Transportation Trust Fund – was approved and the dog-bite bill – meant to undo a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling last year that called pit bulls “inherently dangerous” – was dead.

Still, in a year when the legislature agreed to repeal the death penalty, increase the gas tax, develop comprehensive gun control legislation and incentivize development of offshore wind energy, Democratic leaders were feeling pleased with themselves as the legislature’s annual 90-day session came to an end.

The celebratory conclusion was in stark contrast to last year’s more somber one, which ended with a budget agreement in tatters and stacks of other bills unresolved, forcing two special sessions.

“It was a major, major accomplishment,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said as confetti littered the ornate Senate chamber. “The House and the Senate worked very well together … in contract with last year.”

With most big ticket items resolved in advance of the General Assembly’s final day, state lawmakers spent a comparatively leisurely day in and around the State House, with few controversial issues left to be resolved.

“This has to be probably the most orderly conclusion that I’ve seen,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said on Monday, just hours before the last of his administration’s bills received final approval from the legislature. “This has been a very collaborative session.”

Early on Monday, the Senate gave final approval to a $3.5 billion capital budget and the House gave final approval to an administration-backed bill that creates special procurement rules for businesses seeking to enter into long-term lease agreements with the state in return for making capital improvements.

State officials say the special rules would add greater certainty for businesses, which could enter into lease agreements of up to 50 years in exchange for making capital improvements. Businesses can already enter into such deals – two are already active in the state, at the Port of Baltimore and two Interstate 95 travel plazas – but the new procurement rules are supposed to streamline the award of a contract.

The bill took on greater importance after the legislature approved a dramatic increase in gas taxes and transit fares to pay for transportation projects. Public-private partnerships are seen as a possible took to develop multibillion dollar mass transit projects in Baltimore and suburban Washington.

The General Assembly also agreed to make critical changes to Maryland’s signature venture capital program.

The legislation relaxes restrictions and makes technical changes to the $84 million InvestMaryland venture capital program. The bill was requested by the state Department of Business and Economic Development after private venture capital firms balked at investing state money in early stage technology companies under current program rules.

While $25 million has been given to private investors, only $5 million of that money has been invested in Maryland companies. DBED officials said changes were necessary to break up that logjam