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Md. Approves In-State Tuition For Immigrants, Alcohol Tax Hike

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ/AP) -- Maryland lawmakers scrambled to resolve a variety of unfinished business before Monday's midnight adjournment of the General Assembly.  But the Maryland General Assembly did approve a bill to grant in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements.

Kelly McPherson has more on what bills passed and which didn't.

The House of Delegates voted 74-65 on Monday night to send the immigrant tuition bill to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who says he will sign the legislation. 

The measure will allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland's public universities if they complete two years at a community college. They also have to show their parents paid state taxes for at least three years before they graduated high school. 

Earlier in the day, senators objected to changes governing how parents showed they had paid taxes. House and Senate negotiators removed the controversial portion, and the House accepted the change. 

Maryland's sales tax on alcohol will jump 50 percent in July. The General Assembly late Monday approved a bill to increase the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent to raise money for schools and to help the developmentally disabled. 

Lawmakers raised the amount set aside in an earlier proposal to ease a waiting list for services for the developmentally disabled from $5 million to $15 million. Lawmakers also are debating a separate bill that includes $47 million in proceeds to school construction. 

Republicans said it was a terrible time to raise the tax. Democrats contend the tax hike specific to alcohol is long overdue. 

"They're tired of this process," said Delegate Mike McDermott, R-Worcester. "They're tired of not being heard. They're tired of you deciding what's right on a dark night and ramming this through at the 89th day." 

But Democrats said rural areas on the Eastern Shore and western Maryland have benefited considerably in recent years in the allocation of school construction money. House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Republicans voted against the state's operating budget and capital budget, which included money for schools. 

"I think on balance, people can get up and shout and scream about why they're not voting for it, but the fact of the matter is they weren't voting for it anyway, just the same as they didn't vote for the operating budget or the capital budget." 

About $47 million from the tax increase would go to school construction in the first year. Montgomery and Prince George's counties as well as Baltimore City would receive $9 million each. Baltimore County would get $7 million; Anne Arundel County would receive $5 million; and Howard County would get $4 million. Allegany, Carroll, Garrett, Frederick and Washington counties would get a total of $750,000. Calvert Charles and St. Mary's would receive $1.3 million. Eastern Shore counties, including Dorchester, Caroline, Kent, Queen Anne's, Somerset and Talbot, would get a total of $1.3 million. 

O'Malley says he'll sign the legislation.

Legislation to help the state's struggling horse racing tracks remained pending with hours left in the session. 

With the Preakness Stakes set for next month, Maryland lawmakers also are grappling with legislation to allocate millions of dollars in state aid to help Maryland's troubled horse racing industry. Under a bill moving through the Senate, Maryland racetracks would have to agree to simulcast their races before they get help. 

Gov. Martin O'Malley told reporters Monday afternoon that the bill was "very much hung up in the waning hours of this General Assembly session," because of the simulcasting provision.   

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, also said the bill was having problems, like many other measures. 

"There are all kinds of bills that are in trouble," Miller told reporters Monday afternoon, saying the governor and lawmakers should have moved more aggressively to address problems with the horse racing bill.    

While there's plenty of fine-tuning to do, some key pieces of legislation this session have already been approved. 

The House of Delegates gave final approval Monday night to O'Malley's proposed Invest Maryland venture capital fund. The governor's original idea for the state to auction off $142 million in tax credits was scaled back to $100 million. The state would use the proceeds from the auction -- up to $75 million -- to invest in high-tech businesses. 

Lawmakers already have agreed to state pension reform. The amount state employees pay for retirement will rise from 5 percent to 7 percent, starting on July 1. Monthly premiums for health insurance will rise from 20 percent to 25 percent, and a co-pay system will be maintained. The plan, which was proposed by O'Malley, aims to increase Maryland's funding of its pension system from 64 percent to 80 percent by 2023. 

Some high-profile legislation backed by O'Malley already has been shelved for summer study. Lawmakers had too many questions about a proposal to require state utilities to enter into long-term contracts to buy wind energy. Lawmakers also decided earlier in the session to delay a proposal embraced by O'Malley to crack down on septic system pollution. 

"There were a couple of big proposals we had as part of our agenda, the size of which caused the legislature to choke and kick them to summer study," O'Malley said Monday. 

Miller laughed at the comment. 

"I think it would have been better if he'd have choked before he announced that he was for septics," Miller said, referring to the governor's surprise announcement during his State of the State speech that he backed the restrictions. 

A new defense for Maryland residents who use marijuana for medical reasons has cleared the Maryland General

The Senate gave final approval to the bill Monday night on a 39-5 vote. 

The bill would enable Marylanders to avoid a $100 fine and misdemeanor conviction if they are arrested with marijuana but have a doctor's permission to use the drug for medicinal purposes. 

The measure also calls for a study on how medical marijuana could be distributed in the future in Maryland. 

Gov. Martin O'Malley says he'll sign the bill.

A ban on reading text messages while driving also passed.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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