The 2011 version of the Maryland General Assembly seemed to have a little bit of something for just about everybody – unless you supported gay marriage in Maryland. But, the debate and political machinations over the controversial measure seemed to usurp most of the passion and volatility from the rest of the session.

“This has been the most collegial session between the two houses and the governor,” said House Speaker Michael Busch during last week’s bill signing ceremony. There were 707 bills passed, but gay marriage in Maryland wasn’t one of them.

Advocates for the bill – organized and relentless – won a stunning victory early on in the Senate, where most believed the real battle would be. But, although it made it out of the Judiciary Committee, the House never took a vote on the measure, because ultimately, Busch knew he didn’t have the votes.

Truth is after the bill made it through the Senate, opponents of gay marriage – many of whom are in the Black community – got mobilized. They started calling their representatives and those who were on the fence jumped off of it quickly. I think sometimes people forget Maryland is a Southern state with many Southern mores and similar measures have not gained traction in the South. Still, the bill was just a few votes short, so we’ll see what happens when it comes back next year.

Sen. Catherine Pugh sponsored – and the legislature passed – SB 132, which limits employers’ access to the credit reports of potential employees. “It keeps companies from checking credit reports to determine employment except in the case of positions that require fiduciary responsibilities,” Pugh told the {Sun.} “I think it’s a real victory for those who are out there looking for employment, especially in these uncertain economic times.

“It also sends a message to employers that you shouldn’t be using a credit report to determine someone’s character. There are other ways of doing that.”

Pugh, a West Baltimore Democrat was busy as usual during the session, but now it’s a pretty safe bet she is going to get even busier as she has all but made it official that she will challenge Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to be the next mayor of Baltimore.

This session the legislature finally decided to tackle the monstrous $36 billion pension deficit in earnest. They voted to increase the retirement age to 65, increased the vesting time to 10 years and employees will have to pay a little more into their pension plans. Of course the reforms are uncomfortable for some, but the system as it stood was simply unsustainable.

Much to the consternation of many restaurant, bar and liquor store owners in Maryland, the alcohol tax passed. Beginning July 1, the alcohol tax will increase from 6 to 9 percent. The 50 percent increase is going to be a significant blow to many retailers across the state, as well as consumers.

Staying with the alcohol tangent, I’m certain my friend Rita Roane-Blackwell, owner of Wine Express, which provides, “private tastings of uncommon wine,” is thrilled Marylanders can now have wine shipped directly to them, repealing an archaic law that dated back to the Prohibition era. And Maryland wineries, which – quiet as it’s kept – are among some of the finest in the country, now can ship their product out of state. It was a long time coming.

And there was news on the Minority Business Enterprise front this session. Lawmakers passed a bill renewing Maryland’s commitment to the MBE program, which was set to expire July 1. The new bill keeps the 25 percent participation of minority and women-owned businesses in Maryland’s procurement process. Legislators vow to produce a long-term plan for MBE during the 2012 session. Critics of the state’s MBE program argue most state contracts didn’t reach the 25 percent minority participation goal over the last five years.

Bottom line is, despite the victories, there was a lot of unfinished business left for the House and the Senate to perhaps pick up in 2012, including the looming long-term structural budget deficit.

But for those who find themselves feeling unfulfilled in wake of the 2011 session, you won’t have to wait until 2012. A special session is scheduled for September, during which lawmakers will attempt to tackle the often precarious adventure of redistricting based on the 2010 Census figures. Now, that should provide plenty of passion and volatility.

 

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor