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April 29, 2011

Bobby Curran's plan to tax the towing companies

If a Baltimore City Councilman has his way, drivers won't be the only ones digging in their pockets when their cars are towed-- towing companies will have to pay too.

Councilman Robert W. Curran wants to impose a $30 surcharge on vehicles towed from private lots.

Under the bill, which Curran plans to introduce at Monday's council meeting, towing companies would be required to notify police before hooking up a car.

The $30 surcharge would be paid by the towing company, not by the unlucky vehicle-owner, Curran said. The companies would be required to pay the even if they hook up the car but do not tow it away.

"This is not intended to be passed on the to the consumer," said Curran, who closely follows towing issues. "The surcharge must be paid by the towing company. They can't jack up their rates."

Curran estimates that about 20,000 vehicles are towed from private lots each year. Tow companies can charge drivers as much as $300 to get their cars back.

Curran's surcharge would not apply to cars towed at the request of the police department by the city-approved "medallion" tow companies.

At a hearing earlier this week, council members requested a consultant review the medallion system, which awards lucrative contracts to a small circle of towing companies without a competitive bidding process.

Curran estimates that the surcharge could generate between $400,000 and $600,000 annually

He would like to see some of that money put back into two of his pet projects-- animals services and BARCS, the city's animal shelter. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chopped nearly $400,000 from their combined budgets as she sought to close a $65 million gap in the city's spending plan.

Curran said several of his colleagues have offered their support for the measure.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 1:26 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: City Hall

Mikulski to endorse Rawlings-Blake Monday

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will pick up another high profile nod Monday-- Sen. Barbara Mikulski is slated to endorse her in Canton, according to the Rawlings-Blake campaign.

Monday's event will mark the second high-profile endorsement for Rawlings-Blake in less than a week's time. Rep. Elijah Cummings offered his support for her campaign at a press conference in front of Mondawmin Mall Thursday.

Mikulski will offer her endorsement in front of the Can Company on Boston Street at 9:30 Monday morning, campaign manager Travis Tazelaar said.

The campaign season is kicking into high gear, as the September Democratic primary looms a little more than four months away.

Former city planning director Otis Rolley and Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors vice president. Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III have filed to run, and state Sen. Catherine Pugh, Councilman Carl Stokes and Clerk of Courts Frank Conaway are all contemplating a mayoral bid.

And rumors remain that former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who spoke eloquently at William Donald Schaefer's funeral on Wednesday, will enter the race at the 11th hour.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 12:39 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: City Hall

Jody Landers buys up real estate... online

We know mayoral candidate and Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors vice president Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III is an expert in real property. But he also has staked a few claims online.

Landers purchased the domain names,, and late last year.

"It was a preemptive, defensive move" that an advisor suggested, Landers said. "When we were buying domain names, we just bought a slew of domain names."

Landers said that he had subsequently "thought the better of it" and would gladly turn the sites over to Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who is running for reelection, Councilman William H. Cole IV (who is running for his 11th district seat, not the presidency) and mayoral candidates Councilman Carl Stokes and Clerk of Courts Frank M. Conaway Sr.

"If any of those folks are interested in them, they can have them for whatever they cost me," he said.

Landers declined to name the advisor who suggested buying the domain names, but said the person "had the best of intentions."

Landers, who is running on a platform of lowering the city's property tax rates, appeared at City Hall earlier this week. The former councilman attended a ceremony Monday evening for current and former city and state elected officials to welcome former governor and mayor William Donald Schaefer's body as he lay in state at City Hall.

Landers said he planned to step from his job with the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors in late June to focus on the campaign.

Landers says he wants to grow the city's tax base by attracting new residents through lowering property tax rates. He criticized the host of new taxes that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake implemented last year to help fill a $121 million hole in the city's budget.

"I just dont see this administration having a plan or a clue as to how to deal with this," he said. "We need a long term vision so that we can grow the tax base."

Posted by Julie Scharper at 11:09 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: City Hall

April 28, 2011

Bill Cole files for council seat, ending speculation on council president bid

Councilman William H. Cole IV announced today that he has filed to run for the seat representing the 11th district, ending speculation that he would run to be council president.

On his Facebook page, Cole wrote: "I filed for re-election today. I didn't send out a press release or march across the city -- I just walked in with my $50 in hand and filed. This is the toughest job I've ever had, but I've enjoyed every minute of the challenge. Thanks to all of my constituents, friends, and family (particularly Michelle White Cole) for the tremendous support and encouragement. I'm looking forward to four more years."

Cole attempted to sway his colleagues to elect him council president last year when Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was elevated from that seat to the mayor's office. Despite Rawlings-Blake's behind-the-scenes support for Cole, the majority of council members supported Bernard C. "Jack" Young to become council president.

Young is currently running unopposed to retain the council president's seat.

Under a redistricting plan proposed by Rawlings-Blake and approved by the council last month, Cole's 11th district will change substantially in December. The district will include all of Federal Hill, South Baltimore and Locust Point and no longer include Reservoir Hill and parts of Pigtown.

It is unlikely Cole will face a serious challenger for the seat. The 38-year-old father of three is popular among his constituents and has a close working relationship with Rawlings-Blake. Veteran fundraiser Colleen Martin-Lauer -- who raises money for Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Martin O'Malley-- has worked on Cole's campaigns.

Within a few hours of Cole updating his Facebook status, more than 50 people had "liked" his decision to run again for council.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 11:02 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: City Hall

Baltimore Co. GOP chairman pushes for diversity

The Baltimore Sun's Raven L. Hill reports:

Tony Campbell, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, knows that he's an unlikely candidate to be pushing for more minority representation on the seven-member panel. Politically, that could result in the Democrat-heavy council adding another member to its ranks. But to Campbell, who is African American, the issue transcends partisanship.

During tonight's redistricting hearing, he said the growing minority population isn't adequately represented with only one African American among the seven council members.

And Campbell asked the redistricting commission to do something about it.

"It isn't going to change until you make it happen," he said.

The council-appointed commission held its final public hearing Thursday. The body will make non-binding recommendations based on new Census data to the council by July 1.

Norma Secoura, who ran for the House of Delegates last year, suggested that the commission explore adding two more districts to the council at some future point in the hopes of improving diversity. However, resident David Green said that creating more majority-minority districts might conflict with the goal of keeping districts compact and contiguous.

Commission chair Ed Crizer said the group will consider those concerns and others that emerged during the hearings, such as making Perry Hall and Reisterstown more compact.

"At this point, nothing's definite," Crizer said.

Posted by at 10:38 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: In The Counties, People

Harris talks Medicare with Elkton seniors

Rep. Andy Harris told a room full of seniors in Elkton on Thursday that current federal spending has put the nation on an unsustainable path and that part of the solution must come from a program that is especially dear to many people over 65: Medicare.

The Baltimore County Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and portions of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, said at town hall-style meeting with constituents that, “there’s simply no way we can afford to deliver it the way we do now.”

“This is really about the future of our country,” Harris told about 60 people at the Elkton Senior Center. “You can’t solve this problem by taxing your way out of it.”

Other Republican lawmakers have come under fire at town hall meetings across the country for a plan, passed by the House of Representatives on April 15, that would trim Medicare costs by giving seniors a subsidy they could use to purchase private insurance. Conservative Florida Rep. Allen West, for instance, was heckled this week at a meeting with constituents.

Members of Congress are holding the meetings during a two-week congressional recess that ends this week.

Maryland’s two Republicans in the House, Harris and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, voted for the budget bill. The state’s six Democrats voted against it. The measure has little chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Despite the attention some GOP lawmakers have received on the issue, Harris faced a largely friendly crowd Thursday. Many who asked questions seemed to be concerned Washington isn’t doing enough to address the budget deficits.

Robert Porter, 83, said that doctors should focus on preventive care to reduce medical costs. But he argued that the medical establishment, which he described as having a “stranglehold” on care, isn't doing enough. Harris, an anesthesiologist, said that patients who quit smoking or lose weight should pay lower insurance premiums.

Mary Kay Hannon, a 57-year-old who drove from Chester for the meeting, was the only person to ask directly about Medicare. She questioned whether the subsidy called for in the Republican plan would be enough to cover the cost of insurance.

“I learned a lot here,” Hannon said after the meeting. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get Congressman Harris to agree with me, but I got him to at least listen.”

Posted by John Fritze at 3:53 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Washington

Balto. Co. lawmakers press board on parking lot

FThe folks in Parkville who have argued in the street and government offices to save a parking lot on Harford Road for public use now have a chance to negotiate with the developer who wants to buy it from the Baltimore County Revenue Authority.

The agency on Thursday put off a decision about selling the property, as members urged representatives of the community to talk with representatives of DMS Development LLC about a compromise to make as many spaces as possible available for public parking if the lot is sold. DMS has bid $530,000 — by far the highest of three offers — for the land measuring just under half an acre, with 56 metered and two handicapped parking spaces.

It was not clear if the meeting would take place. A representative of a Parkville business association who has been in the forefront of opposition to the sale said he's willing to try.

“I want to keep an open mind,” said Ed Pinder, a lawyer who chairs the Lavender Avenue lot committee for the Parkville/Carney Business and Professional Association and has helped organized two public protests of the possible sale. At the same time, he said, “we've given it a lot of thought. We feel we need all that parking.”

Pinder exchanged a few words briefly outside the meeting with Michael J. Ertel, a principal of DMS, and said he would consult with his organization board on the possibility of talks with the developer. The Towson-based DMS specializes in commercial development and has built several Walgreens drug stores in the area, fueling speculation by neighbors that the company has an agreement with Walgreens to build a store at the Lavender lot site.

Ertel would only say DMS has been talking with a “national” retail company.

Pinder was at the authority meeting Thursday morning along with Ruth Baisden, president of the Greater Parkville Community Council, four state lawmakers and two County Council members. All urged the authority not to sell the land.

Pinder and some of the lawmakers have been to the authority meetings before to make their case that the lot is essential to bringing business back to Parkville. Twice in the past 12 months, residents have staged rallies at the parking lot to demand that it be saved.

The authority — which runs parking garages, metered parking, golf courses and the Reisterstown Sportsplex — argues that the lot is not making enough money.

Del. John W. E. Cluster Jr., a eastern Baltimore County Republican, reminded authority members that the agency was created by state legislation and could be phased out the same way.

“We can do anything as far as disband you,” said Cluster. “If this [the sale] goes through, I've got to look at that.”

Authority Chairman Donald P. Hutchinson said he wasn't worried about that.

“They have the right to do that, “ he said, pointing out that the five board members are volunteers. “I think this is a job that in most cases, it was not sought.”

Also on Thursday, the board approved a revised agreement with the companies that propose building the Towson Circle III project on East Joppa Road across from Towson Town Center. The planned mix of movie theater, stores and offices also would include an underground parking garage, which the authority plans to buy back from the builder and manage.

The agreement moves the required start of construction back from Dec. 31, 2009 to Dec. 31, 2012, and changes terms that determine when the authority is to assume ownership. Mark Keener, a lawyer for Heritage Properties, one of the two companies involved, said that under the new agreement the authority would buy the garage based on a formula of bond interest rates and how much of the project is leased. The other partner in the project is the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos.

A county economic development official and a Heritage vice president last year said leasing the project was proving difficult because of poor economic conditions.

-Arthur Hirsch

Posted by Andy Rosen at 1:53 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties

Cummings endorses "steady," "honest" Rawlings-Blake

Rep. Elijah Cummings endorsed Thursday Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's bid to retain her office, describing her as a "steady" and "honest" leader and said she should not be "taken for granted."

"It gives me great pleasure to say I will do everything in my power to make sure Stephanie Rawlings-Blake continues to be mayor for another four years," said Cummings, speaking in front of the recently-opened Marshall's at Mondawmin Mall.

Cummings said that he had known Rawlings-Blake, the daughter of the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, all of her life and closely watched and advised her political career since she was first elected to the City Council in 1995.

"I am so proud to see Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake emerge to become the great leader that she is," said Cummings.

Rawlings-Blake has led the city through "stormy circumstances," said Cummings, referring to the economic downturn. As if on cue, the rain intensified and thunder rumbled as he spoke.

Cummings praised Rawlings-Blake's "honest" approach to the city's budget deficits over the past two years. Being mayor is more challenging that some realize, he said.

"You have to make sure the potholes are fixed and the snow gets picked up," he said. "You have to be someone who can walk with the people and talk with the president."

"This is a woman who goes into that office every day and does everything she can to empower the citizens of our city," said Cummings, who spoke extemporaneously and without notes.

A crowd of about 30 people, including the mayor's mother, Dr. Nina Rawlings, braved the rain for the campaign event.

Rawlings-Blake read from prepared remarks that reiterated many of the points from her February State of the City speech.

She touted her overall of the fire and police pension system, changes to the composition of the city's ethics board and efforts to close to budget shortfalls without laying off police officers and while fully funding the city's obligations to public schools.

Rawlings-Blake said she gets the job done with "no excuses, no blame game, no sugarcoating, no pie-in-the-sky plans."

She also praised last year's decreases in homicides and violent crimes, but did mention homicide rates for the current year-- which are 23 percent higher than the same period in 2010.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 1:18 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: City Hall

Rawlings-Blake: Constellation deal a "net gain" for Baltimore

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that the sale of Constellation Energy, the city's lone remaining Fortune 500 company, to a Chicago-based company represents a "net gain" for Baltimore.

"I had a great conversation with [Constellation Energy CEO Mayo Shattuck] and he assured me this would be a net gain for Baltimore," said Rawlings-Blake.

Rawlings-Blake said the deal, in which which Constellation is selling itself to Exelon for $7.9 billion in stocks, would result in a new building and new jobs in green energy in Baltimore.

Asked whether she was disturbed to see the city's last Fortune 500 company be sold, Rawlings-Blake said that was a "simplistic way to look at it."

"This will be an expanded company that maintains its presence Downtown," said Rawlings-Blake. "You could see the glass half full or half empty. I look at the glass half full and keep moving."

Posted by Julie Scharper at 12:46 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: City Hall

April 27, 2011

Cleanup on Charles Street

Pooper scooper

This is not what Schaefer meant by “Do it now!”:

A police horse trotting up Charles Street ahead of Schaefer’s hearse lifted its tail and dropped some manure right in front of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

This is what he meant:

Bob Douglas, decked out like the trial lawyer and DLA Piper partner that he is, reached into a nearby sidewalk trash can and pulled out a plastic liner dripping with who-knows-what, perhaps something worse than horse poo.

“Super doggie bag,” Douglas pronounced it. Then he headed for the pile.

Never mind the fine suit and wingtips, the crowd of funeral onlookers, the cameras, the lawyerly dignity. Schaefer’s former State House press secretary and communications director squatted in the street and started scooping. It was the last, and maybe messiest, civic duty he could perform for the boss.

Cleaning the street certainly wasn’t Douglas’ responsibility, except that like any good Schaeferite, he’d been trained to consider anything that needed doing his job.

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 8:34 PM | | Comments (0)

Driving Mr. Schaefer

The church was crammed with the biggest names in Maryland politics, past and present. Governors. Senators. Members of Congress. Mayors and other leaders in city and state government.

But when it came time for shout-outs from the pulpit, the very first person that aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs thanked for his service to William Donald Schaefer was someone you’ve probably never heard of: Ross Freistat.

The name has never been splashed on a bumper sticker or listed on a ballot. It belongs to Schaefer’s driver.

Freistat was hired 41/2 years ago to be Schaefer’s chauffer. Over the years, as Schaefer got out less, the job became less about driving and more about keeping Schaefer company.

“The first year, we put 40,000 miles on the car going different places,” said Freistat, who lives in Perry Hall. “Second year, 20,000.”

He continued to work at least 40 hours a week right up to the end, tending to Schaefer’s needs and just hanging out with him.

“Since he didn’t have a family person, I wanted to stay and be that person for him,” Freistat said. “And that way, I could help him.”

They still got out a bit, even in the past year as Schaefer’s health declined. Freistat would take Schaefer to meet with old friends, but sometimes it was just the two of them, getting out of the Charlestown retirement community for the day.

“About three months ago, we went out to Western Maryland and had lunch,” Freistat said. “We just went out just to see the countryside. We drove up Catoctin Mountain and we came down and had lunch at the Cozy Inn in Thurmont.”

Schaefer usually sat in the back of the Lincoln Town Car, but the two were truly friends, not just driver and passenger. When they weren’t on the road, they spent time watching and listening to political speeches, music and shows that the 49-year-old Freistat was too young to remember. But sitting with Schaefer, he loved every minute.

“He liked Eddy Arnold. He liked listing to the old radio shows,” Freistat said. “We’d mix it up. ‘The Shadow’ and Milton Berle. Churchill was his favorite.”

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 8:31 PM | | Comments (0)

Flags from 'a fallen hero'

Some of William Donald Schaefer's closest aides, the ones who spent his last two weeks planning his three-day send-off, gathered at The Corner Stable when it was all over Wednesday to swap a few more stories.

As the gathering was breaking up Jari Villanueva, the director of the Maryland National Guard's honor guard, had a surprise.

The night before, as Schaefer's coffin sat on display in City Hall, he'd ordered the honor guard to change the flag draped on top every hour. Villanueva presented each of the aides one of the flags.

"It just blew me away," said Mike Golden, a former Schaefer spokesman. "We all teared up. It was a very special honor to receive one of these from a fallen hero."

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 8:28 PM | | Comments (0)

RI shifts from same-sex marriage to civil unions

Top lawmakers in Rhode Island are shifting their focus from same-sex marriage to civil unions, a move that some Maryland moderates would like to see here.

The Speaker of the House in RI, who is gay, said today that his bill to extend full marriage rights to gay couples was "dead" this year and he would push for the lesser civil unions bill.

Freedom to Marry, a national group pushing for gay marriage, sent out a statement calling the decision in Rhode Island "a serious miscalculation."

But full marriage isn't getting much traction this year. Maryland, New York and Rhode Island were the three states with the greatest chance of passing full marriage bills this year. Of them, NY was viewed at the toughest sell but is the only where same-sex marriage is still a possibility.

On the other hand, civil unions were legalized in Hawaii and Illinois this year.

In Maryland an effort to turn the same-sex marriage legislation into a civil unions bill failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Gay rights advocates dislike the idea because they say it creates a separate an unequal version of marriage.

Nevertheless during the House and Senate debates, a number of Maryland lawmakers said they'd prefer civil unions to marriage.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:14 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

Library hours, youth jobs spared in panel's proposal

Library hours and youth summer jobs appear to be off the chopping block after the Board of Estimates voted Wednesday to approve Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s $1.29 billion city budget for 2012.

The spending plan would also cut the number of city employee furlough days and increase the number of city-owned properties for sale. It now goes to the City Council for consideration.

City finance officials say current revenues for 2012, which remain lower than those of 2008, fall about $60 million short of the level needed to maintain current city services. Rawlings-Blake’s plan would freeze pay for city managers and reduce central administrative costs across city agencies by 10 percent.

The proposal approved by the Board of Estimates uses an estimated $6 milliin increase in state aid to restore some funding for programs that were reduced in the preliminary budget announced by Rawlings-Blake.

The bulk of the increase — approximately $4.1 million — will help limit employee furlough days to between two and five, officials say. Last year, city workers were furloughed between four and 11 days, depending on salary.

Another $1 million will go towards maintaining current services and hours at Enoch Pratt Free Library branches, and reopening the newly renovated Reisterstown Road branch.

The YouthWorks Summer Jobs program would get $600,000, allowing it to provide the same number of jobs as last year in spite of the expiration of federal stimulus dollars.

The remaining $312,000 would go towards putting another 500 city-owned properties in the mayor’s “Vacants to Value” program, bringing the total number of properties for sale to 2,000.

The budget would fully fund the city's obligation to city schools, provide for 300 police officers to be hired to fill vacancies and increase funding for technology initiatives.

-Raven L. Hill

Posted by Andy Rosen at 11:27 AM | | Comments (0)

TV reporter joins Senate minority leader's office

Sen. Nancy Jacobs announced this morning that WJZ-TV reporter Suzanne Collins has joined her office as chief of staff.

Jacobs, who has represented Cecil and Harford counties since 1999, became the leader of the 12-member Senate minority caucus this year.

Collins is no doubt a familiar face, having spent three decades reporting in Maryland. She began her career at WBAL-TV before moving to the CBS station where she has worked for 27 years. Check out Z on TV for more details.

Much of Collins' reporting has focused on Maryland politics, and she covered the terms of four governors, Jacobs said in a release today. This appears to be Collins' first job in politics.

"Suzanne's understanding of public policy, the legislative process and her compassion for people make her a wonderful addition to our staff," Jacobs said in the release.

Jacobs will introduce Collins to her constituents at a breakfast next week in Havre de Grace. She'll begin work in Annapolis on May 12. Collins' WJZ biography says she lives north of Baltimore with her husband and two children.

(Photo provided by Jacobs' office.)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:35 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: People

April 26, 2011

Ruppersberger decries proposed federal health cuts

Speaking at a community health center in Cherry Hill on Tuesday, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said that federal budget cuts proposed for low-income health clinics could cost Maryland as much as $2 billion over the next five years.

The Baltimore County Democrat said the centers, which were already the target of cuts in a spending measure passed by Congress earlier this month, save the national health care system as much as $17.6 billion a year by helping low-income patients avoid emergency rooms when they get sick.

“As our country examines ways to reduce our federal deficit, I agree that everything must be on the table,” Ruppersberger said in a statement. “However, health care cuts at this level will force our already cash-strapped state to reduce funding to a wide range of health care providers such as community health centers and will severely hurt our seniors. Health care providers may have to lay off doctors and nurses -- or worse, shut their doors -- and our entire health care system will suffer.”

Sixteen nonprofit community health centers in Maryland operate 111 clinics and serve some 261,875 patients, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. They provide primary care, mental health treatment and other services for the uninsured, seniors on Medicare, families on Medicaid and patients who have private health insurance, according to a story this month in The Sun.

As part of the agreement struck to avert a government shutdown and keep federal agencies running through the end of September, Congress cut $600 million from the roughly $2 billion that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sends to the centers annually, though some of that money could be restored from funding included in the new health care law.

Ruppersberger said he is particularly concerned about a proposal included in the GOP 2012 budget that would turn the Medicaid program for low-income patients into a block grant, effectively reducing the subsidy to states as the cost of caring for those patients increases.

At the same time, members of both parties acknowledge that Washington must cut spending on entitlement programs to reduce spiraling budget deficits. Medicaid enrollment nationwide increased by 3.7 million between June 2009 and June 2010, bringing the total number of enrollees to 50.3 million, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Posted by John Fritze at 4:05 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Washington

April 25, 2011

Cardin plans hearing on federal courthouse

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, has scheduled a hearing this week in Baltimore’s Garmatz Federal Courthouse to draw attention to longstanding safety and architectural concerns in federal court buildings.

The Garmatz courthouse, which opened in 1976, has been criticized for years for flimsy construction, small rooms and, according to a 1996 story in The Sun, poorly ventilated bathrooms. Baltimore had been slated for a new courthouse – which officials anticipated would be completed in 2010 – but the project was ultimately put off.

The courthouse was named for a former congressman, Democrat Edward A. Garmatz, who was indicted on bribery charges but later cleared. Construction began in 1973, a time of high inflation that forced contractors to scale back the design and rely on cheaper building materials.

Witnesses at the hearing, which will take place at the courthouse at 2 p.m. Thursday, will include Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, among others.

Posted by John Fritze at 3:23 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Washington

Schaefer, former rival found 'closure' on Colts

The well-documented acrimony between William Donald Schaefer and then-Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut lasted years after the Colts skipped out of Baltimore in 1984 -- and it continued long after both men had left their respective offices. But the anger, apparently, didn’t last forever, Hudnut said in a recent interview.

Hudnut – who is credited with orchestrating the team’s move to Indianapolis – said he spoke with Schaefer a few years back and that the two managed to move beyond bitter feelings that at one time ran so deep that Schaefer refused to shake Hudnut’s hand a White House event. The phone call was mentioned in a story in The Sun this past weekend, but not the details.

In Hudnut’s words: “About two years ago, I was giving a speech in Towson. After the speech was done, some guy came up and he stuck his cell phone in front of me and said someone wants to speak with you. I said ‘hello,’ and on the other end of the line was William Donald Schaefer. We had a very cordial conversation…I told him how much I admired his work. It made me feel good.”

Schaefer, who died last week, was the mayor of Baltimore from 1971 to the beginning of 1987. He is being remembered Monday with a motorcade tour of locations in the city that he influenced during his career. Hudnut, now a Maryland resident who teaches at Georgetown University, was the mayor of Indianapolis from 1976 to 1992.

“I was very pleased that toward the end of his life he and I had a very nice phone conversation that sort of brought the whole Colts thing to closure,” Hudnut said.

Posted by John Fritze at 1:35 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Washington

April 21, 2011

Van Hollen sues FEC over campaign disclosure

Rep. Chris Van Hollen sued the Federal Election Commission Thursday in an effort to strengthen disclosure requirements for groups that buy television advertisements in the final days of an election.

Known as “electioneering communications,” the ads became a central issue in the 2010 midterm election as millions of dollars of largely untraceable money flowed into close congressional races across the country. The spending, which benefited Republicans more than Democrats, became more widespread after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on corporations engaging in the practice.

But Van Hollen noted that the Supreme Court case did not address disclosure requirements. In the lawsuit, he argues that the FEC has crafted its rules so that groups that pay for the ads can avoid disclosing donors. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court.

“We have found that the requirements in existing law have been significantly loosened by the FEC’s interpretation,” the Montgomery County Democrat said in a statement. “The lawsuit I am filing today seeks to restore the statutory requirement that provides greater disclosure of the donors who provide funding for electioneering communications. If this standard had been adhered to, much of the more than $135 million in secret contributions that funded expenditures in the 2010 congressional races would have been disclosed to the public.”

The spending became a focal point for Democratic ire last year, including for President Barack Obama. Groups like American Action Network and Americans for Job Security spent millions on campaign ads in close congressional races without disclosing funders. Some of that money was funneled into Maryland’s First Congressional District last year to attack Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, who ultimately lost the seat to Republican Rep. Andy Harris.

Electioneering communications include broadcast ads that air 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary election. The ads may mention a candidate’s name, but do not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.

Several groups that relied on the spending last year criticized the action.

The lawsuit is less about legal issues and "more a crass political maneuver that aims to exempt his labor union allies from the scrutiny he wants to heap on his opponents," Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, said in a statement. "He doesn't want campaign reform, he wants gerrymandered campaign reform."

A spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce characterized the suit as a continued attempt by the White House to "ferret out and punish political foes." She tied the lawsuit to a draft White House executive order floated this week that would require companies seeking government contracts to disclose whether they had contributed to political ads.

"Along with the president’s draft [executive order], Rep. Van Hollen’s actions against the FEC are just another method to make sure the witch hunt can be completed before the next election," the spokeswoman, Blair W. Latoff, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the FEC said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits.

Separately, Van Hollen asked the FEC on Thursday to write tougher rules for “independent expenditures,” another form of third-party campaign expenditures in which outside groups may expressly advocate for a candidate’s election. Independent expenditures can be made at any point in an election cycle.

Van Hollen led the campaign arm of House Democrats in the last election. He also led an unsuccessful effort to strengthen campaign disclosure requirements in Congress after the Supreme Court decision.

“The two actions taken today by Representative Van Hollen seek to ensure that nonprofit groups and others making campaign expenditures will not be able to keep the donors funding their activities hidden from citizens and voters in the future,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement. The Washington-based campaign finance watchdog group is representing Van Hollen in the case.

Posted by John Fritze at 1:18 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Washington

O'Malley signs MOU with mayor of Seoul

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon pledged to help each others biotech industries during a brief and bilingual ceremony in the State House this morning.

The two signed a memorandum of understanding, a largely ceremonial document. Se-hoon said he it will help build a "strong foundation" between Maryland and his Asian mega-city (pop. 10 million).

O'Malley also officially announced his upcoming trip to the pacific rim, which will include a stop in Seoul. The Sun's Andrea Walker reported that trip on the front page of today's paper.

The two men signed the agreement in a room on the second floor of the State House, and were pepped with questions afterward by Korean and American journalists.

Se-hoon described the people of Seoul as "very ambitious" and he during his remarks he repeated a theme that O'Malley favors: Government investment in technology.

Another thing the two men have in common: Both have ambitions beyond their current office. Mayor Se-hoon is a presidential candidate for next year's elections.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:11 AM | | Comments (3)

Kamenetz gets leadership role in planning group

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is the new vice chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, an organization of the region's top elected executives.

According to a news release from the county, Kamenetz was elected Wednesday to the position. The council facilitates collaboration on regional strategies, plans and programs to improve the quality of life and economic vitality in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. It provides technical and planning assistance to member jurisdictions on such issues as air and water quality, cooperative purchasing, economic and demographic research, emergency planning and transportation.

