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March 31, 2011

72,000 Baltimore residents to find themselves in new City Council districts Friday

About 72,000 Baltimoreans will find themselves represented by a new City Council member on Friday morning, according to an opinion issued late last week by the city’s law department that contradicts the city’s past practices.

“We were pretty surprised,” said Councilman James B. Kraft, who co-chaired the council’s redistricting committee. “It’s confusing for people, but any project we’re working on, we’re going to continue working on.”

Throughout the hearings this year on the new council map drawn by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, council members and a redistricting expert contracted by the council contended that, for purposes of representation, the new districts would not take effect until December, after the November elections to determine the makeup of the next council.

But on March 25, Assistant City Solicitor Victor K. Tervala wrote in a memo to council members that the new boundaries would take effect today “for the purpose of both election and representation.”

While residents generally appeared pleased or indifferent to the district map approved by the council Monday, residents of some comunities — most notably Butcher’s Hill and Upper Fells Point — expressed anger that the new boundaries split their neighborhoods.

About 72,000 people, or one in nine city residents, will find themselves in a new district Friday, according to John Willis, the former Maryland secretary of state who shepherded the council through the redistricting process.

In the memo, Tervala notes that while other jurisdictions — including the state ¬— differentiate between the date new districts go into effect for elections and representation, the city charter makes no such distinction.

He points to a note attached to a 1994 amendment to the charter that states that an incumbent whose home has been removed from a district would represent the newly drawn district as evidence for his opinion.

Yet in 2003, the last time the lines were redrawn, council members continued to represent the districts delineated by the old boundaries until a new council was sworn in in December.
City solicitor George Nilson referred questions about the proposal to a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. Spokesman Ryan O’Doherty did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said that he was surprised by the law department’s opinion, but expressed faith in its decision.

“This is my third redistricting,” he said. “Usually the way it was was that we waited until after the swearing-in to start serving the new district, but that doesn’t mean it was right.”

A spokesman for Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said that the council president’s office was seeking clarification on the law department’s rationale.

“We’re trying to figure out the basis for this interpretation,” spokesman Lester Davis said. He stressed that all residents would be represented by a council person.

Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who co-chaired the redistricting committee with Kraft and had staunchly opposed Rawlings-Blake’s plan, said that she has already started meeting with residents of Reservoir Hill, which shifted into her district.

Reisinger, who swapped vast tracts with Councilman William H. Cole IV, said that they were working closely to address the concerns of residents who were moved to new districts.

“It will work out,” said Reisinger. “I’ve seen stranger things happen.”

Posted by Julie Scharper at 8:50 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: City Hall
        

Fiscal leaders begin dance

House and Senate budget writers sat down at a conference table in Annapolis this afternoon to begin hashing out differences between the budgets passed by the two chambers.

Most of the big decisions involving pensions and retiree health care were put off to tomorrow (and likely Saturday) but some choices were made.

* The General Assembly would cut about 450 vacant positions to save roughly $5 million. Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget was prepared with the assumption that 1,000 would be accepted for a buyout. Instead about 600 workers qualified for the program.

* The two chambers split the difference on their cut to the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund, and will leave about $23.5 million in the fund.

* The Department of Juvenile Services would lose some of their budget for cell phones and all of their out-of-state travel allotment.

The fiscal leaders will continue negotiating Friday. They'll also learn details about O'Malley's supplemental budget which is expected to be introduced in the morning. 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 6:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Transgender discrimination bill subject to discrimination, some say

The Senate president's decision to sideline House-backed legislation to prevent the discrimination of transgendered people has infuriated activists and some lawmakers.

On Saturday, the House of Delegates voted 86-52 in favor of the bill, shipping it to the Senate before the Monday crossover deadline. It was one of 94 bills that arrived at the Senate doors over the weekend -- and the only one to land in the Rules Committee rather than in a panel that can move legislation to the full chamber.

"It goes there to die or because it was late," said a steaming Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, who sponsored the anti-discrimination legislation. "My bill was not late."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller offered his take yesterday: "At this point in time I’d say the chances of passage of that bill are next to none." He added that his chamber "spent a lot of time" on "important social issues" only to see them die in the House, an apparent reference to the same-sex marriage legislation.

Miller did not support the right of same-sex couples to marry but, knowing a majority of senators wanted the bill passed, labored to move it along to the House of Delegates. Bill leaders in the House did not secure enough votes for passage and marooned the bill in a committee.

Gay-rights group Equality Maryland and Pena-Melnyk called Miller's move on the anti-discrimination bill unfair, comparing his tactics to the bullying that transgendered people can face.

"The way this bill is being handled, with such an iron fist, it's like a big bully," Pena-Melnyk said. "It's absolutely disrespectful and gross. It's marginalizing a small group of people and telling them they don't count."

Pena-Melnyk noted she waited more than an hour yesterday to talk with Miller, a fellow Prince George's County Democrat, to no avail.

In a release this afternoon, Equality Maryland Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets wrote, "Here's the irony -- a bill designed to eliminate discrimination is now be subject to discriminatory procedure."

The Rules Committee has met at least once since the transgender anti-discrimination bill was sent there, but it has not taken up the issue. "It's all up to the president," said Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs Rules.

Asked whether it was unusual to assign a timely bill to her committee, Klausmeier said she didn't know, but then later conceded it was.

"I'm trying to work with the president to get it out," she said. If Rules does vote out the bill, it would move to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which could hold a hearing on it, vote and send it to the full chamber.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, who sits on Judicial Proceedings and supports the bill, offered a theory on what's happening:

"I think the president perceives the disappointment of the Senate in the House's failure to pass the marriage bill," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "There is lingering disappointment."

He added: "We shouldn't express our disappointment in the failure of one major civil rights bill by killing another one."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:36 PM | | Comments (23)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

State ID rides for free

Maryland delegates voted over the weekend to extend free MTA ridership to legislative and judicial employees -- a perk that has long been available to the 51,000-plus employees in the executive branch.

There are about 4,300 employees in the judicial and legislative branches, including courtroom clerks, legislative aides and the 188 state lawmakers. The far larger executive branch includes corrections and state law enforcement officers, social services employees and many others. Oh, and Maryland Transit Administration workers.

The legislation, sponsored by Baltimore Del. Nathaniel Oaks, comes at an awkward time: lawmakers are simultaneously pushing the MTA to increase fares for paying riders from $1.60 to $2.

A November 2009 Maryland Department of Transportation report estimated the MTA could raise an extra $1.45 million per year if state employees who take free rides had to purchase monthly ridership passes.

Executive branch employees have enjoyed free ridership for about 10 years, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill. The fiscal note charaterizes it as "a fringe benefit, which is not authorized in statute."

The House of Delegates plan requires MTA to extend to legislative and judicial employees the same courtesy it gives to executive branch employees.

The bill gained final passage Saturday with little discussion and a vote of 89-46. The Senate Finance Committee has a hearing scheduled next week.

The free rides, which include the Baltimore area subway, light rail and bus system, could begin as soon as June 1.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:21 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Kamenetz chats on Balto. Co. budget, development

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took questions about the budget, economic development, employment, master plan and even his choice of neckties in an online chat on Explore Baltimore County today.

Participants had a wide range of questions during the 50-minute chat, on issues as varied as next year's spending plans, summer programs, enforcing development restrictions and the status of the Owings Mills library.

The county executive reiterated his commitment to maintaining the county’s two-year labor agreement which cut cost-of-living adjustments and contributions to pension and health benefit plans, but guarantees no furloughs or layoffs.

“Even though there is another year to the contracts, we hope to initiate new labor discussions to renew our agreements over the next several months, to provide reassurance and stability for our valued employees,” Kamenetz said.

Participants also had questions about whether he thinks the county and county school system are paying top-level staffers too much (he says he’s reviewing the BCPS budget and cutting where he can in county government – “consolidation, efficiency, innovation” ), and encouraged him to think outside-the-box for parks – fewer playgrounds, more options for adults.

He got a vote of confidence from one chatter – “Cousin Steve M.” – who expressed pride in the job he’s doing and high hopes for future political pursuits.

“Perhaps my family will come and visit you in the White House in the near future,” Cousin Steve wrote.

Slim chance, Kamenetz replied.

“Unless I repaint my house white, it may not be happening anytime soon, because I love it here in Baltimore County.”

As for the ties, ask Mrs. Kamenetz.

“My lovely wife is the chief architect of all things good about me, including my wardrobe, so she gets 101% of the credit,” he said.

The archived chat with Kamenetz can be found here.

-Raven L. Hill

Posted by Andy Rosen at 12:41 PM | | Comments (0)
        

Bartlett presses Sec. Gates on Libya costs

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who has become an outspoken critic of the U.S. involvement in Libya, pressed Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a hearing Thursday to offer clarity on who is leading the rebel forces fighting Moammar Gadhafi and also how much the effort, which began March 19, will cost American taxpayers.

“Are we now aiding and abetting the same organizations that we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq?” asked Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces.

“To be honest, other than a relative handful of leaders, we don’t have vision into those who have risen against” Gadhafi, Gates said. “In a way, speaking of the quote-unquote opposition is a misnomer. It is very disparate. It is very scattered and probably each element has its own agenda.”

Bartlett, who has criticized Obama for not seeking congressional approval for launching the attacks in Libya – and who previously called the effort “an affront to the Constitution” – also pressed Gates on the cost of the Libyan effort. Bartlett introduced legislation, the “Protect America from U.S. Military Expenses in Libya Act,” that would require the administration to recommend budget cuts to offset the cost of the U.S. involvement in Libya.

“Many people feel that this is an unconstitutional and illegal war,” said Bartlett, who was speaking at a hearing of the full House Armed Services Committee. “But I think everyone agrees that the [cost] shouldn't be borne by taxpayers.” Bartlett asked Gates whether the administration could meet a June 1 deadline proposed in the bill to identify budget cuts.

Gates said the price tag on the Libyan engagement is currently about $550 million. And, as the U.S. shifts responsibility to NATO, he estimated the cost would run about $40 million a month. When Bartlett pressed him on the timeline to identify ways to cover that cost, Gates demurred.

“I'd have to consult with the White House,” he said.

Posted by John Fritze at 10:14 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Washington
        

March 30, 2011

Alcohol sales tax gains Senate approval

A plan to raise the sales tax on alcohol from 6 to 9 percent over the next three years won final Senate passage Wednesday.

The extra sales tax, which would be added by 1 percentage point per year, is expected to raise about $30 million next year and $85 million once fully implemented. The House of Delegates has not yet considered the proposal, which emerged late in the session.

Several senators spoke before casting their votes; the bill passed 27-19.

Democratic Sen. Jim Mathias said he would vote against the tax because said he believed it would hurt the tourism, restaurant and bar industries that he said are vital to the Eastern Shore.

Sen. Richard Colburn said the tax defies "Economics 101."

"Never, ever pass a tax increase during a recession," the Eastern Shore Republican said.

Other legislators objected to the Senate's plan to divide up alcohol sales revenue in the first year: $5 million would assist people with developmental disabilities, $8.8 million would flow to Prince George's County, and Baltimore City would receive $12.2 million.

Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, said that because all alcohol consumers would pay an extra price, the money should go to the state's general fund, not to "two political jurisdictions."  

Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the legislation, defended the one-year plan as necessary "to back-fill some of the deep cuts that have been made."

Because Prince George's County has grown relatively wealthier, state aid has dropped, something the alcohol tax money would help assuage. Baltimore would use the money to pay for increasing costs of retired teachers' health care.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:18 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Nancy Grasmick to step down June 30

 

Updated with Liz Bowie report from school headquarters

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is stepping down from her post as the nation's longest-serving state education chief.

Grasmick, 72,, announced her retirement this afternoon to a large gathering of workers at the state Department of Education office that bears her name. She'll step down June 30.

"I have made a very tough decision to leave," she said. She highlighted the state's accomplishments on its Advanced Placement performance, its preparation for kindergartners and its successful Race to the Top application.

"I am never saying goodbye. We have three more months together. We will prepare for the next journey," she said with her voice breaking.

Staff members hugged her and cried. One employee, Mary Gamble, said, "She is a fabulous visionary leader, a marker for all superintendents across the country."

Gov. Martin O'Malley thanked Grasmick in a statement this afternoon.

"From her days teaching deaf children in Baltimore City, to now serving as the head of America's number one public school system, Dr. Grasmick has been long-regarded as a champion for many of the progressive reforms we've implemented in Maryland," the governor said.

Lawmakers this afternoon praised Grasmick's legacy.

"It's a big loss to the state of Maryland, said Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a personal friend of Grasmick's. "I don't know who could replace her."

Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat, called Grasmick "the brightest star in education" and "an innovator ahead of her time."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said "no one has done more" for K-12 education than Grasmick.

"She's had a great run" the Southern Maryland Democrat said. Maryland schools "have a great track record, and it's largely because of her efforts."

Lawmakers said the next superintendent -- to be chosen by the governor-appointed State Board of Education -- has big shoes to fill.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of the Senate education committee, called Grasmick "an icon in education" and "an expert in her field."

"She has done the state well," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Sen. Roy Dyson, vice-chairman of the education committee and a Southern Maryland Democrat, added: "She can be so proud of what she has accomplished."

Conway said the news does not come as a complete surprise, given Grasmick's sometimes rocky relationship with O'Malley.

"Much like myself, she can be a little controversial, politically," Conway said. She said O'Malley "has always wanted to appoint someone to that position."

Grasmick and O'Malley butted heads as he began his first term in 2007. The Democratic governor joined Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch in urging her to step down. The state school board, whose members were chosen by Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., reappointed her to a four-year term.

Earlier, as mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley had feuded with Grasmick over an attempted state takeover of 11 failing city schools. And more recently, the two had a difference of opinion over when the state should apply for federal Race to the Top education funds. The state applied in the second round and won.

The news of Grasmick's decision was first reported Wednesday by Fox 45 in Baltimore.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:08 PM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Administration
        

Health department says it will regulate abortion clinics

Advocates said today they remain skeptical about a commitment made by Maryland's Health Department to come up with stricter rules regulating abortion clinics, saying the department has long ignored the industry.

"I think it is lip service," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican from Cecil and Harford counties, reacting to a letter from the head of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene detailing a self-imposed timeline for drafting regulations.

In the letter Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein pledged that his agency will spend most of May reviewing how other states oversee abortion clinics and meet with stakeholders, including the Maryland Catholic Conference, which is clambering for tighter state oversight of the clinics. Regulations will be drafted over the subsequent two weeks with a  goal of putting out a draft for public comment in July, Sharfstein said.

But Jacobs and others remained doubtful because the agency has had the authority to regulate abortion clinics for nearly two decades, but they said it has done little to ensure that the clinics are safe. Leaders with the Maryland Catholic Conference worried that the state will leave loopholes in the new rules.

“A letter and a promise from DHMH is something, but we still don’t know whether all clinics will be regulated, what level of standards will be applied, and how the Department will monitor compliance,” said Dr. Nancy Paltell, a associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.


This year Jacobs backed a measure that would require the state to hold clinics to the same standards as surgical centers, a move that abortion advocates said would put most of Maryland's clinics out of business.

Senate Finance Chair Thomas M. Middleton did not favor the legislation, but committee members were moved by stories of women who'd been harmed while undergoing the procedure in Maryland during a hearing. "We do want to make sure that if a woman is going to get an abortion it will be safe," MIddleton said.

He added that he is satisfied that the state's health department will develop comprehensive rules.

The issue was highlighted in the fall after reports that a New Jersey doctor began late-term abortions in Voorhees, N.J. and transported the the women to Elkton to finish the procedure because he perceived that the state's oversight on clinics to be lax.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:23 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

O'Malley offers further compromise on wind

Electricity customers would pay a maximum of $2 extra per month if Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to create an offshore wind farm gains passage this year.

The rate increase limit would extend for the life of the 25-year contract and be indexed to 2011 dollars under administration's latest compromise, aimed at allaying legislators' concerns about cost. Earlier, O'Malley had pitched a $2 cap in the first year only. Senators have been so nervous about the bill that they floated the idea of a study.

"We've always believed the cost would be lower than $2, which is why the amendment wasn't there in the first place," said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for O'Malley. "Working with legislators, the original amendment was to provide some certainty where legislators said it didn't exist."

The new amendment, Adamec said, "is an extension of that certainty. We believe costs will go down after the first year."

Some lawmakers have said the cost of offshore wind is likely to be far higher than the administration believes.

Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis said the extended $2 increase limit "certainly is helpful."

Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat, said his committee would continue working on the bill all week and could vote on it as soon as early next week.

Asked whether there are enough votes on his committee to move the bill to the floor, Davis said, "more members are growing comfortable with the idea."

The legislation also is being considered by the Senate Finance Committee.

Business columnist Jay Hancock has a discussion about the wind proposal over on his blog.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:55 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Rawlings-Blake budget would affect pools, rec centers, fire companies

Swimming pools would be open on a staggered schedule this summer, three fire companies would be closed on a rolling basis and 311 would be available less frequently under the preliminary budget that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake rolled out this morning.

No taxes, including property taxes, would be increased, but residents would be required to pay for bulk trash pickups beginning on January 1, Rawlings-Blake said.

Rawlings-Blake, who is facing an election in the fall, said the budget is "about governing," not politics.

"You can't manage your way out of the great recession," said Rawlings-Blake. "You need to lead the way out of the great recession."

Likely mayoral challenger Otis Rolley, who attended the unveiling of the mayor's budget at the Board of Estimates this morning, criticized the budget, saying that it cut the services on which middle class families most depend.

"Where we're getting cut to the bone is in the neighborhoods," said Rolley. "We're not getting cut to the bone in City Hall. It continues to be an assault on the middle class and our neighborhoods."

Rolley, the city's former planning director, described Rawlings-Blake's budget as a "status quo" spending plan, that did little to stanch the city's decline in population and jobs.

Rolley said he would reduce expenses by increasing government efficiency and grow the city's tax base by attracting new residents and retaining current residents by lowering property taxes. He has not released the specifics of his plan to lower property taxes.

Rawlings-Blake has announced plans to craft a 10 year plan to overhaul the city's finances.

Under her budget, three firehouses would be closed each day. Two companies are currently closed on a rolling basis as a cost-cutting measure, although three were closed daily until late last year.

Swimming pools would open on a staggered schedule through the summer. The large pools at Druid Hill Park and Patterson Park would be open only on weekends from Memoral Day to Labor Day. Six park pools would be open for 10 weeks and 13 walk-to pools would be open for six weeks. Splash pools that are not connected to a swimming pool would be closed.

More than half of the city's 55 recreation centers would be turned over to non-profits or other third-party groups. If groups are not found to take over the centers, some of them could close, Rawlings-Blake said.

The preliminary budget calls for library hours to be reduced, but Rawlings-Blake said the hours could be restored if the city receives additional funding from the state.

Funding for animal services would be increased by $62,000, but three animal control worker jobs would be eliminated. The city would cut the amount of funds given to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter.

Rawlings-Blake's $2.29 billion operating budget includes a spending increase of about 1% over last year. About $65 million in cuts are spread across city services, including cuts to animal services and after school programs.

Rawlings-Blake and finance officials did not detail specifics of the city's $402 million capital budget, but noted that it had dropped by 40% from last year. The reason, city budget director Andrew W. Kleine told the city spending board, is that federal funds for water and waste water programs, had created a spike in capital spending in the current budget year, but are not included in next year's budget.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 11:38 AM | | Comments (23)
Categories: City Hall
        

March 29, 2011

Van Hollen asks Carter to help Md. man held in Cuba

Rep. Chris Van Hollen wants former President Jimmy Carter to use a trip to Cuba this week to help free a Potomac contractor held by the Castro government for more than a year. But Carter suggested Tuesday the man’s release is not the main focus of his trip.

Alan P. Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in Havana in 2009 and accused of espionage. He was in Cuba trying to improve intra-faith communication among Cuban Jews, according to Van Hollen.

“Mr. President, your reputation for fairness and your strong advocacy for justice around the world have made you a credible and respected voice on the issue of human rights,” Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, wrote Carter. “Your support of Mr. Gross could go a long way toward persuading the Cuban government to grant his release.”

The former Democratic president, who is 86, announced Friday he would lead a three-day trip to Cuba, raising hopes among government officials and the Gross family that he would secure the contractor’s release. But Carter told the Associated Press Tuesday that, “I am not here to take him out of the country."

Carter arrived in Cuba Monday and is scheduled to meet with President Raul Castro, according to the AP. He said he has raised the contractor’s release with Cuban officials, but he cast his trip in broader terms.

"We are here to visit the Cubans, the heads of government and private citizens. It is a great pleasure for us to return to Havana," Carter said, according to the AP.

A Carter spokesman could not be reached for comment. Carter is also expected to visit North Korea.

Gross was held for a year before the Cuban government charged him with a crime, Van Hollen said. “Then, suddenly, Mr. Gross was accused of engaging in crimes against the state, tried, and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in rapid succession,” he wrote.

The U.S. government has repeatedly sought his release. In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Jewish groups to pressure Cuba to free Gross.

Here is the full text of Van Hollen's letter:

Mr. President:

I understand that you are currently visiting Cuba on a mission on behalf of the Carter Center. I respectfully encourage you to use the occasion of your visit and the access your status as a former president of the United States affords you to advocate for the immediate release of my constituent Alan Gross.

As you are probably aware, Mr. Gross sat in prison for a year before the Cuban government officially charged him with a crime. Then, suddenly, Mr. Gross was accused of engaging in crimes against the state, tried, and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in rapid succession.

According to U.S. government reports, Mr. Gross was in Cuba as part of a USAID contract to improve intra-faith communication among Cuban Jews within and outside of the country. After visiting the island on numerous occasions without incident, Mr. Gross was detained by Cuban authorities at the airport as he prepared to return to the United States. Despite the protests of members of Congress, his family, and others, the Cuban government refuses to release Mr. Gross.

Mr. Gross suffers from health problems that are aggravated by his confinement and lack of access to adequate medical care. The U.S. government has raised this with Cuban authorities to no avail. With each passing day, his already fragile health declines further.

Mr. President, your reputation for fairness and your strong advocacy for justice around the world have made you a credible and respected voice on the issue of human rights. Your support of Mr. Gross could go a long way toward persuading the Cuban government to grant his release.

Sincerely yours,

Chris Van Hollen
Member of Congress


Posted by John Fritze at 7:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Washington
        

SRB cuts $65m from budget, does not raise taxes

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will slash $65 million from the city's $1.2 billion budget through "tough but targeted cuts" but not raise taxes in the coming fiscal year, according to a briefing slated to be presented to the city's spending board Wednesday.

Under the plan library hours would be reduced, some after school programs eliminated and funding for animal services would be cut. Residents would be forced to pay for bulk trash pickups and hours would be cut back at the city's 311 call center.

Rawlings-Blake does not make significant cuts to fire and police, as she had threatened to do in a doomsday budget scenario last year, and the spending plan fully funds the city schools.

City workers, many of whom were threatened with layoffs last year, need not fear massive job cuts in the coming year, according to the budget briefing. About 400 vacant positions will be abolished or not funded, but no there will be no widespread layoffs.

Workers will receive a 2 percent cost-of-living increase to offset salary reductions due to furlough days, which will continue in the coming budget year.

For the second consecutive year, the city will not pay into an affordable housing fund that was established when officials consented to pay for the construction of a convention center hotel with public money. When the hotel was approved under Martin O'Malley's tenure as mayor, many City Council members said only supported the deal because of the fund, which was intended to be used to eliminate blighted blocks and spur the construction of affordable homes.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, declined to comment on specifics of the proposal.


Posted by Julie Scharper at 3:45 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: City Hall
        

Miller defends the alcohol tax

Senate Republicans this morning attacked the plan to distribute most the $30 million in estimated revenue next year from a new sales tax increase on alcoholic beverages to Baltimore and Prince George's schools, saying it was unfair to levy a state-wide fee and send most of the proceeds to a select few.

"Why should all the citizens of Maryland be hit with this increase with the significant benefit going to two counties?" asked Senator E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican.

The Senate gave an initial nod to the plan this morning, which would add one percent a year for three years to the current six percent sales tax on beer, wine and liquor. When fully ramped up, the tax is expected to raise $85 million.

The plan sends an extra $8.8 million to Prince George's County and $12.2 million to Baltimore City for just next year. The two areas get the money as a way of making up for state spending cuts they face because this year they've lost wealth at a lower rate than the rest of the state than they did in previous years.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller noted that under Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan the two areas "came up short."

"It is a result of the formulas," Miller said. "It is not anybody's diabolical plan."

Miller also provided a second reason: "These are two of the largest consumers of alcohol in the state," he said. "Most of the tax revenue is generated from those two jurisdictions." Data from the Comptroller's office shows that people do like to buy booze in those two counties.


Prince George's County sold the most distilled spirits last year (1.5 million gallons); Baltimore County was second (1.4 million gallons) and Baltimore city was third (1.3 million gallons.)

Baltimore County sold the most beer (13.4 million gallons); with Prince George's second (13.2 million gallons) and Baltimore city third (12.6 million gallons.)

The winner in the wine category, however, went to Montgomery County. Baltimore city and Prince George's came in fourth and fifth. 

But, the rural counties win on a per capita basis, according to the Comptroller's office: In Cecil last year, 6.86 gallons of distilled spirits was purchased per resident. Worcester took the beer prize on a per capita basis with 59.18 gallons purchased. And the wine winner was Talbot, with 5.88 gallons sold per person.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:09 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Rawlings-Blake announces cuts to mayor's budget

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Tuesday that she intends to cut the budget for her office by $264,000, about 6 percent of last year's $4.25 million budget.

The reduction is likely due in part to the departure of two high-ranking staffers in recent months, Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff Sophie Dagenais and the city's chief lobbyist Diane Hutchins. Dagenais earned an annual salary of $140,000 and Hutchins' salary was $110,000.

Rawlings-Blake promoted Kim Washington, her close friend since childhood and former deputy chief of staff, to the top lobbyist position earlier this year.

Rawlings-Blake also announced Tuesday that she was cutting the the Office of Neighborhoods' $535,000 budget by $10,000 and adding $8,000 to the Office of Citistat's $503,000 budget.

The announcement comes as Rawlings-Blake prepares to unveil her spending plan for the city Wednesday morning. Rawlings-Blake must hack $65 million from the city's $1.2 billion budget, the third consecutive year in which considerable cuts are required. The budget appears slightly rosier than it did a couple months ago, when finance officials anticipated an $81 million shortfall.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, has not responded to a question about the discrepancy in the shortfall.

Last year, Rawlings-Blake cut $70 million in services and added $50 million in new taxes to plug a $121 million budget hole. The passage of the budget was a contentious process that drew ire from residents and City Council members who were loathe to see services cut while taxes and fees inched upward.

Finance officials reported earlier this month that the new taxes that Rawlings-Blake implemented last year are likely to generate $10 million less than they had anticipated. But they said they would not be forced to dip into reserve funds to cover the difference because expenses were also lower than expected.

This marks the second year that Rawlings-Blake kicked off the budget process by announcing cuts to the mayor's office. Last year, she cut $576,000 from the budget to the mayor's office, in part by terminating staffers who were holdovers from Sheila Dixon's administration.

O'Doherty, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, has not responded to a request for salary data for mayoral staffers. The mayor's announcement did not include comparisons between salaries for mayoral staffers for the upcoming year and previous years.


Posted by Julie Scharper at 12:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: City Hall
        

Miller: Transgender bill unlikely to pass senate

After the House of Delegates this weekend voted overwhelmingly to prohibit employer and housing discrimination for the transgendered, the bill crossed over to the Senate Monday where it landed in an unusual committee: Senate rules.

The move presents a formidable procedural hurdle for the effort with less than two weeks left of session. There would have to be a brief hearing in the Rules Committee to determine the proper policy committee assignment. Then the policy committee would need to hear the bill before it could reach the Senate floor.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that his chamber is engaged with the budget now and is unlikely to take up the bill.

"When we are through with the budget we’ll have time to deal with other issues that might have a chance of passage," he said after the morning session. "At this point in time I’d say the chances of passage of that bill are next to none."

He said the Senate has raised the issue in previous session, only to see it fail. "There are not the votes to move it in committee," he predicted.

Miller noted that his chamber "spent a lot of time" on "important social issues" earlier in the session that died in the House of Delegates. The Senate passed a landmark bill legalizing same-sex marriage, only to see their efforts wilt when votes could not be secured for House passage. 

Proponents of the transgendered anti-discrimination bill are still pushing forward. "We are already working with allies to keep this important bill moving,"said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the Executive Director of Equality Maryland. "

"It is challenging, but this bill would literally save lives and is worth fighting for," Meneses-Sheets. 

Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:37 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 28, 2011

City Council approves redistricting plan

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's new map of the city's 14 council districts received final approval from the council at Monday's meeting.

Eleven council members and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young voted for the plan; Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, Councilman James B. Kraft and Councilman Carl Stokes opposed it.

Conaway and Kraft, who co-chaired the committee that oversaw the redistricting process, had complained that the new map diluted the power of black and Latino voters in some neighborhoods. Conaway and some civil rights leaders have threatened to sue over the map.

A mayoral spokesman refuted those allegations and said the plan could stand up to a legal challenge.

"Councilwoman Conaway is not an attorney," said spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. "The plan has been approved by the law department."

Critics of the plan, including residents of Upper Fells Point and Butcher's Hill -- neighborhoods that will be split among districts under the plan -- allege that Rawlings-Blake drew the map to favor her allies on the council.

O'Doherty said in an email that "politics were not the consideration" in the plan.

The city charter requires that a redistricting plan be approved by April 1. Voters will pick candidates in the fall council elections based on the new districts.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 9:20 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: City Hall
        

R.I.P. white pages, state legislature says

The Senate on Monday joined the House of Delegates in voting to end mandatory delivery of residential white pages to home phone company customers.

Last fall, Verizon asked the Public Service Commission if it could provide free electonic or paper copies only upon customer request. The PSC denied Verizon's proposal, prompting lawmakers to intervene.

The House gave unanimous final passage to a similar bill earlier this month. Only one senator, Sen. Norm Stone, the chamber's elder member, voted against it Monday.

The legislative plan mirrors what Verizon had in mind: The tomes will never again automatically land on doorsteps. 

The changes do not affect advertising-funded business directories, such as the Yellow Book.

(Note about the photo: No residential white pages could be located for this blog entry. Image is a section of Anne Arundel business listings from Yellow Book.)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:42 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Assembly ships wine shipping toward governor

The Senate has joined the House of Delegates in passing a proposal that enables wineries to ship bottles directly to Maryland homes.

All 45 senators who voted on the shipping bill gave it the green light.(Sen. J.B. Jennings is away at flight training and Sen. Ulysses Currie did not vote.)

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign the legislation. That's the only major step remaining, though procedural legislative votes remain. The legislation would take effect July 1, in time for late summer wine sipping.

After years of disputes about whether Maryland should join 37 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing wine shipping, the alcohol industry, consumers and lawmakers this year struck a compromise. The House passed the bill nearly unanimously on Saturday.

Wineries can pay a $200 annual fee to ship to Marylanders. Residents can receive up to 18 cases per year. Retailers, including those who feature "wine of the month" clubs, may not ship to Maryland homes. Only about a dozen states allow retailer shipping.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:28 PM | | Comments (17)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Senate lowers tax rate (again) for Rocky Gap

Maryland's Senate tonight gave the final nod to a bill that would drastically lower the tax rate for gaming revenue from a casino at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland in an attempt to gin up interest in the aging site.

The Senate plan would reduce the tax on gaming revenues to 50 percent, well below the 67 percent that the state takes (or will take) at the other four casinos in Maryland. The lower rate would be in effect for 10 years.

The plan also would ease the current ownership rules: A bidder for Rocky Gap would be allowed to own another casino in the state. And, a future owner would be allowed to place slot machines in the lodge, eliminating a current provision that they construct a separate casino.

"We want someone to buy the lodge which is costing us money," explained Sen. George Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican.

The state-funded Rocky Gap Lodge opened in 1998 and includes an 18-hole golf course and conference center. But the lakeside resort has been a drag on the state's finances.

The facility had an operating loss of $3.8 million in fiscal year 2010 and does not generate enough revenue to cover debt payments, according to an analysis by the department of legislative services. 

(Photo credit: Julie Bykowicz)

Last year, hoping to attract bidders, the General Assembly lowered the tax rate from 67 percent to 64.5 percent and permitted the owner of another casino to operate Rocky Gap. The effort failed.

Edwards, whose district included Rocky Gap, said there that prospective bidders have expressed interest in the site if the proposed legislative changes are made.

Rocky Gap is the only of the five voter-approved gaming locations not to attract a serious bidder. Casinos in Cecil County and the Eastern Shore are operating. A fourth casino at Arundel Mills is under construction. The fifth casino in Baltimore in the final stages of litigation, and the state is expected to request new proposals within weeks.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 8:07 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Slots
        

Harriet Tubman won't displace John Hanson

John Hanson's spot in the U.S. Capitol is secure, while Harriet Tubman's chances of securing one are spotty, thanks to a vote this evening by the Maryland Senate. 

The General Assembly has been weighing whether to swap out Hanson for Tubman in the National Statuary Hall Collection. Each state can have only two statues, and since 1903, Maryland has been represented by Hanson, a president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

This session, the National Organization for Women and dozens historical and civil rights groups were trying to gain a place for Tubman, who helped slaves travel to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Although senators are supportive of Tubman, they won't trade Hanson for her.

In an amendment adopted Friday, senators decided to ask Congress to allow Maryland three statues so that they won't have to choose. The new plan gained unanimous final passage this evening.

In addition to providing glowing background information for Hanson, Carroll and Tubman, the amendment reads: "Whereas, It would benefit the nation and visitors to the nation's Capitol to be made aware of Tubman's contributions if an exception were made and an additional statue for Maryland were permitted in the National Statuary Hall Collection."

The Senate says other states have three statues, but that's not true, according to Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol. Although there are other statues in the Capitol, each state can contribute only two historical figures each for the official Statuary Hall collection. 

The House of Delegates has yet to vote on the Tubman v. Hanson issue and is waiting for the Senate to send over its bill. Del. Susan Lee, chairwoman of the women's caucus, said she'll work even harder next year if Tubman fails to unseat Hanson this session.

The Montgomery County Democrat noted Hanson has "monumental supporters" -- including Senate President Thomas. V. Mike Miller, who is bookended by small statues of Hanson and Carroll as he presides over the chamber (pictured: photo by The Sun's Kim Hairston).

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:05 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Memories of a vice presidential pool reporter

From Sun colleague Justin Fenton:

There's a fuss being made over at the Drudge Report about a pool reporter from the Orlando Sentinel being confined in a closet by the staff of Vice President Joe Biden during his appearance at a Florida fundraiser, with stories also written about the incident in the UK's Daily Mail and the New York Daily News. And now, the reporter is receiving apologies from Biden's staff and the fundraiser host.

Where's my apology?

A year ago, the same thing happened to me when I was a pool reporter at a Biden appearance at the home of developer David Cordish. Though I'm kidding about wanting an apology and I was not particularly aggravated by the situation, I nevertheless did mention it in my pool report:

Your pool reporter awaited the beginning of the event by sitting in a 5-by-8 foot, Asian-themed room with mirrors on the walls and family photos in small frames. Cordish three times brought guests, including VPOTUS, into the room to show off a collection of books about opera singer Rosa Ponselle.

In addition to Biden, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was also among the guests brought into my cage, er, waiting area, where I stared at a mirror and tried not to stare at a picture of a young Cordish sunning himself on a rock. I wasn't keen on the circumstances, but this was also a private residence and a private event, and I was willing to go with the flow to hear the vice president's remarks. Here's my full pool report, which the Chicago Sun Times and several other newspaper web sites ran in full.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:00 AM | | Comments (2)
        

March 26, 2011

Assembly limits credit checks for job applicants

Many job applicants should not be subjected to credit checks by employers, the Maryland General Assembly has determined. 

The House of Delegates today joined the Senate in approving legislation to limit when businesses could review a would-be employee's credit history. Employers already are barred from seeing a person's credit score, but the Assembly wants to limit their ability to access the entire report.

The legislation, which is moving toward the governor's desk for signature, provides an array of exemptions. Banks and credit unions are among those who could still use the reports. Companies also could run checks on applicants for high-level positions, such as chief financial officers.

Maryland residents had complained to lawmakers about being denied jobs because of bad credit.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:25 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Transgender anti-discrimination bill approved

Employers and housing groups could not discriminate against transgendered people, under a plan that won final passage today in the House of Delegates.

After a floor debate that veered into what some delegates said was offensive territory, the anti-discrimination measure passed by a vote of 86 to 52, a preliminary tally showed. The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

Home owners who rent rooms or apartments in their residence are exempted from the bill. Religious groups also are exempted.

Some Republicans who opposed the bill argued that education and child-related groups should have been excluded, too. Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said some parents may not want to explain to their children why a female teacher, for example, decided to dress as a man.  

"It's one thing to protect adults who want to be eccentric in front of other adults," said Del. Steven R. Schuh, an Anne Arundel County Republican, as he argued that the bill goes too far.

Del. Ariana B. Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat, described how a female office colleague had decided to live as a man. She said her office received a memo about the change and that "it was not a big deal to anyone but (him), which is how it should be."   

Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, who sponsored the bill, had earlier removed its most controversial element, which would have required public accommodations for transgendered people. The legislation moving through the General Assembly would not prevent transgender discrimination in places such as restaurants, restrooms and hotels.

Bill supporters acknowledged a better plan would have included public accommodations, but Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat, defended it as providing "good, minimal protections."

According to the legislative analysis, 13 states and the District of Columbia have anti-discrimination laws concerning transgendered people. Baltimore and Montgomery County already have local laws similar to the House plan, although those both include public accommodations provisions. 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:07 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

House OKs slots money for track operation

The House of Delegates today gave initial approval to a governor-backed proposal to allow horse track owners to use slots revenue for day-to-day operating expenses instead of capital improvements.

Gov. Martin O'Malley sought the legislation after brokering a last-minute deal to keep horse racing alive in Maryland this year. Supporters say the bill aims to help the Maryland Jockey Club and Penn National Gaming, new owner of the Rosecroft harness-racing track, maintain full racing schedules amid financial struggles.

But opponents argue the racing industry has wasted state money by suing to block a casino at Arundel Mills Mall. The Jockey Club had sought Anne Arundel County's sole slots license for its Laurel Park race track.

The plan could gain final House approval Monday and remains under consideration in the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:24 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Slots
        

Wine-ship gains near unanimous House approval

Marylanders are one step closer to being able to ask their favorite wineries to ship bottles directly to their homes.

The House of Delegates this morning gave final approval to the direct-shipping proposal. Just one of the 141 delegates voted against the legislation. Del. Nathaniel Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, said later that he opposes the bill because of worries about children having access to the delivered wine.

Senators advanced a similar version of the bill Friday and could vote on final passage Monday.

Under the proposal, in- and out-of-state wineries could pay a $200 permitting fee to ship to Marylanders. Residents, who would have to show delivery carriers that they are 21 or older, could receive up to 18 cases per year.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:28 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 25, 2011

Dining with Fido plan advances in the House

Sun colleague Jill Rosen reports on Unleashed:

Dog people, this one’s for you.

Maryland moved one step closer Friday in legalizing outdoor dining with dogs — with nary a bark.
The General Assembly’s House of Delegates approved the measure without discussion on second reader — with final approval on the bill expected as soon as later this afternoon.

Assuming victory in the House, the bill, called the Dining Out Growth Act of 2011, would move to the Senate.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, the bill’s sponsor, touts it as something that would give a leg-up to the state's restaurant industry, which has had a tough go of it in the recent economic downturn.

But pet lovers are hoping the bill would legalize what they’ve already been doing a lot of anyway — having a bite to eat al fresco with their dog.

Though dozens of Baltimore restaurants with outdoor areas already welcome dogs, hundreds more don't because doing so violates state health code.

Maryland’s health department has signed off on bill.

One change to the bill that should please dog owners: The date it would now become effective has been pushed up to July. Originally it would have become law in October.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:25 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Assembly gives initial approval to wine shipping

Legislation that would allow wineries across the state and country to ship bottles directly to Maryland homes has won initial approval from the full General Assembly.

The House of Delegates and Senate could vote on final passage within days. Consumers have cheered the advance of wine shipping -- which is legal in 37 other states and the District of Columbia -- as evidence that the General Assembly is beginning to listen to them.  

Not all lawmakers and wine advocates are entirely happy with the bill. Some wanted retailers, in addition to wineries, to be able to ship to residents. Several Jewish lawmakers pointed out that it is dificult to get kosher bottles from anyone but distant retailers.

Despite such misgivings, neither chamber amended the bill -- which represents a hard-fought compromise among the alcohol industry, wineries, consumers and lawmakers on the committees that vet liquor bills.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:43 PM | | Comments (18)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 24, 2011

Delegates send $14.6 billion budget to Senate

Annie Linskey reports:

The House of Delegates voted Thursday to approve a $14.6 billion plan to fund day-to-day state government operations, over the vehement objections from Republicans who had pushed for deeper cuts and opposed new fees.

Delegates voted 97 to 42 to approve the budget, with one Republican joining the Democrats to support the plan.

The budget calls for Marylanders to pay higher fees at the Motor Vehicle Administration to register new vehicle titles or use vanity license plates. Fees for recording land transactions would also go up.

The budget doesn’t contain any new taxes — yet. The plan now goes to the Senate, where a key committee voted yesterday to raise the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent, an increase that would be phased in over three years.

House Democratic leaders touted extensive behind-the-scenes work during the first ten weeks of the legislative session to rejigger spending within Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan and restore $60 million in cuts to education. Their reworked plan would also give counties and cities some more money to fix roads.

“Good budgets are flexible,” said Del. Galen R. Clagett. The Western Maryland Democrat said the House proposal responded to concerns from constituents who worried the O’Malley proposed plan would “hurt” them.

“The message I got was we should be helping people,” he said.

But Republicans said the Democratic majority didn’t do enough: The House plan would only cut $6.5 million from the budget O’Malley’s proposed in January. House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell used a chart to show how state spending has increased in recent years.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., the leader of the House’s new tea party caucus, said the budget would “burden the taxpayers with all kinds of new fees” — just the type of plan that his supporters at home “went to the streets” to oppose.

The Eastern Shore Republican predicted that when lawmakers go home at the end of the session next month, they will see angry constituents “marching again”

Del. Wendell Beitzelwas the sole Republican to support the plan. A longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, he said that he felt the majority had listened to many of his concerns.

Beitzel touted the restoration of a 3 percent tax credit for those who purchase coal produced in Maryland and the return user fees that Garrett County officials negotiated when they sold Deep Creek Lake to the state.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:48 PM | | Comments (8)
        

Alcohol tax increase advances to full Senate

For the first time in more than four decades, a Maryland legislative committee has approved an alcohol tax increase. 

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee today advanced a plan to bump tax on alcohol from 6 to 9 percent over the next three years. Alcohol taxes would go up by one percentage point per year.

Budget Chairman Edward Kasemeyer noted the historic nature of the committee's move, saying most Marylanders "probably wonder why it has taken so long."

If it wins general Assembly approval, the tax increase is expected to pump about $30 million into state coffers next year and $85 million once it is fully implemented. The House of Delegates has yet to vet the plan.

Although the new revenue would go into the state's general fund, the Senate committee has plans for it next year: $5 million would assist people with developmental disabilities, $8.8 million would flow to Prince George's County, and Baltimore City would receive $12.2 million.  

Because Prince George's County has grown relatively wealthier, state aid has dropped, something the alcohol tax money would help assuage. Baltimore would use the money to pay for increasing costs of retired teachers' health care.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative and a longtime advocate for increasing the alcohol tax, cheered the tax increase proposal as "a great public health victory that will save numerous lives."

Even a small increase in the cost of alcohol, he argues, causes a drop in drinking.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:55 PM | | Comments (27)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Tax & Spend
        

Del. Jill Carter to bureaucracy: Don't bog me down!

Del. Jill Carter is co-sponsor of a bill that could prevent Baltimoreans from losing their houses over unpaid water and and sewer charges. I'd like to go on record to say that's commendable, if also a little odd.

Wouldn't you think someone sufficiently immersed in the issue of delinquent water bills and tax sales to co-sponsor a bill on the subject would know if her own water bill has gone unpaid for nearly two years and her own house is about to go on the auction block?

Carter has an explanation, posted on Facebook: 

"So, I'm fallible?" she writes. "It's not like i have millions of dollars and just... refuse to pay my debts. Truth is, I abhor being bogged down by bureacracy. So, to that extent, I sometimes bring things, like this, on myself because I feel I don't have time, or want to be botheed with letter writing, phone calls, etc, to handle personal matters."

Hmmm. A woman who's run for mayor doesn't like being bogged down by "bureacracy"?

Read more of Carter's explanation below.

"And it is far from the ONLY bill I haven't paid," Carter writes. "However, I didn't place a high priority on it because I thought insurance was taking care of a chunk due to ongoing massive leaks and flooding in the house. The house has been a ...burden not a blessing.

"On the water thing, I haven't gotten a bill in a really long time, and meant to make an inquiry but just forgot about it. From January-April, I devote myself to session, and often fall behind in all things personal because I stop earning money through legal practice, and spend most of my time in Annapolis. Truly, the water bill is the least of my worries. I could very well lose my house, but not likely over a water bill. ...still, Adam's [Meister, of The Examiner] point about the Sun is correct. The Sun NEVER covers anything correctly or thoroughly. The Sun has taken a position of deliberate non-coverage of my work, or anything non-negative about me the entire time I've held office. It's not personal, it's political. Reporters and editors like to keep a close relationship with the politically powerful. The gov, speaker, et.al, steer them in the direction of who to cover and how to spin the stories. I'm simply not a party favorite, pawn, or puppet. Most of why I'm in debt is due to my dedication to public service without having any help from the party. This has meant I've spent a lot of my limited personal resources to stay in office because I believe it is critical to have at least ONE elected person that is not own by the party or special interests. But, the supreme challenge is money. The people don't tend to contribute enough, and the only other option is to spend your own money. In my case, in 8 years, I've gone from financial comfortable to financially strapped. but,I believe it's worth it, and it has been my choice."

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 1:12 PM | | Comments (44)
        

March 23, 2011

Deadbeat delegate hasn't paid water bill for 2 years

Our Sun colleague Laura Vozzella reports:

Del. Jill Carter pulled a disappearing act earlier this month, derailing Maryland's gay-marriage bill as a no-show for a committee vote, supposedly to draw attention to the plight of underfunded Baltimore schools.

She has since turned up in an unlikely place for a lawmaker making a grand stand for a cash-poor city — on a list of municipal deadbeats.

The city's Bureau of Treasury Management put out a long list last week of properties with delinquent taxes and municipal liens, which are scheduled to be sold in a sealed-bid tax sale on May 17. Among the properties is Carter's Glen Allen Drive home, which is assessed at $283,392 and has a lien on it for $920.61.

The money is not owed for property taxes on the Hunting Ridge home, which Carter said she pays through her mortgage payment. It's for water.

(Photo credit: Kim Hairston)
Carter said that was news to her when I reached her by cellphone Wednesday. "I don't have any knowledge of it," she said.

"It figures you weren't calling with any good news," Carter added, apparently still peeved from when I reported that she'd billed herself as a 40-year-old in Baltimore magazine's list of "Top Singles" three years ago, when she was actually 44.

Carter has not paid her water bill since April 2009, according to the city's Tax Sale Office.

Carter has until April 29 to pay up or risk losing her house in the tax sale. Baltimore schoolchildren can surely use every penny of it.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 7:24 PM | | Comments (16)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Novelty lighters ignite Senate debate

*** Update: The House Judiciary Committee voted down the novelty lighter restrictions this afternoon, meaning the issue has probably flamed out for the year. *** 

Novelty lighters could not be sold in Maryland under a plan advanced today by the state Senate.

Lawmakers argue that the toylike devices attract children and therefore pose a fire hazard. The Senate plan, which could gain final passage this week, also prohibits the sale of lighters with cartoon pictures on them.

A similar proposal in the House of Delegates was rejected late this afternoon by the House Judiciary Committee.

Senators on both sides of the issue hoisted lighters on the floor this morning to illustrate their point.

Sen. Barry Glassman, a Republican who sponsored the bill, displayed a tiny totem pole lighter and a mini-Coach purse that ignites when the zipper is pulled and.

"This is a very serious issue," Glassman said as the debate began veering toward puns and snickers. He said toddlers grab the lighters thinking they are toys and can hurt themselves. 

Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican who opposes restricting lighter sales, fired up lighters of his own: a green one that would remain legal and a similarly-sized one with a picture of a dragon that would become illegal.

Kittleman said he doesn't believe the legislation achieves its stated purpose of protecting children -- especially because Marylanders would still be able to purchase toylike lighters in other states or over the Internet.

Under the Senate plan, violators would be subject to a civil penalty.

The House sponsor of the bill, Del. James Malone, has tried to pass lighter restrictions for several years, to no avail. This morning, he said he felt optimistic.

The Baltimore County Democrat said he brought examples of toy lighters to a House committee last year -- and a delegate burned himself while playing with one.

"These really are dangerous," he said. Though the plan was rejected by the House Judiciary Committee, it could be revived if the Senate sends its version to the lower chamber for consideration.

Glassman cited other cases of injury and destruction. He said a 5-year-old burned playground equipment in Maryland (he wasn't sure where) while playing with a gun-replica lighter. Elsewhere in the country, kids have singed their hair with cell-phone-style lighters and their fingers with car and motorcycle lighers that ignite when their wheels are rolled.

More and more states are moving to ban toy lighters, Glassman said, and 14 have already done so.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:09 PM | | Comments (28)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

O'Malley continues wind energy push

With lawmakers on the fence about one of his signature legislative issues this year, Gov. Martin O'Malley today made the case that investing in offshore wind would help create jobs in the short term and stabilize energy rates over the long run.

The Democratic governor urged the General Assembly to pass his offshore wind plan because "if we don't make the right choices," he said, fossil fuels will continue to rise, global warming will continue and other states will jump ahead in the country's relatively new push to harness wind for electricity.

O'Malley spoke at Annapolis' City Dock, surrounded by environmental activists and building trades workers who stand to benefit from new jobs if the state adopts a plan to build and install steel wind turbines more than 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City.

But lawmakers have been reluctant about the plan and its associated costs, which would be passed along to utility customers across the state. Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, chairman of the Senate committee considering the proposal, recently suggested it may need a study before lawmakers embrace it.  

To allay fears about rate increases, O'Malley today suggested an amendment limiting the added cost to a maximum of $2 per month in the first year. Sen. Paul Pinsky, who has pushed for wind energy the past two years, said he's not sure if the one-year cap would be enough to move the bill forward.

Less than three weeks remain in the 2011 legislative session.

The wind legislation would direct the state's utilities to enter 25-year contracts with energy firms to build a wind farm that could produce about 500 megawatts of power. The cost could exceed $1 billion and would be borne by the state's ratepayers.

The governor has stressed that the charge to ratepayers would be negligible: The administration estimates it would be $1.44 a month, but other estimates are higher.

Both senators and delegates have expressed concerns about the potential costs.

Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the House committee vetting O'Malley's wind bill, predicted the $2 cap would "certainly be helpful" in winning over lawmakers, though he, too, was unsure if it would be enough to get the bill through this year.

Told that the proposed cap is for Year One only, Davis asked, "What about the other years?"

O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said the legislation provides several safeguards about ratepayer costs in future years.

The Public Service Commission is required to reject wind proposals that are not comparable with other offshore wind projects, and must evaluate "lowest cost impact over the term of the power purchase agreement on ratepayers."

Building trades leaders stressed the jobs that offshore wind could bring. Maryland has lost 85,000 manufacturing jobs over the past two decades, one speaker said.

Jim Strong of the United Steelworkers of Maryland said the state would not be able to revive its employment base "until we start making things."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:49 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

MD teachers' union offers pension compromise

Maryland's largest teachers' union has offered their own pension compromise that that leaves large chunks of Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal unchanged.

The Maryland State Education Association, a 71,000 member union, would go along with O'Malley's proposed higher contribution rate (5 percent to 7 percent), though the new rate would phase in over two years, according to a presentation MSEA emailed around Annapolis Wednesday.

They also accept O'Malley's proposal to that new hires would have to work for 30 years before retiring.

The most meaningful difference is over the tricky area of average final compensation -- the figure used to determine the size of they pension check: Teachers want it to be calculated as the average pay over their last three years. O'Malley's plan would extend that time period to five years, diluting the final salary in most cases.

Pat Moran, president of the Maryland chapter of AFSCME, with said today that his union is largely supportive of the teachers idea.

The House of Delegates is expected to debate O'Malley's pension plan this evening when the comb through the budget in an evening session that could stretch to midnight.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:20 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

House gives initial nod to interlock bill

Judges would have another hammer to enforce drunk driving rules under a House passed provision that requires extremely intoxicated drivers to use ignition interlock devices.

The House passed bill would require the devices for anyone who drives with a blood alcohol limit of 0.15 or more. (That is about five glasses of wine in two hours for a woman who weighs 120 lbs, according to this online BAC calculator.) The bill would also require the devices for drivers with a second conviction within five years or any driver under 21.

During the House floor debate Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, argued that the House bill is too weak. Kramer wanted the devices to be mandatory for anyone show a BAC of .08 , a position supported by advocates like MADD. (That would be three glasses of wine in two hours for our 120 lb woman.)

"I think we are being shortchanged," Kramer said during the House debate.

Vallario disagreed saying the legislation would give Maryland some of the toughest anti-drunk driving bills in the country. However, 11 other states require the interlock on any drunk driving conviction, according to fiscal analysts.

A different interlock bill received initial approval in the senate on Tuesday, though significant differences between the two pieces of legislation exist.


Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:43 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

O'Malley's wind energy plan could become a study

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee offered up the classic Annapolis solution to the politically tricky off-shore wind legislation that Gov. Martin O'Malley is pushing this year: Transform it into a study.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton said Monday that the proposal to build a wind farm off Ocean City is still encountering stiff resistance in his committee, despite a flurry of one-on-one meetings with the governor and key Senate and House members.

"Some people believe there should be a study," said Middleton, who said he hopes that issues can be resolved. But time is running out: The general assembly session ends in less than three weeks.

To build momentum for the bill, O'Malley is set to hold a news conference at City Dock in Annapolis today. He'll stress the the 2,000 jobs he believes it would generate.

Joe Bryce, O'Malley's top lobbyist, said Tuesday that Maryland is "in a race" with other states that are angling to host off-shore farms and therefore can ill afford to delay action for a year.

The bill is one of several key pieces of the governor's legislative agenda to face tough scrutiny from lawmakers. O'Malley's plan to limit septic systems at new developments has been stopped up in the House and a proposal to create a $100 million investment capital fund hasn't reached the floor of either chamber.

 

The wind legislation would direct the state's utilities to enter 25-year contracts with energy firms to build a wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean. The cost could exceed $1 billion and would be borne by the state's ratepayers.

The governor has stressed that the charge to ratepayers would be negligible: The administration estimates it would be $1.44 a month, but other estimates are higher.

But Middleton said the bulk of the opposition is centered on the costs to ratepayers. After facing tough elections and angry votes last November, many senators and delegates are particularly sensitive to pocketbook issues.

House Speaker Micheal E. Busch did not sound as rushed. "It is a distance run, not a sprint," he said. Complicated legislation, like the wind bill, can benefit from "thorough dissection," he said.

"Sometimes it takes more than one session," Busch said.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 5:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 22, 2011

O'Malley to pull $2.3b prescription drug contract

Gov. Martin O'Malley will defer a Board of Public Works vote on a contested $2.3 billion prescription drug contract until an appeals process is finished, according to a spokesman.

O'Malley's Department of Budget Management wants to award the mega-contract to an out-of-state firm with a history of complaints in more than two dozen states, including Maryland, of swapping drugs on patients. The company, Express Scripts, offered a price for the five year contract that came in $50 million less than the closest competitor.

The Maryland-based Catalyst Health Solutions Inc., which currently holds the contract, has filed multiple protests contesting the new award. O'Malley's decision will delay transferring the lucrative work until after the State Board of Contract Appeals process is finished, which could take a year.

"This is fairly standard for a contract of this size," said O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec. He added that the Maryland company should be able to "exercise all of its options."

Some in O'Malley's administration had previously argued that the potential savings from the new contract of roughly $15 million in the next budget was enough to operate outside the usual framework.

The contract is to manage the prescription drug program for 200,000 current and retired state workers over the next five years. The company would process drugs claims and negotiate lower prices for medications with pharmacies and manufactures.

Catalyst, based in Rockville, won the contract five years ago from another firm. However, Catalyst had to wait a year before receiving payments from the state because of protests filed by the company that they beat.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 6:40 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Administration
        

Wine shipping wins backing of key committees

A proposal to allow Maryland wine consumers to have bottles shipped directly to their homes has won the approval of two key legislative committees.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee and the House Economic Matters Committee each voted nearly unanimously Tuesday to send the direct-ship proposal to the full legislature. The development bodes well for the legislation; in years past, those two committees have bottled up the popular plan.

"It's a good bill," said Sen. Roy Dyson, the Senate committee's vice chairman and a Southern Maryland Democrat. "And it has been a long time coming."

The legislation represents a compromise. (Senate version and House version)

Wine consumer advocacy groups had pushed to allow retailers — not just wineries — to ship to Maryland homes. But the alcoholic beverage industry, which had long opposed any form of direct-shipping, supported the bill this year on the condition that it be limited to wineries.

Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis said the legislation "advances the ball.

"We were able to get something satisfactory to all sides," the Prince George's County Democrat said. Del. Emmett C. Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat who is a minister, abstained from voting on the legislation, as he does with all liquor matters. Every other lawmaker on the two committees voted in favor of it.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow the direct shipment of wine from wineries to residences. Twelve of them also allow shipments from retailers.

Local wineries said the direct-ship legislation would help them. Many states do not allow Maryland wineries to mail bottles into their states since their own wineries can't ship to Marylanders.

Under the Senate’s proposal, Marylanders would be able to have a maximum of 18 cases per year shipped to their homes from wineries. Wineries would pay $200 per year for a permit to ship to homes.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch cheered Tuesday’s development and predicted the direct-ship proposal would gain passage.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:20 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Spector bills city $1,155 for trip to neighboring D.C.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector billed the city $1,155 to attend a three-day conference less than an hour away in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Registration for the National Association of Counties conference cost $515. Spector is seeking reimbursement for an additional $640 for her hotel stay, mileage, parking and food, according to an item on the agenda for Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting.

Spector said that she spent the night in the hotel because she needed to attend a session at 7 a.m. Saturday. She chairs the ports subcommittee of the transportation committee which met early Saturday to go over their legislative agenda, Spector said.

"I always tell people how important the port is to Baltimore and the state," said Spector. "So much economic development is based on that port."

Spector said she spent two nights at the hotel and attended two of the five days of the conference.

The conference was held at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in the Woodley Park area, about 43 miles from Spector's official home on Park Heights Avenue in her Northwest Baltimore district. The hotel is even closer to the Downtown condominium where Spector spends the bulk of her time -- about 34 miles away.

Update: The Board of Estimates did approve Spector's travel costs this morning. An agenda for the conference lists the ports subcommittee meeting at 2 p.m. Saturday, not at 7 a.m.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 6:05 PM | | Comments (31)
Categories: City Hall
        

Western Md. lawmaker: Shale drilling 'our BRAC'

The House of Delegates today advanced a plan calling for a two-year study of Marcellus shale drilling -- overriding the objections of Western Maryland lawmakers who want to see the potentially lucrative activity sooner.

Del. Wendell Beitzel acted as the chief proponent of hydraulic fracturing, saying it could provide much-needed financial boost in the most economically depressed part of the state, Garrett and Allegany counties.

"We're suffering out there," the Republican lawmaker said, noting that his home counties are losing population, jobs and student enrollment. He compared the potential windfall for Western Maryland to the federal Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) plan that is expected to bring new residents and jobs to Harford County and other areas.

"Fracking," as it is known, is the process of extracting natural gas from deep within the ground. Other states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, allow private citizens to lease drilling companies the rights to the shale underneath their land. But the extraction process, which produces many tons of wastewater, is controversial.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said the state needs time to study hydraulic fracturing and that proceeding quickly could prove harmful to Maryland's waterways.

Other states, the Baltimore Democrat said, "were ill-prepared for what happened when began to drill." Many have since slowed or stopped the activity while the study it further, she said.

The Senate has not taken action on a similar study proposal, but rejected an effort by Western Maryland Sen. George Edwards to force the Department of the Environment to develop hydraulic fracturing regulations by the end of the year.  

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:18 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Doctor's note would allow Marylanders to smoke pot

Supporters of legalizing marijuana for medical uses put forward a new approach in the Senate this morning, voting on a proposal that would allow sick people to use their illness as a defense if arrested for smoking pot.

The re-written bill also calls for a study group to determine the best way for the state to establish a limited medical marijuana program. The plan involves academic institutions applying to Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene inorder to set up programs where the drug is distributed to patients.    

"The politicians have caught up with the public," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a bill sponsor. "People believe the seriously ill should have access to marijuana if they need it for therapeutic proposes."

Currently, those who can show they are using marijuana to relieve pain are subject to a misdemeanor and $100 fine. The new proposal would decriminalize smoking pot or having paraphernalia for the ill, as long as a doctor could attest to the need.

It would still be illegal to sell marijuana to sick people. And users would have to go to the black market to secure the drugs.

The bill would protect doctors by saying they can not be reprimanded for providing an opinion that a patient would benefit from marijuana use.

A broader measure to establish a full-blown medical marijuana program in Maryland lost momentum earlier in the session when newly appointed DHMH Secretary Joshua Sharfstein opposed the effort in a committee hearing.

Sharfstein said he has "no position" on the idea of a new legal defense for patients using marijuana.

He does support studying a limited medical marijuana program with an eye toward creating the legal framework for it during the 2012 legislative session. 

 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 4:16 PM | | Comments (17)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

O'Ms bill to criminalize child neglect moves forward

Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to create a law against child neglect ignited a robust debate within the some in Democratic caucus on the Senate floor this morning, with a few urban members arguing that the measure would criminalize poor families and disproportionally impact African-Americans.

O'Malley's plan was to create a new felony child neglect statute -- but the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee downgraded the proposed crime to a misdemeanor and included a provision differentiating between "neglect" and "poverty." One committee added provision reads: "Neglect does not include the failure to provide necessary resources ... due to solely to lack of financial resources or homelessness." 

Still Baltimore County's Delores G. Kelley argued that the bill is superfluous since existing child abuse statues protect minors. She would prefer families have access to parenting classes and other resources  that would relieve the conditions under which neglect occurs.

"You'll have huge numbers of families drawn into the criminal justice system," said Kelley, a Democrat. "When we criminalize these parents ... all we do is make it harder for them to bond with these children."

Kelley argued that at the end of the day, the children will likely end up with the parents and the state would be better served by educating the adults.

But JPR Chairman Brian Frosh said the proposed rule cures a loophole in current law: Child abuse cases must demonstrate physical harm to the victim. More subtle forms of abuse, like intentional malnutrition or locking a child in a closet for a prolong period, would not necessarily trigger the existing abuse statutes, he said.

"Some of this outrageous behavior can not be charged," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The bill received preliminary approval in the Senate and House this morning. 


Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:17 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Court OKs messy signatures on petitions

In a ruling sure to be welcomed by Marylanders with sloppy pensmanship, the Court of Appeals has decided that petition signatures need not be legible to be valid.

"We hold that a signature on a petition for referendum is but one component of the voter's identity that is to be considered in the validation process," the majority opinion of state's highest court says. "... An illegible signature, on its own, does not preclude validation." 

The 5-to-2 ruling, reported this morning, has an immediate impact on two political parties. The Green Party and Libertarian Party each failed to win the minimum 1 percent of votes in the most recent gubernatorial election required of official parties. Each has petitioned the state to remain viable.

By law, those petitions must include the signatures of at least 10,000 registered voters. The Greens submitted 14,000 signatures, and the Libertarians put forward 12,000, according to the State Board of Elections.

Elections officials were in the process of validating signatures when today's ruling was handed down. Officials now must start over, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections.

The ruling does not appear to undo any referendum efforts previously rejected by state or local elections boards. 

Elections officials were "digesting" today's ruling and believed they would have to alter their petitions policies to reflect that ineligible signatures are OK if they accompany valid printed contact information supplied by a registered voter.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, chairman of the election law subcommittee of House Ways and Means panel, said Tuesday's ruling makes the referendum requirements "more reasonable."

He compared the issue to a doctor's prescription: If the doctor's ID code and contact information are correct, it doesn't matter if the signature is chicken scratch.

At issue in the case was a petition submitted in August by Montgomery County volunteer firefighters, who sought to roll back a new emergency medical services transportation fee levied by the county.

The firefighters submitted a petition containing 33,740 signatures, but only 13,021 were deemed acceptable by the county Board of Elections, meaning the petition failed to meet the requirements to make it onto the fall ballot.

However, the board of elections conceded in court that if signature legibility was not an issue, the firefighters met the petition requirements.

This fall, in an emergency ruling, the Court of Appeals, gave the ballot question the go-ahead, overturning the board of elections' and a lower court's ruling that it had not met the petition requirements. County voters rejected the transportation fee in the November election.

Left unchanged by today's ruling was the tricky matter of middle initials. State law requires someone who signs a petition to the name he or she used when registering to vote.

The example used in state election board guidelines is John Henry Smith. If Smith signs a petition, he would have to indicate that his name is John Henry Smith, J. Henry Smith or John H. Smith to be counted as valid. He could not use John Smith or J.H. Smith.

Some signature collectors have complained that the requirement is too restrictive because people don't always remember how precisely they registered to vote. But Cardin said today that petition rules are "absolutely effective enough."

The Baltimore County Democrat said no one has complained to the election law subcommittee about the registration name issue.

"There's always room for improvement," he said. "There are still open questions that we should consider taking up."

-- The Sun's Larry Carson contributed.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:33 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Elections
        

March 21, 2011

Senate wins inter-cameral chess match

Sen. Jamie Raskin outmaneuvered Del. Jim Gilchrist during a 30-minute chess match this evening, successfully defending the Senate's title as the more intellectual (craftier?) chamber.

Only six pieces were exchanged during the post-session game: Raskin seized both of Gilchrist's knights and two pawns; Gilchrist also took a pair of pawns.

The match was a culmination of a multi-week series of games designed to produce a top player from each chamber. (Read the Sun story on the tradition here.) It is the second year that the two chambers have held an organized match.

"Jamie knows how to attack," said Gilchrist afterward.

Raskin said he had a "sleepless" night before the match, but said he was motivated to humble the House of Delegates after the chamber "let us down" by failing to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

Raskin shepherded the controversial measure through the Senate, but supporters did not find the votes for the bill in the House.

(The Montgomery county Democrat may have had another reason to want to win: He already sits in the back of the chamber and worried that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would "send me into the hall way" if he lost.)
Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:38 PM | | Comments (0)
        

Baltimore senator wants to hike sales tax on booze

Baltimore's Verna Jones-Rodwell introduced a measure in the Maryland senate Monday night to increase the sales tax on alcohol by three percent over the next three years. The state's sales tax would remain unchanged for all other goods.

The measure would raise $90 million a year when it is fully implemented, said Jones-Rodwell. "It needs to be on the table," she said Monday night. The money would go to the state's general fund.

A different proposal to raise an excise tax at the wholesale level -- known as the dime a drink tax -- was sold as a way to help the disabled.

The Jones-Rodwell proposal came together in the past few days after legislative analysts recognized that the District of Columbia uses a similar method to tax beer, wine and spirits.

The efforts to increase the excise tax that Maryland adds at the wholesale level has encountered stiff opposition from the powerful liquor lobby, which has argued said that changing it here could push consumers across the border to purchase in DC.

Those who've wanted to increase taxes on alcoholic beverages only recently realized that DC taxes at both the excise and the retail levels. 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:00 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Panel: Study merging U.Md. College Park, and Balto.

A senate budget panel voted to ask the University System of Maryland to consider fusing campuses in College Park and Baltimore into a mega-university that would surpass Stanford and Yale in some higher education rankings.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller proposed the idea at a Budget and Taxation meeting this afternoon.

The budget panel's vote would direct the Board of Regents to develop a merger plan by December 15, with an eye toward how the combination would enhance both institutions. "The plan should be developed in a manner that does not reduce but expands resources, assets and opportunities," according to the adopted budget language.

The full Senate would have to agree to the plan -- as would the House, which takes up the budget this week.

USM Chancellor Dr. William E. Kirwan floated the idea over a decade ago in speech when he left his post as head of University of Maryland, College Park. He said the two institutions "have complimentary rather than competing missions," according to transcript of the address.

Kirwan then noted that such a merger would enhance the university's national stature because the combined entity would jump in national rankings including for research dollars.

If the two institutions were merged, the new university would be 5th in doctoral degrees awarded, 3rd in faculty awards and 10th in total research expenditures (displacing Stanford), according to information provided to Senators on the Budget and Taxation Committee.

 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 5:14 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Bartlett: Libya action 'an affront to the Constitution'

Updated, with comment from Bartlett staff qualifying his support for the Iraq war.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is calling the decision of President Barack Obama to deploy force again Libya without first seeking congressional authorization “an affront to the Constitution.”

Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces. In a statement Monday, he said “The United States does not have a King's army.”

“President Obama's administration has repeated the mistakes of the Clinton administration concerning bombing in Kosovo and the George W. Bush administration concerning invading Iraq by failing to request and obtain from the U.S. Congress unambiguous prior authorization to use military force against a country that has not attacked U.S. territory, the U.S. military or U.S. citizens,” he said. “This is particularly ironic considering then-Senator Obama campaigned for the Democratic nomination based upon his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq."

While Moammar Gadhafi “ is a tyrant despised throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” Bartlett said, and “his brutal and merciless attacks against his own citizens are horrific,” it is “self-evident” that the situation in Libya “is not an emergency.”

“The Obama administration sought and obtained support from both the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council to authorize military force against Qadhafi,” Bartlett said. “The Obama administration also had time to organize a 22-nation coalition to implement a no-fly zone with military attacks led by U.S. Armed Forces against Qadhafi’s forces.

“Nonetheless, the Obama administration failed to seek approval from the American people and their elected legislators in the Congress. Failing to obtain authorization from the U.S. Congress means that President Obama has taken sole responsibility for the outcome of using U.S. military forces against Qadhafi onto his shoulders and his administration."

Update: Bartlett spokeswoman Lisa Wright has contacted us to qualify his support of the Iraq war:

“Rep. Bartlett was a reluctant supporter of H.J.Res. 114 [the joint resolution to authorize military force] after [the] failure of the Spratt subsitute which would have required an additional vote by Congress to authorize military force by the U.S. in the absence of a UN resolution. The Spratt resolution was his preference. Rep. Bartlett was critical of the UN for failing to uphold its resolutions and of President Bush's interpretation that the ambiguous wording in UNSC Resolution 1441 [the November 2002 U.N. Security Council Resolution that offered the regime of Saddam Hussein "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations"] was an authorization for the US to use military force.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 4:37 PM | | Comments (17)
        

March 18, 2011

House leaders would raise $60 million in fees

Majority leaders with Maryland's House of Delegates outlined a plan today that would raise roughly $60 million by hiking three fees -- collecting money that would help restore the depleted state highways fund and return some cash that Gov. Martin O'Malley wanted to chop from schools in next year's spending plan.

The House proposal, put forward by majority leaders, would double the amount motorists pay in for titles when cars are purchased from $50 to $100. The plan also hikes the fees for specialty license plates -- known as vanity tags -- from $25 to $50. Those changes would raise about $50 million and would be directed to the Transportation Trust Fund, with O'Malley raided to balance the budget.

The House plan includes some good news for the state's 23 counties: They would receive an additional $5 million in roads money, adding to the $8 million that O'Malley had offered them. Maryland's 157 towns also would receive more state funding for road repair. They would split a pool of $10 million for roads, up from the $2 million O'Malley suggested. 

The $13 million in new local roads money is outside the legislative formula and considered a one time grant. "We are giving them a little survival money," said Del. Tawanna Gaines, a Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the transpiration subcommittee on the House appropriations panel. 

House leaders also want to double fees paid by property owners when they register land records: From $20 to $40. The fees raise $17 million for the state, money that would help pay for the House plan to give nearly $60 million back to kindergarten through 12th grade education funds.  The House also plans an assortment of cuts including $8 million to the state's university system.

Much of the details will be hashed out when the House Appropriations committee meets at 1:30 p.m. House panels are also expected to approve additional cuts from the governor's budget and vote on changes to the state employees pension plans.

More to come ...

Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:06 AM | | Comments (28)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 17, 2011

Governor denies 7 commutation requests; Senate moves to limit role

Taking action for the first time on the growing pile of parole commission recommendations on his desk, Gov. Martin O'Malley has declined to commute the sentences of seven inmates serving life in prison, his office announced Thursday.

The decisions came as lawmakers weigh changes to the governor's role in the parole process.

Under current law, a convict serving a life sentence may not be freed without the approval of the governor. There is no requirement that the governor act on a recommendation by the state parole commission.

On Thursday, a Senate committee voted to give the governor 180 days to object to a commission’s recommendation to release a convict before the inmate is freed automatically. The House has passed legislation that would set a 90-day deadline.

O’Malley’s fellow Democrats have criticized his inaction on 50 parole and commutation recommendations, some of which were waiting when he took office in January 2007.

On Thursday, his office announced that he had rejected commission recommendations to commute the life sentences of five Baltimore City men convicted of murder, one Baltimore man convicted of first-degree rape and one Prince George's County man convicted of murder. They range in age from 55 to 73; all have been behind bars since the 1970s.

A spokesman for O'Malley said the governor was unavailable to comment Thursday. Spokesman Shaun Adamec said O'Malley decided to deny the parole commission's recommendations after reviewing the cases. He said the other 43 cases remain under review.

The timing of the announcement was noted by several senators at Thursday’s hearing.

Sen. James Brochin, who opposed the legislation, said O’Malley’s action Thursday should serve as proof that his role in the process is fine as it is.

"He’s adhering to his executive responsibility," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs said the "one good thing" the legislation has done is force the governor to act.

The Harford County Republican also voted against the bill, but the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on which she and Brochin sit advanced the proposal to the Senate floor for debate.

Some Republicans have argued the legislation gives the governor a way out of making the often politically difficult decision of whether to release a convict.

"We’re about to make an institutional change to our statute because of a political and circumstantial problem," said Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican who also sits on the committee.

Some lawmakers had been pushing to take the governor out of the parole process altogether. Maryland is one of three states — the others are Oklahoma and California — that require a governor to approve the release of anyone sentenced to a life term.

The legislative proposals under consideration are silent as to how quickly the governor should act on commutation requests such as the ones to which O’Malley responded this week.

In those cases, the parole commission asks the governor to change a life sentence to a term of years so that the inmate becomes eligible for release once he or she accumulates enough good-time credits.

David R. Blumberg, chairman of the governor-appointed Maryland Parole Commission, said his panel follows strict guidelines when deciding whether to recommend a lifer for parole or commutation.

The commission assesses the inmate’s level of remorse, responsibility, behavior behind bars and plan for reentry, he said. If two commissioners assigned to a case agree, the inmate is sent to Patuxent Institution in Jessup for a psychological evaluation. After that, the case is presented to the 10 commission members, a majority of whom must agree to a recommendation for parole or commutation. Only then is a case is sent to the governor’s desk.

O'Malley's decision in seven cases leaves 36 unanswered commutation requests and seven parole recommendations.

Commutations denied

• Yusuf Rasheed, 70, was convicted in a 1975 Baltimore domestic first-degree murder case. Rasheed, also known as Joseph Westry, shot his estranged wife and her lover, who died.

• In another domestic first-degree murder, Calvin Ash, was convicted in 1972 of shooting to death his estranged wife's boyfriend. Ash is now 60.

• Charles Chappell, 55, is serving a life sentence for the robbery and first-degree murder of a drug dealer who was shot to death. Case notes show he would not tell police about any accomplices and has been in prison since 1977, when he was 21 years old.

• Clarence Cowan fatally stabbed a 70-year-old woman while ransacking her house in Baltimore and was convicted of first-degree murder. Behind bars since 1978, Cowan is now 61.

• Lee Moore, 73, was convicted of a first-degree rape in Baltimore in 1978. Moore pulled a woman from a bus stop into an alley and assaulted her, also injuring her face.

• In 1981, Gov. Harry R. Hughes paroled David Brown from his life sentence for murder. The parole commission doesn’t have the police report, but Brown, now 68, has told commissioners he was one of two men involved in the 1965 robbery and shooting death of a man. In 1989, Brown was returned to prison after being convicted of being in possession of stolen U.S. treasury bonds. The crime triggered a parole violation, which renewed his life sentence.

• Edward Levicy has been behind bars since 1978 for a first-degree murder and kidnapping conspiracy case out of Prince George’s County. Levicy, now age 60 and also known as Salim Shabazz, shot to death someone from a rival drug-dealing gang.

Information provided by Maryland Parole Commission Chairman David R. Blumberg

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:35 PM | | Comments (19)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Administration, Crime & Justice
        

'Delegate Waterworks' gets the Ed Muskie treatment

As Maryland lawmakers debated the gay marriage bill, and Del. Luke Clippinger talked about being gay on the House floor, one of his fellow Baltimore Democrats was moved to tears.

"My colleague Luke, I sit right next to him, enduring all these weeks of negativity, for him to finally speak out and say why he's in favor of it, what it means to him, it just got emotional," Del. Keiffer Mitchell told me.

There's another reason the gay marriage debate hit home for Mitchell. His own marriage would have been illegal until 1967, the year he was born, because Mitchell is black and his wife is white. Interracial marriages were legalized in Maryland that year in an effort led by Mitchell's uncle, Clarence M. Mitchell III.

But never mind Mitchell's heartfelt reasons for crying — a vision seen not just in Annapolis, but nationwide, when The New York Times ran a photo of his tear-streaked face last weekend. Ever since, Annapolis has been treating Mitchell like Ed Muskie.

"I've been referred to as 'Delegate Waterworks,' and the new one is 'Delegate Chief Iron Eyes,'" Mitchell said. The latter is a reference to the actor Chief Iron Eyes Cody, who famously cried in a 1970s anti-littering campaign.

An aide to another delegate enlarged the Times photo and added his own caption: "Delegate Mitchell weeps when he finds out he can't have any more pickles on his hamburger." (Mitchell is a pickle fanatic.)

The response hasn't all been negative.

"I've been getting e-mails and calls from women who say they like it when a guy can show emotion," Mitchell said.

It's nice to know that, even without gay marriage, we're making progress as a society.

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 5:57 PM | | Comments (2)
        

GOP take on March Madness

Even though no Maryland men's teams will be competing in the NCAA basketball tournament this year, the state's GOP is still having a little bit of fun with March Madness.

The state party released their own brackets: It sets up a competition between eight of the "worst" taxes that lawmakers in Annapolis are considering.

On the court, according to the state GOP, are taxes on gas; booze; millionaires (the GOP is re-naming it a 'high-earners tax'); businesses; snacks; energy (refers to Gov. Martin O'Malley's off-shore wind proposal); tobacco and bags.

Some of these taxes are looking far more likely than others: The appetite for raising the gas tax, for example, seems to have diminished amid rising gas prices after turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. And an O'Malley-appointed commission recommended against a "tax on businesses" (a.k.a. combined reporting), making that an unlikely levy this year.

But nobody's ruling out other hikes, including a possible customer-level sales sales tax on beer, wine and liquor.

Some of those decisions are going to shake out in the next few days as the General Assembly grapples with the $14 billion general fund budget. The full House Appropriations committee will meet tomorrow to vote on cuts.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 4:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

New alcohol tax idea emerges

Lawmakers have been weighing whether to raise the tax on alcoholic beverages since the first day of this year's legislative session. But the idea is getting a fresh look in recent weeks -- with a twist.

Health advocates recently learned that DC imposes a "special sales tax" on alcohol, charging an extra 3-4 percent on top of the regular 6 percent sales tax rate. Maryland, they argue, should follow the District's lead and develop its own special sales tax for alcohol.

The new proposal comes as the General Assembly is getting into the nitty gritty of Gov. Martin O'Malley's $14 billion general fund budget. Revenue increases are considered separately from the budget, but they generally go hand in hand. 

Previously, efforts to increase Maryland's alcohol costs have focused on raising the excise tax, which is levied at the wholesale level. For decades, the excise tax on alcohol has been identical in DC and Maryland, and Maryland's liquor lobby said that changing it here could push consumers across the border to purchase in DC.

Liquor industry officials have testified in legislative hearings that wholesalers pass along the excise tax -- and a percentage markup -- to retailers. Then, retailers pass along that charge (and then some) to the consumer.

Until recently, alcohol tax advocates -- and lawmakers -- seemed largely unaware that DC also taxes at the consumer level. A sales tax increase would eliminate the mystery of how much wholesalers and retailers will mark up their products.

"For 20 years, it's been the most powerful argument, that we shouldn't mess up that equilibrium, said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, who has long advocated for increasing the alcohol tax. "But as we now know, all along, DC has actually has a higher alcohol tax, erasing that argument."

Liquor lobbyists said they would prefer no tax increase at all, but said they were reviewing this latest proposal and see it as a sign that lawmakers are cognizant of competition along the borders.

Jack Milani, legislative co-chairman of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Retailers, said the fact that DC has a special sales tax might reassure Maryland retailers "that they won't be as negatively impacted" if one is imposed here. 

DeMarco, who has lobbied for several years about raising the price of alcohol, said he was "humbled and embarrassed" to learn about DC's extra tax at this late date.

Two key lawmakers -- Sen. Edward Kasemeyer and Del. C. William Frick -- said they, too, only found out about DC's alcohol tax approach in recent weeks.

"We could be open to something along those lines," Kasemeyer said Thursday. The Democrat heads the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's a new alternative."

Senate Democrats learned about DC's sales tax structure at a March 1 presentation by the Department of Legislative Services, documents show.

Frick, chairman of the revenues subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee in the House, also said bumping up alcohol taxes at the consumer level "is something new for us to look at."

"Until now," the Democrat said, "we've only looked at the excise tax."

David Jernigan, a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health professor who has researched the alcohol tax, wrote a memo to DeMarco on Monday outlining DC's alcohol tax structure.

For at least 20 years, Jernigan wrote, DC has charged an additional 3-4 percent "special tax" on top of its regular sales tax (now, like Maryland, set at 6 percent). Maryland levies only the 6 percent sales tax on alcohol at the consumer level.

DeMarco proposes Maryland tack on an additional 6.5 percent, which would bring the total tax a consumer directly pays on alcohol to 12.5 percent. DeMarco says this would pump an extra $215 million to state coffers each year.

Kasemeyer dismissed that level, saying lawmakers were more likely to go for a 3 percent special tax. DeMarco estimates that would bring in about $100 million more per year.

DeMarco cheered the developments, saying that talk of increasing the alcohol tax seems to have shifted from "Should we?" to "How much?"

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:56 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Tax & Spend
        

Irish spirit day ...

Maryland's lawmakers tipped their hats to the Irish in a series of official and personal tributes for St. Patrick's Day. With temperatures expected to reach the 60s this afternoon, Annapolis pubs are bound to be fulling up.  

This morning clerks assigned to the House floor donned foam green caps shaped like beer pitchers for the first few moments of session (on the right); Baltimore County Del. James Malone was looking for some love (pictured on the left) and the Senate was treated treated to a short concert including bagpipes, a string quartet and a solo by former Sen. Tim Ferguson.

There's some pressure, apparently, to respect the Emerald Isle: Prince George's Del. Justin Ross, recalled that he once chose an orange tie for St. Paddy's day a few years ago. "I almost got beaten up by the Irish caucus," he recalled. This year he was in green.

Sens. Nathaniel McFadden and Norm Stone both wore the exact same tie. Readers, you'll have to decide: Who wore it better?* (After the jump.)









* Apologies to US Weekly

Two senators picked the same green tie.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sen. Norm Stone



Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:12 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: For fun
        

March 16, 2011

Some push state to use federal immigration check

State and local government contractors and subcontractors should be forced to use the federal E-Verify program to ensure that all of their employees are in the country legally, Del. Patrick McDonough testified at a hearing Wednesday.

Baltimore County's McDonough and other Republican delegates are making what has become an annual push for the state to adopt the Internet-based immigration status check program, which civil rights groups have said is "error ridden."

Two previous attempts to require E-Verify have failed in the legislature, and this year's effort is unlikely to be embraced.

With higher than usual levels of unemployment nationally and in Maryland, McDonough said, "we better darned well make sure that these are Maryland residents getting these jobs."

The ACLU of Maryland testified Wednesday against McDonough's bill, saying it is problematic and unfair to certain cultural groups, including Latinos, where people may use multiple last names that are noted differently on naturalization documents.

McDonough dismissed arguments about the system being inaccurate as "phony."

He said 16 million employees have been confirmed for work by the system and that it has a 98 percent accuracy rate. One assessment, however, showed it gave a green light to 54 percent of employees who are not actually allowed to work in in the U.S and had an overall error rate of 4 percent, the ACLU said.

According to a legislative analysis, 13 states require at least some of their agencies to use E-Verify. Arizona, Mississippi and South Carolina require all employers -- public and private -- to use it. An executive order then-President George Bush signed in June 2008 encouraging use of E-Verify for all employers with more than $100,000 worth of federal contracts or $3,000 in subcontracts.

President Barack Obama backs E-Verify,and early in his term made its usage a requirement ed 170,000 federal contractors.

But the entire program is slated to end in September 2012.

Counties in Maryland have approached E-verify differently. For example, the Baltimore County Council last year considered requiring its usage among county contractors and subcontractors. Bid documents encourage applicants to use the system.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:19 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Immigration
        

SRB: Votes had nothing to do with my husband's job

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addressed questions at a morning press conference about the more than $900,000 in deals that she approved with Johns Hopkins since her husband began working in a division of the health system in mid-December.

"Not one single item that was approved by the Board of Estimates had anything to do with my husband's employment," Rawlings-Blake, reading from a statement, said in response to a story by The Sun. She noted that the university and the health system are the state's two largest private employers.

Under the city's ethics code, "a public servant may not participate in and must disqualify himself or herself from any matter if" it involves a "business entity in which… a disqualifying relative is a partner, officer, director, trustee, employee, or agent."

Kent Blake, the mayor's husband of 11 years, works for Hopkins Community Physicians, a division of the Johns Hopkins Health System.

Rawlings-Blake said she asked City Solicitor George Nilson to look into the matter "out of an abundance of caution." She said that Nilson has found no ethical issues in the votes that she has made.

Nilson told The Sun on Tuesday that while it appears acceptable for Rawlings-Blake to participate in decisions involving the university, it is less clear from an ethical standpoint whether she should be voting on issues involving the medical system.

"A lawyerly, narrow view of things could reach a conclusion that she is free to vote on matters [involving divisions of the health system other than Johns Hopkins Community Physicians] because it's clear that her husband is employed by a separate legal entity," Nilson said.

"But a more expansive view that would be more restrictive of her participation would say that the Hopkins medical institutions could be looked at as one entity," he said.

Nilson said he had not yet briefed the mayor on his findings.

"I'm going to lay out the two choices to her, and I think I know what she will prefer," he said. He said Rawlings-Blake has a "strong ethical compass."

When asked if she would continue voting on issues related to the health system, Rawlings-Blake said: "In the future, I will talk about it after I am fully briefed."

Posted by Julie Scharper at 1:53 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: City Hall
        

Some lawmakers bristle at money for Jockey Club

A House of Delegates committee yesterday weighed whether to allow track owners to use slots money to stay afloat -- an idea that has raised eyebrows among some lawmakers as newly released financial statements show the Jockey Club lost more than $25 million in 2008-2009.

The Sun's Hanah Cho reports:

Howard County Del. Frank S. Turner criticized the Jockey Club for not presenting a long-term plan for a viable racing industry in Maryland. "If I had a business losing $14 million and I came to the legislature [for help] but [didn't] have a long-term plan, I have a little problem with that," he said.

Also yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the state "should not be subsidizing racing."

"It should be able to stand on its own, or go by the wayside," the Southern Maryland Democrat said. Miller said discord among the industry players is to blame for some of the financial woes. "A lot of it, owners have brought on themselves because they can't agree to a proper and equitable solution."

Earlier in the legislative session, Sen. James E. DeGrange was among those who took umbrage with Jockey Club part-owner Penn Naional Gaming's simultaneous request for state money and legal maneuvers delaying an Anne Arundel slots parlor. Lawmakers are considering legislation to prevent interference between slots license-holders.

Hanah Cho reports that the recent financial statements from the Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico in Baltimore and Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, shows it spend about $5 million on lobbying and legal fees in its failed bid to win a slots license for Laurel Park.

Cho writes: Laurel Park spent $3.4 million for lobbying and other expenses related to the referendum that legalized slot machine gambling at five Maryland locations in 2008. In 2009, Laurel Park paid $1.5 million to the Annapolis law firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, mostly for legal work related to the failed efforts to secure a slots license for the track. That is compared with $261,495 in attorney fees to Rifkin in 2008, according to financial documents. 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:40 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Slots
        

Video statements for and against the death penalty


Posted by Steve Sullivan at 8:54 AM | | Comments (0)
        

March 15, 2011

City taxes, fees projected to fall short of expectations

The package of taxes and fees crafted by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council members to meet a budget deficit last year is estimated to fall short of projected revenues by nearly $17 million — more than a third of the income that it was expected to generate — city finance officials said Tuesday.

The city will receive $12 million less in income tax than officials had projected — most likely due to unemployment, officials said — and a controversial bottle tax is predicted to generate $1 million less than officials had expected, city budget director Andrew W. Kleine told council members at a hearing.

But Kleine said the drop in revenue will likely be offset by savings in other areas of the budget, particularly a hiring freeze that has left many positions open.

“I’m not ringing any alarm bells,” said Kleine. “We’re going to be able to balance the general fund budget.”

Rawlings-Blake raised parking fees and fines, slashed a discount for early property tax payments and boosted taxes on hotel stays, energy use and cell phone and land lines last year as part of an effort to generate $48 million in new revenue to help plug the city’s $121 million budget gap.

Kleine attributed the drop in income tax revenue in part to rising gas prices. Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who chairs the budget committee, questioned him about Rawlings-Blake’s support for a higher state gas tax.

“In the short term, higher gas prices could reduce employment,” Kleine said. But he added that the higher gas tax was necessary for the state’s long-term financial health.

While higher parking meter fees are projected to bring in slightly more revenue than initial projections, increased parking taxes and parking fines are expected to fall substantially short. Kleine said parking appears to have decreased in Downtown Baltimore lots due to roadwork. The city is finishing $4.2 million in road projects to prepare for the Baltimore Grand Prix in September.

Two fees proposed by council members missed projections by a wide margin. Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young pushed increases in the fines for public drunkeness, urination, spitting and other nuisance crimes, but the initiative is predicted to bring a little more than a quarter of the $220,000 projected.

Councilman Robert W. Curran pushed through fees for the video slot machines found in bars and convenience stores. Kleine said revenue figures were not available for the tax because the first payment was not due to the city until Feb.1. Only 600 of the devices have been registered with the city — far less than the 1,650 officials had predicted.

“They’re hiding them. They’re cheating us,” said Curran. “If they don’t want to give us $5 a day [in taxes], the hell with them. Let’s go after them.”

But Kleine said the finance department would focus enforcement efforts first on collecting the bottle tax. The collections unit has hired a consultant to scan through beverage distributors’ records to determine if they have been paying the 2-cent-per-bottle tariff, Kleine said. Collections agents will begin visiting retailers on Wednesday to study records, Kleine said.

Finance officials say the city is facing an $80 million deficit in the coming budget year. Rawlings-Blake is set to unveil her budget proposal on March 30.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 9:34 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: City Hall
        

Death penalty repeal unlikely, Senate president says

Advocates for abolishing Maryland's death penalty, which they called unfair and confusing after a recent revision, made their case Tuesday to a House of Delegates committee. But the effort is not likely to gain traction in the Senate.

"There's no sentiment in the Senate" to debate a repeal, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in an interview Tuesday. Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat, is a proponent of capital punishment. "We've taken it up."

Two years ago, the General Assembly wrestled with a Gov. Martin O'Malley-led repeal effort. Instead of ending capital punishment, a closely divided Senate opted for a compromise plan that further limits when prosecutors can seek death. O'Malley is not pushing a repeal this year.

Even so, advocates for ending the capital punishment argue the time is right because the state's years-long de facto moratorium will only continue as officials ponder what chemicals to use in lethal injections. There's a nationwide shortage of one part of the three-drug cocktail Maryland and other states have long used. 

A law professor who testified at the House hearing criticized the 2009 compromise effort, saying Maryland's death penalty statute is now more confusing than ever. At least six capital murder cases are pending in counties across the state. Next month, two are scheduled to come to trial.

"There are significant unintended consequences of this bill that are already being litigated," said David Aaronson, a law professor at American University. He named five "ambiguous" terms that are attracting legal scrutiny.

Under the 2009 compromise legislation, which aimed to prevent innocent people from being put on death row, lawmakers determined that a prosecutor can seek death in only cases with DNA evidence, a videotape of the crime or a video-recorded confession by the killer.

But, Aaronson argued, the devil is in the details.

For example, the law specifies "biological evidence or DNA evidence" rather than just DNA evidence. What if, he asked, an investigator recovers a suspect's hair from the crime scene -- but one that does not contain DNA?

Also under the new law, any video-recording of the crime must "conclusively link" the defendant to the murder. What exactly does "conclusively link" mean? Aaronson asked. Unlike more familiar phrases such as "beyond a reasonable doubt," it is not a legal term. 

But the latest repeal effort may not even make it to a Senate committee this year. Because it was filed late, the legislation is languishing in a rules committee that determines whether it can get a hearing.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:32 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

House Republican leaders present alternate budget

House Republicans today presented colleagues with an alternative to Gov. Martin O'Malley's $14 billion general fund spending plan. 

Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell told members of the House Appropriations Committee that the GOP plan "envisions a smaller, less intrusive state government." The proposal calls for a $621 million deeper cut than O'Malley's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Republicans would achieve that reduction by making major changes to how the state allocates K-12 education money and by and snipping at many state agencies and programs. At the same time, they'd cut the sales tax from 6 to 5 percent and the corporate income tax from 8.25 to 7 percent -- reductions that O'Donnell said would help lure taxpayers and companies to Maryland.

"We think it's a new vision," O'Donnell said.

House Republicans have also cast an eye toward the future, recommending the state hold spending growth to 2 percent over the next few years and bumping it up to 4 percent in fiscal year 2016.

(Click the following links to compare the GOP plan to O'Malley's budget highlights.)

This is the second year in a row that Republicans have countered the Democratic governor's budget plan with a proposal of their own. The General Assembly, also controlled by Democrats, is in the process of assessing the O'Malley budget. 

Members of the committee had few questions for O'Donnell and Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio.  

Chairman Norman Conway, a Democrat, noted that the Republicans don't aim to close the entire structural deficit next year. O'Donnell said he believed that could only be done "if everyone's committed." The GOP would close the deficit over two years.

O'Donnell said Maryland, which fared better than many states in the national recession, must brace for uncertain times ahead. Changing leadership in oil-rich countries, the earthquake in Japan and a potential contraction of the federal government all could contribute to Maryland's fiscal picture.

That, he said, underscores the need for a conservative budget approach.

"This is tough stuff," he said. "We understand and acknowledge that."

Several Republicans, including Del. Andrew A. Serafini of Washington County, also presented the House Appropriations Committee their ideas on state worker pension reform. O'Malley is seeking more employee contributions to the retirement system -- an idea that thousands of union members protested yesterday in Annapolis.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:08 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Tax & Spend
        

City to pay $55K to ex-employee in equal-pay case

A former employee of the city's Minority and Women-Owned Business Development office who alleged she was paid nearly $20,000 less than a less-qualified male co-worker has reached a $55,000 settlement with the city.

Lawyers for Melissa Fulton, who worked for the office for three years until she was terminated in early 2010, reached a deal with the city late last month in the federal equal pay act case. The deal is slated to be approved by the city's spending board tomorrow.

Fulton was hired in 2007 shortly after Sheila Dixon was sworn in as mayor. A male co-worker, who had the same title and responsibilities, was paid nearly $20,000 more than her $55,000 annual salary, according to a federal law suit that Fulton filed.

A separate law suit alleging race, gender and age discrimination remains unresolved. Fulton filed a complaint with with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission late last year claiming that her termination was unlawful.

Fulton, the only white person among the four employees in her office, was the only person in her office fired when Stephanie Rawlings-Blake replaced Dixon as mayor last year, according to the complaint. She claims that she was terminated despite a spotless record, while her younger, black male counterpart who had been formally reprimanded, was retained.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 3:45 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: City Hall
        

House reaches deal to restore some school funds

House leaders plan to restore more than half of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed reductions to education funding, a move that replenishes much of the money cut to Baltimore and Prince George’s County schools.

House Appropriations subcommittee members are set to start voting on the plan in Annapolis. They would shift $58.5 million back to the schools by raising some fees and snipping elsewhere in the $14 billion general fund budget.

“Investment in education is good public policy. It is good economic policy. It puts people on the path to success,” said Speaker Michael E. Busch in an interview this afternoon. The Speaker said the education would not be funded by new taxes.

Busch said his chamber's proposal would also relieve some stress to counties by reversing O’Malley’s proposal to charge them for the costs of collecting property taxes.

The House changes are designed to reaffirm the so-called Thornton formula, an education funding mechanism that has pumped billions of additional dollars into the state’s schools over the last decade but has also driven a soaring structural deficit.

The plan would give back nearly $10 million for kindergarten through 12th grade education in Baltimore, meaning the city would receive $866 million next year from the state. It returns about $13.5 million to Baltimore County and $10 million to Prince George’s County.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:18 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Horse racing industry loses millions annually

Pimlico and Laurel race tracks lost more than $25 million in 2008-2009, newly released financial statements show. The revelation comes as Maryland lawmakers look for ways to prop up the flagging but storied horse racing industry.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in an interview this morning that the state "should not be subsidizing racing."

"It should be able to stand on its own, or go by the wayside," the Southern Maryland Democrat said. Miller said discord among the industry players is to blame for some of the financial woes. "A lot of it, owners have brought on themselves because they can't agree to a proper and equitable solution."

The Sun's Hanah Cho writes that "the reports paint an even more dire picture than Jockey Club officials had described." She notes that the Jockey Club had previously asserted that Pimlico -- home of the Triple Crown's Preakness -- has been turning a profit. Financial disclosures for 2010 are due by the end of the month. 

A House of Delegates committee is scheduled to hold a hearing today on whether to extend a deal Gov. Martin O'Malley brokered late last year to preserve the number of live racing days in light of the Maryland Jockey Club's financial difficulties. The Jockey Club, owned by Canadian MI Developments and Penn National Gaming, operates the horse tracks.

The legislation being considered would allow the Jockey Club to use revenue generated by the state's fledgling slot-machine gambling program for operating expenses instead of track improvements. A Senate committee hearing on the proposal is scheduled for tomorrow.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:42 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Slots
        

Ehrlich lands job at Washington law firm

Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich will be joining the Washington, D.C., offices of King & Spalding, a mega-sized law firm with offices all over the globe.

Ehrlich, who was unsuccessful in his challenge last year of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, said he will be doing government affairs work for the firm, which will include attracting new clients. He described the work as helping to "grow the business."

The former governor said that his close ties with the office's managing partner, J. Sedwick "Wick" Sollers, was a reason he decided to work for the firm. The two went to rival high schools in Baltimore (Ehrlich to Gilman and Sollers to St. Paul's). The two also attended Princeton together. 

"I've known him since high school, that was one of the determining factors," Ehrlich said in an interview.

Long-time Ehrlich aide Greg Massoni will also work for the firm. He will be in the communications shop. Ehrlich said there could be additional announcements about other aides shortly.

It'll be Ehrlich's second stint a big-time firm. After he lost the gubernatorial race in 2006 he took a job with the Baltimore offices of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice.

There he worked as a government affairs specialist and made nearly $800,000 a year.

Ehrlich said he and his wife are still considering doing another radio show, but his focus is now on national politics. He said he'll appear on FOX News this Friday and will be doing the cable talk show circuit. He's also working on a book.


Posted by Annie Linskey at 8:08 AM | | Comments (26)
Categories: Candidate Watch 2010
        

March 14, 2011

Undocumented students cheer vote for tuition bill

A bill providing in-state tuition discounts for illegal immigrants at Maryland's public colleges and universities just cleared the state Senate on a 27 to 20 vote -- and the issue moves to the House.

A group of students, many of whom identified themselves as in the country illegally, watched the debate and cheered afterward. Many wore graduation gowns to signal their enthusiasm for education. (Some are pictured to the left with Sen. Victor Ramirez who sponsored the bill. Photo credit: Julie Bykowicz.)

The bill requires that illegal immigrants live and work in Maryland for three years before they qualify for lower tuition at state colleges and universities. It is a higher bar than legal citizens who move here from out of state.

The House is set to hold a hearing on the bill next week, though it is unclear if the body will vote on the measure before session is out. Some believe it will share the same fate as same sex marriage, which passed in the upper chamber only to be shelved in the House.

Supporters contended that the bill is intended to provide opportunities to children, many of whom did not choose to immigrate illegally. “This is about education and what the future of Maryland looks like,” said Sen. Victor Ramirez, who sponsored the bill. “It is not about immigration. These kids didn’t make the decision to move to Maryland. Their parents did.”

The bill would save qualifying students from $4,000 to $6,000 a year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. For those who go on to a four-year institution, the savings would increase. In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.

Legislative analysts estimate that the bill would cost the state about $800,000 next year, but could grow to $3.5 million by 2016.

Legal residents have to live in the state for three months before becoming eligible for low rates at community colleges. It takes one year of residency to qualify for in-state rates at the four-year universities.

The General Assembly passed similar legislation in 2003 but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Illegal immigration has grown more controversial on the state level over the last decade, and some who supported extending benefits to illegal immigrants no longer do.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin voted for the 2003 version when he was in the House of Delegates but did not support it yesterday. The Baltimore County Democrat said he’s had an “evolution” in his thinking. “I’ve learned a lot more about how immigration works,” he said.

Ten other states offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, but none are closer than New York. Republicans said the legislation would attract throngs of undocumented workers to Maryland.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 10:39 PM | | Comments (255)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Thousands of union members storm Annapolis

As Maryland lawmakers prepare to make decisions in the coming weeks on budget cuts and pension reform, thousands of union members on Monday marched on Annapolis to send a message.

The marchers were met by a counter-protest, organized by tea party activists, of several dozen taxpayers asking for deeper state budget cuts.

The union group was large enough to cut off traffic on downtown Annapolis streets, Chanting, "keep the promise" and "enough is enough," they decried efforts by Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislators to change employee contributions to their retirement plans, a move that would save the state an estimated $100 million next year.

The many teachers in the audience also spoke out against the governor's planned level-funding of K-12 schools. If the proposal is adopted by state lawmakers, Baltimore would receive $15 million less and Prince George’s County $16 million less than they were slated to receive next year under the state’s education funding formula.

One after another, state workers took the stage to tell their stories to an audience that organizers said reached about 15,000.

Each was meant to illustrate a complaint.

Jeanette Taylor, a parole and probation worker said she had "answered the call" and taken a pay cut a few years ago to become a state employee. In her mid-50s, she said some of the pension plans under consideration would force her to work until age 78.

She rallied the crowd: "Leave the pensions alone."

Retired prison maintenance employee Ernie Prince talked about health problems he and his wife have endured (diabetes, two brain surgeries, breast cancer). He said he now pays $124 in prescriptions each month, and under reforms being considered by the state, he would pay $409 per month -- leaving little money, he said, for food and other expenses.

"I just don't have it," he said. "I kept my promise to the state of Maryland. Brothers and sisters -- enough is enough!"

At the conclusion of the rally, O'Malley, a Democrat who drew broad union support in his election campaigns, made an unexpected appearance. He told workers that he, too, is unhappy with the budget.

Last month, O’Malley and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest group of state workers, reached a deal on a three-year contract that allows for raises if state revenue increases. The deal also contains a $750 bonus this year, and for the first time in three years guarantees that workers will not be furloughed.

Union leaders acknowledged Monday that Maryland doesn’t face the collective bargaining struggles they’re seeing in other states. Still, the rally was meant to "send a message that we’re all standing together," Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in an interview.

Union members want to tell elected officials that budget woes "shouldn’t fall only on the backs of workers," he said.

State workers were met by a counter-protest, organized by tea party activists, of citizens who believe the state should do more to reduce spending. They floated pink pig balloons and wore snouts as a way to call out budget fat.

Many hoisted signs supportive of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who recently ended largely collective bargaining for employees in that state.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:34 PM | | Comments (67)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 11, 2011

Gay marriage debate over for the year

Debate on whether Maryland should legalize same-sex marriage has ended for the year, without the House of Delegates weighing in on the divisive issue.

Instead of voting as planned today, the House moved the bill backward -- returning it to the committee that nearly killed it last week. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said his chamber won't see the issue on the floor again this year, even though the Senate passed it last month by a vote of 25-21.

By moving the bill back into committee rather than taking a final vote, the 141 delegates avoided putting on record their position on gay marriage.

Had a vote been taken today, it would have come within a delegate or two of passage, House leaders said. Advocates believe they were a single vote shy.

"The vote would have been very close on the floor, make no mistake about it," said Busch, who supports same-sex marriage.

About 10 delegates did not feel comfortable casting a vote today, Busch said, and wanted more time to learn about what the bill would do.

The move back to committee came after more than two hours of impassioned speeches.

Several openly gay lawmakers made personal appeals to their colleagues, while some religious lawmakers said they could not turn away from their deeply held beliefs.

The House fell silent as Del. Heather Mizeur, who is Catholic and is openly gay, said she is an old soul and knew she was gay and also deeply spiritual at a young age. She said she also knew she wanted to be an elected official. God, she said, has helped her reconcile those roles. She concluded by telling her colleagues she loved them.

Earlier, Del. Steve Schuh had made the case that many of the lawmakers who had planned to vote no -- like himself -- are not against gay people but merely do not want to expand the state's definition of marriage. The Anne Arundel Republican said marriage is subsidized by the state to ensure procreation.

Advocates worked furiously last night to secure support from a handful of delegates who had not disclosed their voting plans, even entertaining a late attempt at giving additional protection to religious groups who do not condone gay marriage.

Dozens of supporters and opponents filled the House galleries to watch the historic debate. This year marked the first time the General Assembly debated gay marriage on its chamber floors.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:55 PM | | Comments (257)
Categories: Same-Sex Marriage
        

HBO to film Sarah Palin movie in Maryland

HBO announced plans Friday to film an account of the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain in Maryland.

Game Change, based on the bestselling book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, focuses on the campaign from McCain’s selection of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to their general election defeat to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Palin will be played by Julianne Moore, the Academy Award-nominated actress who has starred in such films as The End of the Affair, The Hours, Far From Heaven and, most recently, The Kids Are Alright.

Palin, who was memorably skewered by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, was asked this week about HBO's casting choice.

"Well, I'm all about job creation," she told Fox News' Sean Hannity. "And I guess I could provide some of these gals who pretend like they are me some job security. I would ask, though, if they're of the mind of spreading the wealth around, that perhaps they want to spring for one of my kids' sets of braces or something as they capitalize on pretending to be me."

Hannity had a few ideas of his own for the role.

"She doesn't really look -- I mean, she's a good actress. I thought Courtney Cox, Demi Moore, might be a little bit more -- a little closer look, no?"

"Well, I'm absolutely flattered that you would say that," Palin responded. "But, no, I don't know. I think I'll just grit my teeth and bear whatever comes what may with that movie."

The made-for-television movie is to be directed and executive produced by Jay Roach and written and co-executive produced by Danny Strong, whose worked together on Recount, HBO’s Emmy Award-winning account of the 2000 presidential campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said the production is estimated to create jobs for approximately 160 local crew and 1,800 local actors and extras.

“HBO produces the highest quality and most-acclaimed films and series on television,” O'Malley said in a statement. “The talent involved in Game Change once again proves their commitment to entertainment excellence. We are very pleased to welcome HBO back.”

“We’ve had great experiences filming in Maryland,” HBO Films president Len Amato said. “The state offers a strong local base of talented crew and actors, and we are very grateful for the generous cooperation of the Governor and the Film Office.”

As Sun television critic David Zurawik points out, the annoncement is more good news for the local production community, following filming in Baltimore for the Julia Louis-Dreyfus political satire Veep.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 3:19 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: For fun, Washington
        

Same-sex marriage set for final deliberations today

Afternoon update: Delegates are rising one after another to speak for and against legislation to legalize same-sex marriages. Two amendments have been offered and rejected.

Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn offered a compromise plan that would have changed the bill into civil unions. Like Del. John Olszewski's amendment, described below, it was rejected on a voice vote. House Speaker Michael E. Busch has not allowed roll call votes, which show precisely how many delegates support or oppose something.

Many delegates say the people want to weigh in. The discussion has lasted about 90 minutes so far. No clear sign as to how much longer it'll take -- or which way the House will decide.  

Morning update: The House has convened for debate on same-sex marriage. This morning, the House Judiciary Committee decided not to endorse a late amendment to the bill -- thought to have been designed to lure over at least one undecided delegate. That amendment and others may come up soon on the floor.

 The House of Delegates plans to vote today on whether to legalize same-sex marriage, a divisive issue that narrowly cleared the Senate and inspired thousands of Marylanders to register their feelings with their legislators.

Heading into the scheduled 11 a.m. debate, only one thing is clear: It'll be a close vote.

Supporters and opponents alike believe the 141-member House is nearly evenly divided. Del. Maggie McIntosh, the senior openly gay legislator, said this week that "a healthy handful" of delegates had yet to disclose their voting plans.

"History now rides on the hearts of several delegates," Sen. Jamie Raskin said Thursday night. The Montgomery County Democrat served as floor leader for the Senate debate. The bill, called the Civil Marriage Protection Act, passed that chamber last month on a 25-21 vote, and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Meanwhile, House Republicans -- whose caucus took a position against the bill -- have heralded the unexpected delays along the bill's road to passage as proof the votes are not there.

An amendment discussed Thursday shows that same-sex marriage supporters have been working overtime to win over each and every possible delegate.

Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. said his amendment, which appears to have been blessed by House and Senate leaders, further shields religious groups that do not condone same-sex relationships from having to provide services of any kind.

Asked Thursday night whether he would support the marriage bill if his amendment is accepted, the Baltimore County Democrat said, "I can't say that at this point. I'm just trying to find a balance between equal rights for all citizens and protections for religion."

Although the legislation enjoyed a relatively smooth ride in the Senate, its pathway through the House has been far rockier.

Along the way, several co-sponsors of the bill decided to oppose it, one supporter temporarily withheld her vote at a critical moment to draw attention to education funding, and a national anti-gay marriage group pledged campaign money to those who agree with its position.

Check the politics blog and our Twitter accounts (above right) for updates throughout the day.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:08 PM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Same-Sex Marriage
        

BaltCo revenue panel agrees to more notice

The Baltimore County Revenue Authority board has agreed to start posting meetings in advance on its website and to begin checking the cost of buying space for such notices in local newspapers.

Donald P. Hutchinson, chairman of the five-member authority board, said at the Thursday morning session that he had not received anything official about the complaints that were mailed Wednesday to the Maryland Attorney General. He said he knew they claimed that the authority gave insufficient notice of regular meetings, did not give enough notice when the Feb. 24 session was postponed because of his absence, and acted improperly when the board went into closed session in January to discuss terms of an agreement with the developers of the Towson Circle III project.

His comments came a day after the news site Patch.com filed three open meetings complaints against the authority

Board members took up several discussions about handling information and public access on Thursday, and at one point two members got into a heated exchange over a proposed change of policy on contacts between board members and authority employees.

The board agreed to address the complaint about posting meetings, which up until now has only been done with a typed notice taped to the receptionist's desk in the authority office in Towson. The board agreed that meetings and agendas will be posted on the agency's Web site about a week in advance.

Hutchinson apologized for the short notice of the meeting postponement last month, but said he underestimated how much time it would take him to recover from surgery and get back to work.

As it did in January, the board voted once more to go into closed session to talk about the extension of their agreement with Heritage Properties, Inc. and the Cordish Company, who plan to build Towson Circle III, a complex on East Joppa Road including a movie theater, stores, offices, restaurants and an underground parking garage.

The authority is putting up $12 million and the county is contributing another $6 million for the garage, which would be built by the developers and taken over by the authority after a certain portion of the complex is occupied. The agreement -- being extended after the developer missed the first deadline to start construction by the end of 2009 -- spells out such particulars as when the developer has to start construction and the terms under which the authority assumes ownership of the garage.

The authority runs parking garages and metered parking, five public golf courses and the Reisterstown Sportsplex in Reisterstown Regional Park.

Member Leslie M. Pittler was the sole vote against closing the session to discuss Towson Circle III.

"We have $18 million of public money involved," Pittler said. "The public interest outweighs having a closed session on an extension agreement."

The board followed the advice of lawyer Richard Lehmann, who said the discussions with the developer were "sensitive" and an open forum could "compromise our negotiating position."

Pittler also was the lone objection to a policy change proposed by Authority Chief Executive William L. "Lynnie" Cook on board member contacts with authority employees. Cook wrote a memo to board members with instructions to run all requests for information through him, rather than talking directly to employees.

Pittler and Merreen Kelly argued about that, as Pittler objected to the memo on grounds that under Maryland law, corporate board members have a "duty" to get information from employees. He said he regularly talks with employees, especially those who work at the five golf courses the authority runs.

Kelly said that he thought employees felt "pressured when they're constantly bombarded with questions from members of the board. I will not put employees in that position." Addressing Pittler, he said "you have no empathy" for employees.

"Don't accuse me of whether I have empathy or not," Pittler said, leaning across the table. "Keep your personal remarks to yourself."

Pittler and board member Bonnie Phipps ultimately agreed to work on a policy governing contacts with employees and to present their draft to the board for further work.

The board postponed until the next meeting a discussion of policy on when to authority documents become public, and decided not to release a memo on the subject prepared by lawyer Patrick K. Arey. Hutchinson said the discussion would be postponed because Arey is ill.

Hutchinson said Arey advised that his memo be kept private because it involved legal advice. Pittler said he disagreed, as that would mean any information discussed with a lawyer could be kept from the public.

-Arthur Hirsch

Posted by Andy Rosen at 9:32 AM | | Comments (0)
        

March 10, 2011

Undecided delegate offers 'friendly' same-sex marriage amendment

On the eve of final deliberations about whether to legalize same-sex marriage, a Baltimore County Democrat still weighing whether to vote for the plan has offered an amendment that he said would further protect religious groups.

Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. said today that he believes his amendment makes the bill stronger. The House Judiciary Committee this afternoon debated whether to embrace Olszewski's amendment as "friendly," even as Republican committee members cried foul. 

The amendment strikes language in the bill that spells out what religious programs -- including counseling and summer camp -- are shielded from having to provide services to same-sex couples. By taking out those specifications, Olszewski believes, the overall religious protections would be stronger. (See page 5, lines 9 and 10, the words "through" to "retreat.")

The committee delayed making a decision until tomorrow morning -- 10 minutes before the marriage bill is scheduled to be presented on the House floor for a final vote. The 141-member House appears nearly evenly split on approval of the overall bill, meaning every delegate's vote carries extra significance.

Asked whether he would support the marriage bill if his amendment is accepted, Olszewski said, "I can't say that at this point."   

"I'm just trying to find a balance between equal rights for all citizens and protections for religion," he said.

The Senate, which last month approved same-sex marriage by a 25-21 vote, had signaled to the lower chamber that it did not want any amendments attached to the bill.

But reached this evening, Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the Senate floor debate, said he believes the upper chamber "could play ball" if Olszewski's amendment "forwards the two values of the bill -- equal rights for all Maryland citizens and absolute religious freedom."

Del. Kathleen Dumais, the House floor leader for the bill, said in committee that she considers Olszewski's amendment "friendly."

Eastern Shore Republican Del. Michael D. Smigiel said committee members should be clear about what's happening with Olszewski: "A deal has been made that I'll give you my vote for this amendment."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:56 PM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Same-Sex Marriage
        

House toughens ban on dialing and driving

Maryland's House of Delegates this morning signaled that they would like to beef-up the state's new ban talking on a cell phone.

With a vote of 91 to 40, the chamber approved a bill that would make talking on a cell phone a primary offense, meaning police officers could pullover any motorists chatting on their phone. Currently they can only issue a citation if motorists are simultaneously violating another rule.

Driving and talking using a hands-free devices would still be allowed. The penalties are unchanged: $40 for the first offense and $100 for the second.

But the bill has a rough road in the Senate, said Judicial Proceeding Committee Chairman Brian Frosh. He's not sure the measure could be passed in his committee.

The original ban on dialing and driving squeaked through the Senate 24 to 23 last year after a lengthy debate and the law went into effect five months ago.

Both chambers recently approved a ban on reading texts while driving. That measure closed a loophole left two years ago when they outlawed writing electronic messages. Motorists can still use GPS programs on their phones.

 

Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:24 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

BaltCo revenue panel to discuss public info

UPDATE: The Baltimore County Revenue Authority delayed discussion Thursday about which of its records should be publicly available, as officials said a lawyer who helped prepare a report on the topic was ill.

The agenda for the postponed Feb. 24 monthly meeting included a "closed session" to discuss two points, one involving "legal advice" on authority operations, the other "ongoing negotiations for the acquisition of real estate." The panel's chief executive said at the meeting members could discuss the legal issue in public, but the authority later put it off.

The "legal advice" appears to be an opinion the board asked for in January from its lawyer, Patrick K. Arey, after a reporter for the Baltimore Sun raised a question about the authority's policy on releasing materials that were on the agenda for discussion. At the January 13 session, authority board chairman Donald P. Hutchinson asked Arey to research the question of when a document becomes public information and to report back to the board.

Authority chief executive William "Lynnie" Cook II told Patch.com late last month that two memos were being withheld from the materials being made public for the meeting. Patch reported that one of the memos "may contain a legal opinion from the agency's attorney regarding the public records question."

Cook did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Hutchinson also did not return a call seeking comment.

Established by the state in the 1950s, the authority is a quasi-public agency that runs parking garages, parking lots and metered street parking, five golf courses and the Reisterstown Sportsplex at Reisterstown Regional Park that offers ice skating and indoor soccer. Its five board members are appointed by the county executive, but technically the authority is not a county agency.

The authority has pressed its status as an independent agency in several ways, maintaining tight control of information released publicly and to the news media.

Patch on Wednesday filed complaints with the Maryland Attorney General claiming three violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act. The Sun raised a concern in January when Cook withheld a report from a bond analyst casting doubt on financing for the planned Towson Circle III complex of stores, restaurants, offices, movie theater and underground parking garage. The authority plans to contribute to the project by buying the garage, planning to sell $12 million in bonds and make back the money in parking fees.

In a one-page memo to be discussed at the meeting Thursday morning, Cook tells board members that all requests for information must go through him and not taken directly to authority employees.

Cook says in the memo that the purpose of the policy is "providing accurate information, and to help me keep the staff on task in their normal duties."
The language of the memo echoes an attempt made to amend the authority bylaws in August by Hutchinson, who had just become the new chairman. That attempt was withdrawn.

-Arthur Hirsch

Posted by Andy Rosen at 6:41 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties
        

March 9, 2011

Senate OKs in-state tuition for illegal immigrants

Annie Linskey reports:

The state Senate has given preliminary approval to a measure that allows illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at colleges and universities, overcoming the objections of some who said the proposal is too costly, violates federal law and will displace U.S. citizens.

The bill, called the Maryland DREAM Act, passed Wednesday evening after six hours of debate that spilled into a rare evening session. The Senate is expected to vote on final passage on Monday. Wednesday’s vote is a strong signal that the measure will be successful.

Strong emotions flared during the debate on both sides, with proponents arguing that educating a larger pool of residents ultimately benefits the state because they will have higher-paying jobs and contribute more to the tax base.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky said the bill would give children the chance to “be more than part of the underground economy flipping burgers,” offering them the opportunity to become doctors, engineers and scientists.

“Why should we say: ‘You have to have a low end job for the rest of your life?’ " the Prince George’s County Democrat asked.

Sen. David Brinkley said the measure is unaffordable.

“The issue is not denying education to the individuals,” the Frederick County Republican said. “We disagree that the state has to pay for it.”

Ten other states grant illegal immigrants in-state tuition. Opponents said that passage would advertise Maryland as “sanctuary state," drawing more undocumented workers.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 8:27 PM | | Comments (53)
        

O'Malley testifies on farm estate tax proposal

Gov. Martin O'Malley on Wednesday urged legislative support for a plan to reduce the tax burden on Marylanders who inherit family farms, testifying before the Senate committee weighing the bill.

"Throughout our state's history, our family farmers have always been an important part of what makes Maryland strong," O'Malley told the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, according to prepared remarks. "With this legislation we can help make sure they will continue to make our state stronger in the future."

The Democratic governor has unexpectedly become an advocate for the farm estate tax bill -- a plan being pushed by two freshmen Frederick County lawmakers, Democratic Sen. Ronald Young and Del. Kathy Afzali.

Afzalia said she won the governor over by cornering him at a recent dinner for farmers, pulling the proposal from her purse and calling it "the greenest bill in the state legislature." O'Malley had planned to testify at the House committee hearing last week, but his aides said scheduling conflicts kept him away.

The proposal would exempt farm heirs from taxes on the first $5 million in estate value and reduce the rate on higher amounts to 5 percent (it's now 16 percent). The heir would be required to continue using the land for agricultural purposes for at least 10 years.

Lawmakers say that in addition to helping farmers, who often are land-rich but cash-poor, the plan helps the environment because farmers would be less likely to sell their valuable land to developers.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:14 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Martin O'Malley
        

National anti-gay marriage group commits $1 million

The National Organization for Marriage today pledged at least $1 million to help defeat Republicans who favor same-sex marriage and assist the campaigns of Democrats who oppose it.

The announcement came as the Maryland House of Delegates today moved the legislation a step closer to a final vote. More debate is planned for Friday, and it is unclear whether the marriage bill has the 71 votes needed for passage.

"We know where the people of Maryland stand, and legislators need to listen to their constituents," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. "If they don't, we're here to help hold them accountable."

The national group says it will form a political action committee in Maryland with the aim of ousting Republicans who "abandon the party position," Brown said. Money also will flow to Democrats who vote against the same-sex marriage bill, he said.

The only legislator specifically in NOM's crosshairs so far is Sen. Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County. He was the lone Republican senator to vote in favor of the bill.

Brown said NOM will be closely watching how Republican delegates vote.

House Republicans decided as a group to take a caucus position againts same-sex marriage, and leaders of the minority party say they believe each of their 43 members will vote against the bill.

Brown said NOM has a perfect record when it comes to defeating Republicans who support gay marriage.

"Every Republican we've ever targeted, we've defeated," he said. The group helped oust four Republicans, in California, Minnesota and New Hampshire, he said.

Brown said the National Organization for Marriage has been working behind the scenes in Maryland, contacting more than 500,000 voters through the mail or phone calls. The group urges those voters to call their legislators.

According to lawmakers, they've been doing so in large numbers. Several delegates said during today's floor debate that they had never heard from so many people on a single issue.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:39 PM | | Comments (64)
Categories: Same-Sex Marriage
        

Same-sex marriage moves toward final vote

A proposal to allow same-sex couples to marry survived amendment attempts today and is scheduled to be up for final passage Friday in the House of Delegates.

Delegates may continue to try to amend the bill then, but supporters fended off four changes in a morning debate session.

The closest vote came just before the debate ended. Del. Aisha Braveboy, a Prince George's County Democrat who does not support gay marriage, suggested taking the issue directly to voters. A preliminary tally showed that amendment failed by a vote of 63 to 72, but gay marriage opponents said they are likely to try for a similar amendment on Friday.

Because the House is voting on a Senate plan, delegates are allowed to amend the bill when it is up for final passage -- something they cannot do on House bills.

The tone of the 90-minute debate was mostly mild-mannered. Same-sex marriage supporters argued that the amendments were off-point.

The first try would have afforded church groups and others who provide adoption services and foster care protection if they do not condone same-sex marriage.

Bill supporters successfully argued that current laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation already clearly spell out what such groups may and may not do.

That amendment failed on by 58 to 79, a preliminary tally shows.

Delegates also tried to amend the bill to allow parents and teachers who do not support homosexuality to opt out of any curriculum on the topic. Bill supporters said that, too, is covered by current laws and regulations.

Next, Del. Andrew Serafini, a Washington County Republican, asked to change the title of the bill from Civil Marriage Protection Act to Same-Sex Marriage Act, saying it was a more genuine description of what the bill does. That, too, failed.

Delegates said they anticipate more hours of debate and amendment tries on Friday. It's unclear whether the legislation has enough votes to pass. If it does, Gov. Martin O'Malley has promised to sign it into law.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:30 PM | | Comments (40)
Categories: Same-Sex Marriage
        

Debate over in-state tuition for illegal immigrants kicks off in Senate

** UPDATE 12:15 p.m.: In-state tuition passes another preliminary vote: 28-18. Debate will continue at 5 p.m. tonight. About a dozen unfriendly amendments expected.

** UPDATE 11:46 a.m.: Senate passes friendly amendment to the in-state tuition bill 26-20. Suggests  there are enough votes to pass the bill on the floor, but are there enough to cut off debate?

///////////

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller just instructed senators to "clear their calendars" for the evening as the body starts debating whether Maryland should grant in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at colleges and universities.

The body rejected a motion by Sen. James Brochin to have the bill sent to the Budget & Taxation committee, a move that could have killed the bill. Brochin said the $800,000 estimated cost of the bill merits scrutiny by the panel that handles the state's budget.

The debate became testy, with Miller at one point acknowledging he did not realize there was a cost associated with the bill. "I'm human," Miller said. "I didn't think it had a fiscal note."

The motion was overwhelmingly rejected, but senators are bracing for a series of amendments. Opposition so far is being led by Sen. EJ Pipkin who is currently arguing that the proposed state law would be an affront to established federal law.

The bill would allow illegal immigrants to attend community colleges at heavily discounted resident rates. The community colleges have open enrollment. After two years of study, the student can apply to universities.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:59 AM | | Comments (41)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 8, 2011

Concerns delay state action on $2.3b drug contract

Annie Linskey reports:

A day before they were supposed to choose a company to manage Maryland's prescription drug benefit program, officials on Tuesday halted consideration of the $2.3 billion contract, amid concerns about the low bidder’s past legal problems and reservations about spending the money out of state.

Express Scripts Inc., which has underbid the Rockville firm that now manages the program, paid $9.3 million to Maryland and 28 other states in 2008 to settle complaints raised after it encouraged doctors to switch patients' cholesterol drug brands. The St. Louis-based firm joined another company in a $27 million payout to New York in 2004 after it was accused of keeping roughly $100 million in drug rebates that should have gone to that state.

Express Scripts has offered to take over the Maryland contract from Rockville-based Catalyst Rx, for $50 million less over five years.

That savings appeals to the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley, which has been wrestling with a $1.6 billion budget gap. Going with Express Scripts could save the state $15.7 million next year, enough to fund 300 state jobs, or to restore a proposed budget cut to Baltimore city schools.

But the company’s legal history — and the prospect of booting a local company from a lucrative contract — appear to have raised concerns in the minds of the two other officials who sit on the state Board of Public Works.

A spokesman for state Treasurer Nancy Kopp said the contract has prompted “really close examination” by her office.

Spokesman Howard Freedlander said Kopp is troubled that the state is preparing to award the new contract even though Catalyst Rx has lodged a protest. The spending board typically waits for protests to be resolved before acting on a contract, but administration officials say the possibility of saving millions of dollars argues for moving more quickly.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, the third member of the spending panel, declined to comment because the matter has not been taken up by the spending panel. But an official familiar with his thinking said Franchot has “serious doubts” about the award given the company’s legal trouble.

Franchot views the Rockville firm as having an “outstanding” record, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publically about the comptroller’s views.

Catalyst Rx is a subsidiary of publicly traded Catalyst Health Solutions Inc., a pharmacy benefit management company that reported revenues of $3.8 billion in 2010. The company employs 1,200.

A spokesman for O’Malley said debate on the contract would now be delayed two weeks for “further study.”

Express Scripts declined to comment.

The contract is to manage the prescription drug program for 200,000 current and retired state workers over the next five years. The company would process drugs claims and negotiate lower prices for medications with pharmacies and manufactures.

Pharmaceutical benefit management firms can make more money if they persuade patients to use inexpensive generic drugs, or medications for which they’ve secured lower prices. Critics say this can lead to a conflict: Does the firm push patients to drugs that yield the best profits or the best health results?

Complicating the question is the hazy pricing structure for medications: Manufacturers and pharmacies cut deals with firms that can deliver large numbers of potential payments.
Such tensions mean the firms are frequently targets of lawsuits.

When the firm settled with Maryland and other states, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said the agreement would “curb drug switches that do not benefit consumers and health plans, but only cost them more.”

Express Scripts did not admit to any wrongdoing. A spokesman for Express Scripts said the settlement required “only minor adjustments” to business practices.

The company made headlines in 2004 when then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer accused it of keeping roughly $100 million in drug rebates that should have gone to the state.

“They were simply committing fraud,” Spitzer told the Associated Press at the time.
Express Scripts joined in a $27 million settlement, but did not admit any fault.

CatalystRx wrested the state contract away from Caremark in 2006, even though it was not the lowest bidder. Caremark took up an administrative challenge, a process which took a year. In that instance the state used the incumbent firm until the appeals were settled.

Caremark eventually lost its appeals, but the move effectively turned a five-year contract into a four-year contract for Catalyst Rx.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 8:55 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Mikulski named to National Women's Hall of Fame

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is joining fellow Baltimorean Billie Holiday, Coretta Scott King, and eight others in the 2011 class of inductees to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the organization announced on Tuesday.

The Maryland Democrat, the longest-serving woman in the history of the Senate, said she was honored.

“My fellow inductees inspire women around the world with their strength, courage and commitment to service,” Mikulski said in a statement. “I’m proud to be named among them. It seems especially fitting that the Hall of Fame is located in Seneca Falls, NY, where America’s women’s rights movement got started. Today, on International Women’s Day, we should take time to honor all those women who fought to make a difference in the lives of others.”

The class also includes former Health Secretary Donna Shalala, equal pay activist Lilly Ledbetter and St. Katharine Drexel. The members are to be inducted on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in Seneca Falls, site of the 1848 convention credited with launching the women's rights movement in the United States.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid congratulated Mikulski.

“Throughout her career, she has been a dedicated representative for the people of Maryland, and has fought tirelessly for equal healthcare for women, improved care for our veterans and better access to education for all Americans,” the Nevada Democrat said in a statement. “Barbara and the other distinguished honorees have paved the way for the girls of today to become the productive, creative, trailblazing women of tomorrow.”

The National Women’s Hall of Fame has inducted 236 women since its founding in 1969. Previous inductees include Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Dorothy Height, Maya Lin, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Rosa Parks.

