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House unlocks ‘lockbox’ bill

House Speaker Michael E. Busch with his leadership team. (File Photo)

Heading into the final day of the General Assembly’s 90-day session, the House of Delegates had taken no action on a Senate bill designed to prevent raids on the Transportation Trust Fund.

But in a flurry of activity in the waning hours of the session on Monday, the House quickly passed a rewritten version of Senate Bill 829, which retained a key provision that would prevent transfer of money in the fund unless the governor declared an emergency and three-fifths of both houses of the legislature voted to approve the shift.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Tuesday that lawmakers took their time on the “lockbox” bill to ensure it was properly crafted. The bill had sat untouched in the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee — legislative purgatory at that late point in the session — for more than a week.

“We were looking for the right language, and we worked our way through that,” Busch said. “I think it’s a responsible way to deal with the transportation funding.”

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Greater Baltimore Committee and AAA Mid-Atlantic pressed for a “lockbox” in the legislature’s final days. As late as Monday afternoon, advocates were not optimistic that it would pass before the legislature adjourned at midnight. But some Democratic leaders said the House wanted to vote on the bill because the Senate did.

So the Ways and Means Committee rewrote House Bill 524 — legislation originally intended to let voters decide on transportation projects — and turned it into a “lockbox” bill similar to SB 829, which the Ways and Means and Appropriations committees then amended to conform to HB 524.

Some lawmakers — mostly Republicans — opposed the bill, saying that it did little to prevent potential raids on the Transportation Trust Fund, which lawmakers used as an ATM during the Great Recession.

But the House passed HB 524, 110-27, and moments later passed the identical SB 829, 106-32 — setting up an easy, 40-7 vote in the Senate to pass the legislation.

Marylanders will have the final vote in November 2014, when the “lockbox” constitutional amendment appears on the ballot.