Notes on the 11 members of the Class of 2011, from the National Women's Hall of Fame, after the jump.

St. Katharine Drexel (1858 – 1955)
A missionary who dedicated her life and fortune to aid Native Americans and African Americans, Saint Katharine Drexel is only the second recognized American-born saint. In 1891, Saint Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious order that today remains devoted to the education and care of Native Americans and African Americans. During her lifetime, Saint Katharine and her order founded more than sixty missions and schools, including Xavier University of Louisiana. Saint Katharine was beatified in 1988 and canonized in 2000.

Dorothy Harrison Eustis (1886 – 1946)
A philanthropist, Dorothy Harrison Eustis combined her love of animals and her passion for helping others to co-found the nation’s first dog guide school, The Seeing Eye. In 1921, Eustis began her career in Switzerland, breeding German shepherds for civic duty. She was later contacted by Morris Frank, a blind American man seeking a guide dog. After bringing Frank to Switzerland and providing him with a dog, Eustis returned to the United States, and in 1929, they established The Seeing Eye to help blind people achieve greater independence, dignity and self-confidence through the use of Seeing Eye dogs. To date, The Seeing Eye has bred and trained 15,000 dogs to assist nearly 8,000 men and women.

Loretta C. Ford (1920 – )
An internationally renowned nursing leader, Dr. Loretta C. Ford has devoted her career to practice, education, research, consultation and the delivery of health services. Dr. Ford is best known for co-founding the nurse practitioner model through her studies on the nurse’s expanded scope of practice in public health nursing. In 1972, Dr. Ford became the founding dean of the University of Rochester School of Nursing, where she implemented the unification model. Dr. Ford is the author of more than 100 publications and has served as a consultant and lecturer to multiple organizations and universities.

Abby Kelley Foster (1811 – 1887)
A major figure in the national anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, Abby Kelley Foster is remembered for her roles as a lecturer, fundraiser, recruiter and organizer. In 1850, Foster helped develop plans for the National Woman’s Rights Convention in Massachusetts, and later, in 1868, she was among the organizers of the founding convention of the New England Woman Suffrage Association. During her lifetime, Foster worked extensively with the American Anti-Slavery Society, where she held several different positions within the organization. Foster worked tirelessly for the ratification of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments and helped lay the groundwork for the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Helen Murray Free (1923 – )
A pioneering chemist, Helen Murray Free conducted research that revolutionized diagnostic testing in the laboratory and at home. Free is the co-developer of Clinistix, the first dip-and-read diagnostic test strips for monitoring glucose in urine. Along with her husband, Alfred Free, she also developed additional strips for testing levels of key indicators for other diseases. Today, dip-and-read strips make testing for diabetes, pregnancy, and other conditions available in underdeveloped regions of the United States and in foreign countries. Free is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the American Chemical Society’s 66th National Historic Chemical Landmark designation (2010).

Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)
Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Billie Holiday forever changed the genres of jazz and pop with her unique style. Holiday began her career as a singer in Harlem nightclubs in 1931, without formal musical training. She went on to record and tour with a number of famous musicians like Benny Goodman and Lester Young, and officially began recording under her own name in 1936. Holiday, known for her deeply moving and personal vocals, remains a popular musical legend more than fifty years after her death.

Coretta Scott King (1927 – 2006)
One of the most celebrated champions of human and civil rights, Coretta Scott King, in partnership with her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ignited democracy movements worldwide. For over forty years, King traveled extensively as a messenger of peace, justice and social action. Notably, in 1974, she formed and co-chaired the National Committee for Full Employment, formed the Coalition of Conscience (1983), and co-convened the Soviet-American Women’s Summit (1990). In 1969, she became the founding president, chair and chief executive officer of The King Center, the first institution built in memory of an African American leader. As a lifelong advocate for non-violence and coalition building, King’s legacy will continue to serve as an example for years to come.

Lilly Ledbetter (1938 – )
For over a decade, Lilly Ledbetter has fought to achieve pay equity. Upon retiring from her position as a manager with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Ledbetter discovered that she had been paid considerably less than her male colleagues. She filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and later initiated a lawsuit against Goodyear alleging pay discrimination. Although a jury initially awarded her compensation, the Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter could not receive any money because she had filed her complaint more than 180 days after receiving her first discriminatory paycheck. Since then, Ledbetter has continuously lobbied for equal pay for men and women; her efforts proved successful when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law in 2009.

Barbara Mikulski (1936 – )
The first female Democratic United States Senator elected in her own right, Barbara Mikulski has been a political trailblazer for more than thirty years. During her tenure as a Senator, Mikulski has developed and supported legislation promoting equal healthcare for American women, Medicare reform, better care for veterans, greater student access to quality education, increased funding for scientific research, and more. Senator Mikulski currently serves as the Dean of the Women in the Senate, and is a senior member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; a senior member of the Appropriations Committee; and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2011, Senator Mikulski officially became the longest serving female Senator in United States history.

Donna Shalala (1941 – )
A groundbreaking educator and politician, Dr. Donna Shalala has more than twenty-five years of experience as an accomplished scholar, teacher and administrator. Dr. Shalala is recognized as the longest serving United States Secretary of Health and Human Services (1993-2001) and is the current President of the University of Miami. From 1980-1987, Dr. Shalala served as the president of Hunter College, and from 1987-1993, she was the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Shalala is the recipient of more than three dozen honorary degrees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.


Kathrine Switzer (1947 - )
As the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon (1967), Kathrine Switzer broke the gender barrier and paved the way for women in running. Still recognized as a leader in the running world, Ms. Switzer has completed over thirty-seven marathons and has dedicated her career to creating opportunities and equal sport status for women. In 1977, she founded the Avon International Running Circuit, and in 1984, she was a leader in making the women’s marathon an official event in the Olympic Games. Ms. Switzer is an Emmy Award-winning television commentator who has broadcasted for ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:55 PM | | Comments (1)
        

House girds for same-sex marriage debate

On the day before the House of Delegates was expected to begin debate on same-sex marriage, lawmakers received a letter from six gay colleagues.

"Vote yes because you know it is the right thing to do," the delegates wrote this morning. "Vote yes because you want to stand on the right side of history. Vote yes because every family in Maryland needs the protections that marriage provides."

This afternoon, opponents of gay marriage from Pennsylvania played bagpipes outside the lawmakers’ offices, displayed a banner that read: "God’s Marriage = 1 man & 1 woman," and encouraged like-minded motorists to honk.

As they prepare to open debate tomorrow on legislation that would allow gay couples to marry, members of the divided House are facing pressure from all sides.

The Senate has already approved the plan. House passage would send the bill to the governor’s desk, where Democrat Martin O’Malley has promised to sign it.

Delegates have heard from hundreds of constituents, received a flood of e-mails from supporters and opponents and, in some cases, struggled internally with how to vote. Several of them — including co-sponsors — have changed their positions. Dozens remain publicly uncommitted.

"The vote is close, probably an even split," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, the most senior of the six openly gay delegates. "A healthy handful of people are still making up their minds."

The Baltimore Democrat said that most of those delegates have told her they support same-sex marriage personally, but believe their constituents largely oppose it.

Because neither supporters nor opponents are confident in how the 141-member House will vote after what could be several days of debate, both sides have been laboring to convince the holdouts.

The Civil Marriage Protection Act would repeal the state’s legal definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, enabling officials to beging issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The legislation attracted 59 co-sponsors; it needs 71 votes to pass.

The Senate voted 25-21 to approve the bill last month after several hours of discussion spanning two days. Senators on both sides of the issue congratulated themselves on the even tone of the debate.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, who shepherded the bill on the floor of the upper chamber, has been meeting regularly with the woman chosen as his House counterpart: Del. Kathleen M. Dumais.

Tomorrow, and possibly beyond, delegates may offer amendments to the Senate plan. Already, Del. John P. Donoghue, a Western Maryland Democrat, told colleagues he would be trying to seek more protection for religious groups that do not want to be forced to recognize gay marriage or participate in same-sex ceremonies.

Supporters of gay marriage fear the tone of the debate on the floor could devolve. In the House Judiciary Committee last week, opponents attempted to sink the bill by amending it to allow polygamy and incest.

Del. Don Dwyer Jr. upset some by sending an email to his colleagues that included pornography. The Anne Arundel County Republican, who calls himself the "face of the oppostion," claimed educators in Massachusetts were giving the material to children in that state.

The 43-member minority caucus voted weeks ago to oppose the legislation as a group.

The pressure on the delegates became evident last week, when the judiciary committee faced unexpected obstacles in moving the bill to the floor. Three committee members who had co-sponsored the bill wavered, delaying the vote three days.

On Friday, when the vote was taken, Del. Tiffany Alston, a co-sponsor, opposed it "for my constituents."

Alston, a Prince George’s County Democrat, and Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, had derailed the committee’s first voting session on the issue by not showing up. Carter, said she wanted to draw attention to other matters, including city education funding.

About the same time, another committee member and bill co-sponsor, Del. Sam Arora, shocked colleagues by saying he was not planning to vote in favor of the measure on the House floor.

The Montgomery County Democrat, who won an endorsement from gay-rights group Equality Maryland during his fall campaign, attracted particular scorn. Hundreds posted complaints on his Facebook page. Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, who is gay, wrote on his blog that Arora is "a cowardly liar" and "stunningly pathetic."

Erstwhile supporters, meanwhile, launched a bid to get their campaign donations back.

The freshmen delegate did not explain his sudden hesitation, saying in one statement that he had needed to "pray" about it. On Friday, he released another statement saying he would vote "yes" both in committee and on the floor, but he added the caveat that he thought voters should ultimately weigh in.

Indeed, opponents have pledged that if the legislation is signed into law, they will immediately begin collecting the roughly 55,000 signatures needed to get a referendum to repeal it on the 2012 ballot.

(Pictured: Opponents of gay marriage rally Tuesday in front of House and Senate office buildings; six openly gay delegates sign a letter to their colleagues urging support.)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:27 PM | | Comments (52)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Same-Sex Marriage
        

Dutch proposes limits on funeral protests

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger on Tuesday provided more details of his bill to limit protests at military funerals.

The Baltimore County Democrat is introducing the “Safe Haven for Heroes Act” in response to the Supreme Court ruling last week upholding the right of the Westboro Baptist “Church” to protest America’s supposed tolerance of homosexuality at memorial services for fallen troops.

The legislation would prohibit protests for the 5 hours preceding a military funeral and the 5 hours after. Protests before or after those limits could be held no closer than 2,500 feet from the funeral facility.

“I believe the Constitution allows for reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of protest activities,” Ruppersberger said in a statement. “This bill enables groups like Westboro to exercise their right to free speech without disrupting the funerals themselves or forcing funeral participants to encounter the protesters.”

The Supreme Court case stemmed from the group’s crude demonstration outside the Westminster funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in 2006.

The small group, which consists largely of members of a single family, has created an outsized profile in the media with picket signs that read “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” and a website that has featured stick figures engaged in anal sex and an animation showing torture/murder victim Matthew Shepard in Hell. It has been identified by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

Snyder’s father has endorsed Ruppersberger’s legislation.

“I thank Congressman Ruppersberger for introducing this bill,” Al Snyder said in a statement released by Ruppersberger’s office. “At this point, if the courts will not step in to help military families, we need all the help we can get from our elected officials.”

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 4:12 PM | | Comments (15)
        

March 7, 2011

Senate passes ban on reading texts while driving

Annie Linskey reports:

The state Senate gave final approval Monday night to a bill that would prohibit motorists from reading text messages while driving, moving the issue toward the governor's desk.

The legislation would close a loophole lawmakers left open two years ago when they banned drivers from writing texts while driving. That legislation remained silent on reading the messages.

“Texting is blowing up,” said Sen. James Brochin, who led the effort to ban reading the electronic messages while driving. The bill passed 35 to 11.

“One more year of legislators on the road and seeing someone who was not paying attention cause a near accident is enough to give anyone pause,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. His bill also covers reading emails.

The National Safety Council estimates that 28 percent of all traffic accidents involve a motorist talking on a cell phone or texting while driving.

But in a lively Senate debate last week Republicans argued Maryland’s proposed ban overreaches. Why not criminalize reading a newspaper or book while driving? Why not make it illegal to drink a soda behind the wheel?

Brochin said reading a text requires more time and attention because it is interactive.

“People glance at a newspaper,” Brochin said. “When you are reading a text, you want to get all of it.”

The bill also covers motorists who are stopped at traffic signals or stop signs. Brochin argued that those who check their phones when stopped temporarily become absorbed in their messaging and frequently fail to start moving when a light changes, throwing off other motorists.

Checking a GPS application on a smart phone would still be allowed under Brochin’s bill.

A similar ban on texting sponsored by Del. James Malone passed in the House last week 115 to 23.

Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat, is hoping the texting ban will be paired with another bill he is sponsoring to strengthen legislation the General Assembly passed last year that prohibits talking on cell phone while driving.

Violating that rule is a secondary offense, meaning police can stop drivers only if they are violating another law. But Malone is pushing to empower officers to pull over anyone talking on their phone without a hands-free device. A measure that would do that was voted out of committee last week.

Malone said he believes drivers initially adhered to the cell phone ban when it went into effect in October, but became more willing to violate it as they learned they could not be pulled over for just talking while driving.

There’s been scant enforcement of the texting ban since it was passed last year: Police issued little more than 200 citations, according the Maryland District Court. The penalty is a $500 fine.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 9:30 PM | | Comments (20)
        

Stokes details plan to cut city property taxes

City Councilman and mayoral candidate Carl Stokes unveiled a plan Monday that he says could cut property taxes in half over the next five years, while council colleagues and a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the proposal unrealistic.

Stokes said he would cut tax incentives for residents and businesses and fund the cuts by privatizing the city’s water and waste water operations and asking for state aid.

A key element of Stokes’ plan is also one of the most contentious: An increase on the cap on the homestead tax credit.

Stokes says a 2 percent increase could generate as much as $32 million in the first year. But council colleagues said the credit, which restricts property tax increases on primary residences, should be left alone.

“We’re starting this discussion about lowering property taxes … by raising property taxes?” Councilman William H. Cole IV asked after Stokes introduced his legislation at the council meeting Monday evening.

The tax credit “keeps a lot of us in our homes,” Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said after the meeting.

After the first year, Stokes said, the increase in the homestead tax credit cap would be offset by the decreased property tax rates.

Nicholas D’Adamo called it a “tooth fairy plan.” Councilman Robert W. Curran pointed out that the city would lose as much as $5 million from big utility companies under the plan.

Councilman Warren Branch initially signaled that he would back Stokes’ plan, but decided before the meeting that he would not co-sponsor the legislation. Branch said that he had signed up as a sponsor before reading the bill and later changed his mind.

Stokes, along with fellow mayoral challengers Otis Rolley and Joseph T. “Jody” Landers, is pushing the issue of property taxes in the campaign. The city's property tax rates are as much as twice as high as those of surrounding jurisdictions.

Stokes’ legislation would cut the property rate over the next three years, then reduce it to $1.10 for every $100 of assessed value in 2016, half the current rate.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said Stokes’ plan “relies on fuzzy math, ignores the city's current fiscal problems, and would lead to irresponsible cuts in public safety and other core services while significantly raising taxes on existing city homeowners by virtually eliminating the homestead tax credit.”

The city is grappling with an $80 million budget gap for the coming year, the third year in a row officials have faced a significant shortfall.

Rawlings-Blake “has not and will not raise property taxes by one penny to fix the City's budget crisis,” spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in a statement.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 7:51 PM | | Comments (14)
Categories: City Hall
        

Dutch pursuing legislation to limit funeral protests

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger says he will introduce a bill in Congress Tuesday that would make it illegal to protest at military funerals.

The “Safe Haven for Heroes Act” follows the Supreme Court ruling last week that upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist “Church” to protest America’s supposed tolerance of homosexuality at memorial services for fallen troops.

The case stemmed from the group’s crude demonstration outside the Westminster funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in 2006.

The small group, which consists largely of members of a single family, has created an outsized profile in the media with picket signs that read “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” and a website that has featured stick figures engaged in anal sex and an animation showing torture/murder victim Matthew Shepard in Hell. It has been identified by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

“We need to thank God for the service and sacrifice of our American military fighting for our freedom,” Ruppersberger said in a statement. “The right to free speech is a valuable liberty that we all cherish as Americans. While I respect the recent Supreme Court decision, I wanted to find a way to stop groups like Westboro from using military funerals as occasions to promote their own political agenda and inflict incalculable harm on the grieving families of our troops.”

The Baltimore County Democrat said the bill would enable groups such Westboro to exercise their right to free speech without disrupting the funerals themselves or forcing funeral participants to encounter the protesters.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:28 PM | | Comments (12)
        

Governor to wade in pollution as part of septic push

As prospects dim for an overhaul this year of the state's septic system laws, Gov. Martin O'Malley is trying a new approach: He's going in.

Aides to the Democratic governor announced today that O'Malley will wade into a polluted lake Wednesday on the Eastern Shore to highlight the ills of septic systems.

O'Malley has been pushing to curb septic pollution by banning such systems in new large-scale developments. But the leader of the House of Delegates committee considering his proposal suggested a study instead. Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she was concerned that a ban would disproportionately affect counties where most housing is built with on-site sewage treatment.

The water works will take place Wednesday afternoon on Lake Bonnie in Goldsboro, where "high bacteria levels have been linked to failing septic systems," according to the adminsitration's release.

O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec says this is no toe-dip. He'll be donning fisherman-like waders and going "far enough to make the point."

In the release, the administration says 411,00 of the 426,000 septic systems in the state are on residential parcels. Goldsboro, it says, "has suffered from more than a decade with the problems of septic systems, and the town has endured water pollution and financial and legal difficulties as a result."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:37 PM | | Comments (14)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Rawlings-Blake chief of staff resigns

Sophie Dagenais, a former corporate lawyer who has served as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff for the past year, will resign effective March 21.

"It was always our plan, the mayor's and mine, that I come here for a finite period time," Dagenais said in an interview. "My work is done."

Dagenais, who worked for the Ballard Spahr law firm before joining Rawlings-Blake's administration, said she had not yet lined up her next position. She said she had always planned to leave after a year, although city officials left out that detail when they trumpeted her arrival last year.

Dagenais said she was leaving to allow a permanent chief of staff to be chosen.

Prior to joining the Rawlings-Blake administration, Dagenais had been part of a development team that crafted a proposal to build a new arena. That plan was later shelved and city officials are currently contemplating building a combined arena and convention center.

Dagenais was a low-key presence in the Rawlings-Blake administration. In one of her first public appearance last year, council members vented about a lack of transparency Rawlings-Blake's budget plans.

Former deputy chief of staff Kim Washington, who served as chief of staff when Rawlings-Blake was City Council president, has had a more prominent role in the administration, leading negotiations with council members, business leaders and union heads.

Dagenais said she focused on reorganizing the mayor's office and filling key vacancies. A permanent health commissioner, chief service officer and chief information officer joined the administration under her leadership, she said. She also hired Thomasina Hiers to head the office of human services. Hiers, a former high-ranking official with the stateDepartment of Public Safety and Correctional Services, also took on the duties of deputy chief of staff last month.

Hiers replaced Washington as deputy chief of staff. Washington is now the senior advisor for government and community affairs and is lobbying on the city's behalf in Annapolis during the General Assembly session.

Washington, and First Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos, are childhood friends of Rawlings-Blake who have been her top advisors since she was council president.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 11:56 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: City Hall
        

Legislators want table for two -- plus Fido

Fingers — and paws — are crossed for a bill before the General Assembly that would free Maryland to join Florida, California and Minnesota in allowing dining outside with dogs, The Sun's Jill Rosen reports this morning

She writes:

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, who is sponsoring the Dining Out Growth Act of 2011, says the law would give a much-needed boost to the state's restaurant industry, which has had a tough go of it in the recent economic downturn.

"Frankly, anything that develops economic activity right now is good," the Baltimore County Democrat says. "Now when people are outside and walking with their dogs, they'll walk by a place where they'd like to stop and eat. But they won't because they can't."

Morhaim emphasized his belief in the title of the legislation: Dining Out Growth Act of 2011. It is scheduled for a House hearing tomorrow. No Senate action is planned at this point.

Rosen reports that some restaurants do quietly welcome dogs on the patio (under the table, so to speak).

"When we say, 'Want to go to Shuckers?' she'll dance around like a nut and bark her head off," says Christopher Woodside, who owns the 82-pound bulldog. "She prefers ice in her water bowl and Shuckers gives it to her like that."

But far more, Rosen writes, don't allow dogs and fear it is costing them business.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:54 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 5, 2011

Peter O'Malley elected state Democratic chairman

UPDATED, with details of position, below.

The Democratic State Central Committee voted unanimously Saturday to elect the younger brother of Gov. Martin O’Malley to chair the Maryland Democratic Party.

The governor had nominated Peter O'Malley, who managed his 1999 mayoral campaign and was one of the top aides on his gubernatorial campaign last year. Peter O’Malley replaces Susan Turnbull, who led the party for the past two years.

“I am so thankful for this tremendous and humbling opportunity to once again work with Democrats in all corners of Maryland,” Peter O’Malley said in a statement after the vote. “In Maryland we’ve set the standard on how to win, and together we will lead the charge to protect the progress we have made.”

Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney dismissed the selection as nepotism. In a statement, Mooney said the governor has “created more jobs for his family than he has for Maryland over the entirety of his time in office.”

“It’s clear Governor O’Malley is more focused on putting members of his family to work rather than the over 200,000 unemployed Marylanders struggling to find a job,” Mooney said.

UPDATE: According to the Maryland Democratic Party, the chairmanship has always been an unpaid, volunteer position. The party said Peter O'Malley will continue to work, on a paid basis, as manager of Friends of Martin O'Malley.

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Martin O’Malley, said the governor is “very proud of his brother, and pleased he’s the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.”

Part of Peter O’Malley’s role in the recent gubernatorial election was to reach out to other Democratic candidates. As party chairman, he will be expected to help engineer the re-elections of Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and President Barack Obama in 2012.

Also elected Saturday were Yvette Lewis of Prince George’s County as first vice chair, Oscar Ramirez of Montgomery County as second vice chair, Robert Kresslein as treasurer and Beth Swoap as secretary.

Before joining his brother’s gubernatorial campaign last April, Peter O’Malley worked for three years as chief of staff to Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

In the Smith administration, his job included advising the county executive on political issues, setting his schedule and serving as the administration's contact with other elected leaders in the area.

Politics is a family affair for the four O’Malley brothers, who have all worked on the campaigns of the governor and some of his political allies.

-Justin Fenton

Posted by Andy Rosen at 1:48 PM | | Comments (28)
Categories: Elections
        

March 4, 2011

Same-sex marriage bill heading to Md. House floor

The House of Delegates is set to debate next week whether to legalize gay marriage, after a sharply divided committee voted Friday in favor of the plan.

The measure, which has already cleared the Senate, lost the support of a co-sponsor but was saved from defeat by the committee chairman — who has long opposed gay marriage.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. did not explain why he voted to advance the bill, but House aides said the Prince George’s County Democrat wanted to see it moved to the 141-member chamber for a full debate.

Delegates are bracing for a discussion that could start as soon as Tuesday and span several days. The bill would repeal the provision in Maryland law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, which would allow the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

The 12-10 vote by the House Judiciary Committee came at the end of a week of fits and starts — and high drama, as several of the original 59 co-sponsors indicated they were having second thoughts.

The committee was to vote Tuesday, but two co-sponsors went missing. Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who supports same-sex marriage, said she withheld her vote that day to focus attention on city education funding and her own family law bill.

Del. Tiffany T. Alston said she needed more time to think. The Prince George’s County Democrat said she was weighing her personal belief in the right of gay couples to marry against the opposition of her church and the people she represents.

On Friday, she voted against the bill, saying, "For my constituents, no."

Before the final vote, Alston attempted to amend the bill to establish civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. The effort drew praise from Republicans on the committee, but criticism from her fellow Democrats. It failed by a single vote, one of five amendments to be batted down.

Alston, a freshman lawmaker, lashed out at House leadership, saying she had "received directions" not to try to amend the bill or vote against it.

Senate leaders have made it clear to House leaders that changing the bill as it passed in the Senate last week would doom it to eventual defeat in the upper chamber — a complication Speaker Michael E. Busch explained to fellow House Democrats at a meeting Tuesday morning.

In committee Friday, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais said leadership "allowed everyone to reach their decisions."

"No one’s arm has been twisted," the Montgomery County Democrat said, prompting the committee’s Republicans to erupt in laughter.

Del. Susan K. McComas, a Harford County Republican, called Alston "a profile in courage" for speaking out.

The bill's ride through the House already has been rockier than its 25-21 passage in the Senate last week, raising questions about its prospects in the full chamber.

One of the co-sponsors who expressed hesitation over the bill this week indicated Friday that he will support it so that voters can ultimately decide the issue. Del. Sam Arora voted in committee to send the bill to the floor.

"As the vote drew nearer, I wrestled with this issue in a way I never had before, which led me to realize that I had some concerns about the bill," the Montgomery County Democrat said in a statement. He did not specify what those concerns are.

"While I personally believe that Maryland should extend civil rights to same-sex couples through civil unions, I have come to the conclusion that this issue has such impact on the people of Maryland that they should have a direct say."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk. Opponents could then gather the roughly 55,000 signatures needed to petition the new law to referendum, where voters in the 2012 presidential election will decide whether to repeal it or leave it on the books.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:14 PM | | Comments (54)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Same-Sex Marriage
        

House committee passes same-sex marriage bill

The House Judiciary Committee has voted 12-10 to pass the same-sex marriage bill, sending it to the full House of Delegates. The 141-member chamber is expected take up debate as early as next week.

Del. Tiffany Alston, who had signed on to the bill as a sponsor but wavered and walked out on a planned vote earlier this week, voted against it. Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Democrat who does not support same-sex marriage, saved the legislation by voting to send it to the full House.

Before the final vote, Alston, a Prince George's County Democrat, attemped to amend the bill to establish civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. The effort drew praise from Republicans on the committee, but cricitism from her fellow Democrats. It failed.

Del. Jill Carter, the other holdout earlier this week, voted for the bill. The Baltimore Democrat supports same-sex marriage, but said she wanted to draw attention to education funding in Baltimore and her own legislation on child custody in divorce cases.

The bill's ride through the House already has been rockier than its passage in the Senate last week, raising new questions about its prospects in the full chamber. The House is expected to take up the debate next week, potentially the entire week.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Thanks to Julie Bykowicz, reporting from Annapolis.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 2:18 PM | | Comments (81)
Categories: Same-Sex Marriage
        

Deal reached on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants

A senate panel reached a compromise on a controversial measure to extend in-state tuition at Maryland's universities to the children of undocumented workers, advocates announced.

The measure, known as The Dream Act, was debated briefly on the senate floor this morning -- but the full discussion is set for next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Advocates have long wanted to grant the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition at Maryland's university system. Opponents say widening the pool of applicants will only make admission more difficult for those who've played by the rules.

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller, however, floated a different approach just before session started: Grant in-state tuition at community colleges.

The bill that came out of committee blends the two proposals. It says undocumented students can receive the in-state discount at community colleges and, after earning an associates degree or 60 credits, they can transfer to a four year state university and pay the lower rate.

To qualify, the potential students would have to show that either they or their parents paid Maryland taxes for the past two years and submit an affidavit that they were attempting to become legal citizens. Graduation from high school is also required.

Senators will have the chance to weigh-in on the issue during next week's debate and the GOP caucus signaled that they will offer multiple amendments to the bill. Democrats too expressed some skepticism this morning, with Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, inquiring about the fiscal costs associated with the bill.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, called the idea an "unfunded mandate" to the state's community colleges, which he said would have to absorb costs associated with a slew of new students.

The House has not yet acted on the bill.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:42 PM | | Comments (60)
        

Arora to vote for marriage, says voters should decide

Del. Sam Arora, who in recent days said he would vote for gay marriage in committee but wouldn't commit to doing so if it moves along toward final passage, has announced his decision to vote yes on the floor.

Arora, a new Montgomery County Democrat, announced his plans on his Web site.

"As the vote drew nearer, I wrestled with this issue in a way I never had before, which led me to realize that I had some concerns about the bill," he said. "While I personally believe that Maryland should extend civil rights to same-sex couples through civil unions, I have come to the conclusion that this issue has such impact on the people of Maryland that they should have a direct say."

Signs are pointing to a possible committee vote today.

Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Valllario Jr. said the same-sex marriage bill is "on the list" to be voted today. He added, "but it depends if anybody's sick." (Del. Jill Carter -- who originally withheld her vote to draw attention to other issues -- was out sick yesterday, and another delegate also went home feeling ill.)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:46 AM | | Comments (58)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 3, 2011

O'Malley urges House to 'come together' on gay marriage legislation

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he hopes the same-sex marriage bill being considered by the legislature becomes law.

The Democratic governor took reporters' questions on same-sex marriage after testifying this afternoon in the House of Delegates on his offshore wind plan. Asked if he thought the marriage bill would pass this year, he said, "I hope so. I hope so."

His comments came as a key House committee appears stuck, with some delegates reconsidering support and Del. Jill Carter skipping the planned vote on Tuesday to draw attention to other issues. There were no immediate plans to take the vote today; Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, is out sick.  

"I hope the House comes together and passes this bill," O'Malley said. He noted that even if the General Assembly approves the plan, voters will likely decide its fate because it can be petitioned to appear on the 2012 ballot.

"We should let the people decide," he said.

The legislation does not require religious bodies to participate in same-sex ceremonies, but it would provide for the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples by repealing the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

O'Malley said he thinks the bill "strikes the right balance" between the rights of gay couples and the concerns of religious institutions.

By a vote of 25-21, the Senate approved the bill last week. The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on it Friday but a planned vote Tuesday was derailed by delegates who suddenly decided to withhold support for various reasons.

Annie Linskey talked to O'Malley for this post.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:36 PM | | Comments (33)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

House passes text-reading ban; Senate to vote Mon.

The House of Delegates has approved a ban on reading text messages while driving that would broaden a writing and sending prohibition the legislature passed two years ago. It would apply not just to texts, but to electronic data such as Facebook and Twitter updates.

The Senate, which debated the proposal yesterday and today, is set to weigh final approval on Monday. Today, Sen. Allan H. Kittleman abandoned his attempt to include not just electronic messages, but newspapers. The Howard County Republican offered the amendment to draw attention to the many ways drivers can be distracted.

He also offered a tongue-in-cheek amendment to ban eating while driving. It failed 6-41.

Before the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the plan, several Republicans said it is futile to legislate driving habits. Del. Mike A. McDermott, a new Eastern Shore Republican and longtime police officer, said officers have plenty of tools already to curb bad driver behavior. 

This year, lawmakers have considered making several changes to the state's relatively new cell phone driving laws. A ban on talking on hand-held cell phones passed last year, but it is a secondary offense, meaning officers can only issue citations if they spot another infraction such as speeding.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:24 PM | | Comments (22)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 2, 2011

SCOTUS upholds speech rights of anti-gay 'church'

Sun colleague Tricia Bishop reports:

In a dispute that began at a Marine's funeral in Westminster, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment allows the Westboro Baptist Church to peaceably picket military funerals with its hate-filled, anti-gay messages.

"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the opinion of the court.

"On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker," he continued. "As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

The ruling, issued a day before the anniversary of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder's death, was a bitter disappointment for the Marine's father, Albert Snyder, who sued the Topeka, Kansas, church for picketing his son's 2006 funeral, claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress. But it was expected by free speech advocates, who found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to align with a group that protests against gays, Catholics, Jews and others.

Read more on the Westboro Baptist Church decision at baltimoresun.com.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:59 PM | | Comments (2)
        

Abortion opponents want tighter regulations

Annie Linskey reports:

Denise Crowe dropped her toddler off with a sitter in February 2006 and drove with a friend to an Anne Arundel County clinic to get an abortion. It cost about $800.

“She thought that she’d just have it done and nobody would know,” said Stephanie White, her mother.

White told lawmakers Wednesday that her daughter walked into a clinic run by a man who’d been the subject of multiple complaints. On the day of her procedure, White said, an unqualified staffer member pumped her full of drugs.

During the abortion, staff noticed that Denise’s nailbeds turned blue. The clinic didn’t have the equipment to revive her, and the 21-year old died on her way to Anne Arundel Medical Center. Cause of death: Meperidine intoxication.

Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, White recalled sitting in the hospital and listening to a doctor tell her over and over again that the death should not have happened.

The story was one of several presented by anti-abortion activists Wednesday as they made their case for tighter regulations on abortion clinics in Maryland. The idea is gaining some traction in Maryland’s Democratic General Assembly, in part due to revelations about a New Jersey doctor performing abortions here with no license.

The Maryland Catholic Conference and several other anti-abortion groups want the state to hold abortion clinics to the same standards as outpatient surgery centers. Virginia’s legislature recently passed a similar measure.

They detailed abortion horror stories in Maryland: One woman lost a kidney after extensive internal injured. Another died after an abortion doctor failed to notice the fetus was in a fallopian tube. In each case, the advocates said, the problems could have been addressed if the clinics had been regulated as surgical centers.

Opponents called the proposal a thinly disguised effort to shut abortion clinics down. They said the rules would be so costly that most of the 41 providers in the state could not comply.

Still, they said, the state could play a more active role monitoring clinics. And the abortion rights supporters on the Senate panel sounded concerned about the safety of Maryland women seeking to end pregnancies.

“If a woman is going to have an abortion, isn’t there some reasonable presumption of safety?” asked Sen. Thomas Middleton, the Charles County Democrat who chairs the panel.

Robyn S. Elliott, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, said the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has regulated abortion clinics since 1993 and is in the process of considering new rules .

She said no new laws are needed.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, disagreed.

“We are up against tough cases,” Pipkin said . “For 18 years there’s been no regulation. Are you saying that the 19th year is going to be different?”

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:52 PM | | Comments (19)
        

Vote on same-sex marriage today unlikely

UPDATE: Del. Jill Carter tells WBAL-TV this afternoon that she, too, is now ready to vote in favor of same-sex marriage. 

The House Judiciary Committee does not plan to hold a voting session today on whether to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Yesterday, Dels. Jill Carter of Baltimore and Tiffany Alston of Prince George's County -- two Democratic sponsors of the House bill -- skipped a voting session, throwing a wrench into what was to have been a majority vote on the committee to send the divisive issue to the full House of Delegates. Last week, the civil marriage proposal won Senate approval. 

Alston said she needed more time to think about the proposal, but just before 2 a.m. today, she sent a statement saying she is now prepared to vote, apparently in favor of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. 

Carter said yesterday that she was withholding support of the same-sex marriage bill to draw attention to other causes, city education funding and her own bill on joint custody of children in divorces.

After the morning House session, Carter refused to speak with reporters, saying The Sun had done her "a disservice" with its coverage. She did not elaborate. This morning, she sent a statement to the Associated Press reiterating the position she took yesterday.

In it, she said she "has always been and remains a supporter of marriage equality" and that by not voting yesterday, she was trying to send a message to leadership that education funding should be "prioritized" in the way that same-sex marriage has been.

She later spoke to WBAL's David Collins, saying she was "absolutely" ready to vote on gay marriage.

"There were some things I wanted to have discussed first," she told WBAL, adding that same-sex marriage "was getting all of the attention."  She said she was trying to get Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch "to hear me out."

Comments abound on Carter's two Facebook pages. In response to one posting, she writes that she does not want to be made a "scapegoat." 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:24 PM | | Comments (43)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Senate debate on banning texting while driving stalls for day

Maryland's state Senate put the breaks on a bill to prohibit reading texts while driving -- at least for one day.

The pause came after a lively debate: GOP senators said the bill is unnecessary since reading a text while driving violates both common sense and the current negligent driving statutes.

To make the point, Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, offered an amendment to the bill that would prohibit drivers from reading newspapers while driving. A vote on that was not yet taken ... though he talked about drafting additional amendments along that line.

The bill is an attempt to close a loophole lawmakers left two years ago when they banned sending texts while driving. The law was, accidentally, silent on reading the messages. The Sun's Julie Bykowicz wrote about the bill's hearing a few weeks ago.

Sen. James Brochin, the bill's sponsor, said the legislation is a simple fix to an established law. "When you are driving you should not be texting."

But Sen. E.J. Pipkin noted  that the bill also prohibits texting while stopped at a traffic signal -- a change that affects drivers who catch up on their correspondence at red lights.

Another complaint from the GOP was the bill would be difficult to enforce and would "shred" probable cause rules because so many people fiddle with their phones while behind the wheel.

To make the point, Pipkin waving his iPhone, Pipkin said the device holds all of his music and plugs into his stereo: Could he be stopped just because he was changing songs? It also works as a GPS: Could police stop him while he was reading directions?

The debate will likely resume Thursday.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:29 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Holdout apparently will support gay marriage

Del. Tiffany Alston said she is now prepared to vote on a proposal to allow gay couples to marry, and it seems she will vote in favor of it.

The Prince George's County Democrat was one of two legislation co-sponsors who refused to vote on the bill at a key committee session Tuesday. She told The Sun last night that she had needed "time to think it through."

In a statement delivered in the early morning hours today, Alston, a new delegate, says: "From the beginning of my campaign  I have told the people that elected me that I personally supported the same sex couple’s right to marry. I believe all people should be treated equally regardless of their sexual orientation. ...  I have resolved that if and when the chairman calls the vote I will be ready to vote based on what I believe to be right." (Entire statement after the jump.)

What Del. Jill Carter plans to do remains a mystery for now.

The Baltimore Democrat said she was withholding support to call attention to other issues -- education funding, joint custody of children in divorces -- that she says she views as "more important, or at least equally important."

It's unclear whether the House Judiciary Committee will try again today to take a vote on the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. The plan needs 12 committee votes to pass, and exactly 12 delegates (including Carter and Alston) signaled their support by signing on as co-sponsors.

Alston statement:

"The same sex marriage debate is a very contentious and controversial issue that cuts to the core of people’s religious belief and people’s fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness.  From the beginning of my campaign  I have told the people that elected me that I personally supported the same sex couple’s right to marry.  I believe all people should be treated equally regardless of their sexual orientation.  I also told my constituents that I would listen to their concerns and take them into consideration.  As such, I have been weighing the diverse and diametrically opposed feedback from my constituents and the citizens of the Great State of Maryland.   

On Tuesday, March 1, 2011, as others members of the committee came forward to express their concerns and reservations,  I too shared my interest in having a little more time to weigh my final decision.  Marriage is not an institution that should not be entered into lightly nor is the decision to create a public policy shift surrounding marriage.  There are several fundamental rights that shape this debate: a fundamental freedom to express yourself; a fundamental right to pursue happiness; and just as important if not more important a fundamental right to religious freedom.  I believe that one person’s fundamental right(s) end where another person’s right(s) began.  As a law maker it is my duty and privilege to serve the people and try to find balance and equity where inequity exists.  This duty is compounded when your personal religious belief are contrary to what you believe to be fundamentally right for society.

Accordingly, I have resolved that if and when the chairman calls the vote I will be ready to vote based on what I believe to be right.  In time the people of Maryland will also have the opportunity to vote on what they each believe is the correct direction for our State to take.  In the interim I hope and pray that you will all respect my vote although you may not agree with it.  Thank you all for the privilege to serve as your Delegate."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:10 AM | | Comments (28)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

March 1, 2011

House panel delays gay marriage vote at least a day

Update: The House Judiciary Committee did not vote on same-sex marriage this evening. Delegates on the committee, even some sponsors, say they need more time to think.

The development comes after hours of talks between the House leadership and several co-sponsors who said they wanted to withhold support to draw attention to other issues, including education funding and unrelated family law bills.  

Chairman Joseph F. Vallario says he'll assess the situation tomorrow and decide how to proceed. Republicans are angry, saying the Democratic leadership is making too many accommodations for a bill that they say Maryland residents do not support.

***

Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said she is reluctant to vote on legislation that would legalize marriage for same-sex couples until other issues, including a child custody bill and education funding, gain traction in the General Assembly this year.

Carter was one of two delegates supportive of gay marriage who staged a walkout this morning during a specially scheduled vote on the marriage proposal -- which has already cleared the Senate and had been expected to make it out of the House committee today.

But Carter said there are "more important, or at least equally important" issues that she would like to see fast-tracked in the way that, in her view, gay marriage has been. And she said that until she hears from House leadership, she does not plan to cast a committee vote in favor of the Civil Marriage Protection Act.

She is a critical vote: The House Judiciary Committee contains only exactly enough "yes" votes to get the same-sex marriage proposal out of committee and to the House floor for debate by the entire 141-member chamber.

Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario said his committee would vote on the bill this evening, but it's now unclear if that will happen.

Carter said lawmakers should be devoting their energy to restoring education funding cuts to Baltimore and Prince George's County (Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget plan calls for several million dollars in reduced funding to those two jurisdictions) and to her own bill to provide a presumption of joint custody to divorcing couples.

She said that while she believes in the civil rights of gay couples who want to marry, she wants to "send a message to leadership" that there are other critical issues, too.

"It's important, but there's other very important things," she said.

Carter said there's no need to "fast-track" gay marriage since the 90-day session is only about half over and lawmakers are in their first year of a four-year term.

She said she is "absolutely" willing to take a hit for withdrawing her support on gay marriage if it makes a larger point about her favored issues.

"I'm trying to leverage the vote to get something for my constituents," she said.

Carter predicted the Judiciary Committee would not vote on gay marriage until House leadership has appeased her. "They can't vote for the bill without my vote."

The other delegate who was absent from committee this morning, Del. Tiffany Alston, a Prince George's County Democrat, has yet to appear at a 1 p.m. committee hearing on unrelated bills. (Update: Alston arrived just before 2 p.m.)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:22 PM | | Comments (62)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

House committee vote on marriage delayed

UPDATE: A House of Delegates panel is slated to vote today on whether to forward a same-sex marriage bill to the entire 141-member chamber -- but a mid-day voting attempt was stymied by what appeared to be a walk-out of some of the bill's supporters.

Dels. Jill Carter and Curt Anderson, Baltimore Democrats, and Tiffany Alston, a Prince George's Democrat, were not present for what was to be a special voting session on gay marriage. Supporters of the same-sex marriage plan said Carter is trying to draw attention to a separate and unrelated bill she has sponsored that is also pending before the House Judiciary Committee. That measure would presume joint custody of children in divorces.

Anderson, who appeared at the voting session and then left, said he went to search for Alston and Carter. Neither of those delegates could immediately be reached for comment. Chairman Joseph F. Vallario, an opponent of same-sex marriage, delayed the vote until after 1 p.m. bill hearings. 

***  

A bare majority of members of the House Judiciary Committee are co-sponsors of the House version of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which was approved last week by the Senate. If, as anticipated, the House committee votes out the Senate plan today, the full House could begin debate on the divisive issue as early as tomorrow.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 25-21, but passage in the House is far from assured. The bill's lead sponsors said last week that they believe they are a few votes shy of the 71 needed.

Judiciary members listened to eight hours and 10 minutes of testimony Friday from dozens of supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage.

Judiciary members after the jump.

Civil Marriage bill sponsors starred. 

Chair: Joseph F. Vallario, Jr.
Vice Chair: Kathleen M. Dumais *
Tiffany S. Alston *
Susan C. Lee *
Curt Anderson *
Susan K. McComas
Sam Arora *
Michael A. McDermott
Jill P. Carter *
Keiffer J. Mitchell, Jr. *
Luke H. Clippinger *
Neil C. Parrott
John W. E. Cluster, Jr.
Luiz R. S. Simmons *
Frank M. Conaway, Jr. * 
Michael D. Smigiel, Sr.
Don Dwyer, Jr.
Kris Valderrama *
Michael J. Hough
Geraldine Valentino-Smith
Kevin Kelly
Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher *

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:00 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        
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About the bloggers
Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
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