"There are more similarities than differences in the issues we all face in our communities and I am an enthusiastic supporter of the BMC as the venue where local officials can compare notes, explore opportunities and work together on joint solutions," Kamenetz said.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the council’s chairwoman, said the county executive’s “strong collaborative spirit” will help the group move forward.

"He also understands the importance of good working relationships between city and county governments to make the Baltimore region better, safer and stronger," she said.

-Raven L. Hill

Posted by Andy Rosen at 11:05 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: In The Counties

O'Malley spokesman departing

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley for the past three years, is resigning at the end of the month to take a position working for a nonprofit in Boston.

In a letter to O'Malley, Adamec wrote: "The words thank you do not begin to express my gratitude for the opportunities you’ve afforded me." He told the governor he is leaving in part to be closer to his extended family in New England.

On Twitter he wrote that being press secretary has been the "the honor of my life" and now it is "ready to g home."

Adamec will be working as Vice President of Communications for City Year, an organization that places volunteers in distressed cities.

He started working for O'Malley in May 2008. Before working in O'Malley's press shop, Adamec was a spokesman for Stephanie Rawlings-Blake who was then the president of Baltimore's city council.

The news of his departure was first reported by the Washington Post's Maryland Politics blog.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 10:21 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

April 20, 2011

Mfume rumored to be contemplating run for mayor

Less than five months before the primary election for Baltimore's mayoral race, the rumors are flying that former congressman Kweisi Mfume is planning to run for the city's highest office.

Sources say that Mfume, the former president of the NAACP, has been arranging meetings with city leaders, including former mayor Sheila Dixon, to discuss a possibly candidacy.

Mfume said he was "not considering anything yet."

"I love this city and I pay attention to how things shake out," he said. He said he had not spoken with Dixon about entering the mayor's race.

"Sheila and I talk from time to time and there's really nothing beyond that," he said. "There's really nothing to report yet."

The Afro first reported last month that Mfume planned to step down in June as the CEO of the National Medical Association, a position he has held for about a year.

"I agreed to come on board for a year or so to help position the organization with the roll-out of the medical reform act," he said. "It's been over a year, so I decided to move on. I gave 90 days notice, but I said I'd stay on longer if they needed me."

Mfume, regarded as gifted orator, will deliver a eulogy at the funeral of William Donald Schaefer next week. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and longtime Schaefer aide Lainy Lebow-Sachs will also eulogize the former mayor, governor and state comptroller.

Political insiders say that Mfume could mount a formidable challenge to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was elevated into office last year after Dixon resigned.

The five-term congressman would bring considerably more name-recognition and fundraising power to the race than the other declared and likely candidates, who include former city planning director Otis Rolley, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, City Councilman Carl Stokes, Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors vice-president Joseph T. "Jody" Landers and Clerk of Courts Frank Conaway Sr.

This is far from the first time Mfume has been rumored to be making a bid for the city's highest office.

In 1999, Mfume pointed out, Schaefer, flanked by former mayors Thomas D'Alesandro III, Clarence H. Du Burns held a press conference in front of City Hall to draft Mfume to run.

In 2007, a year after Mfume lost a bid for senator to Benjamin Cardin, the rumors that Mfume would run reached a fever pitch, but Mfume opted out.

"Every four years, there's some sort of speculation," said Mfume, speaking by phone from Camden Yards, where, with his grandson on his lap, he was watching the Orioles play.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 8:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: City Hall

Solving the mayor's 'Russian problem'

Sitting in her well-furnished apartment on the top floor of a swank downtown building, Ekaterina Nazarenko is enjoying her spring break vacation when a reporter knocks on the door.

The 25-year-old, who says she is studying English as a second language at Johns Hopkins University and Baltimore Community College, is unaware of the mini-controversy swirling for the past three months around her $7,000 in campaign contributions to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. A web site has dubbed her Rawlings-Blake's "Russian problem," while a blogger has questioned why the media refuses to look into her identity.

So, on a rainy weekday afternoon, a newspaper reporter looks her up and pays a visit.

Nazarenko says she loves the United States - her parents want her to come back, but she has dreamed of living here since she was in 8th grade. Wearing short, blue shorts and a small tank top, she curls up on a white leather sofa and looks through printouts from, the muckraking site which has pulled pictures from her forgotten Myspace page, printed her old address, and linked to her Facebook friends' pages in trying to determine her identity and motives.

Clearly unnerved, she asks why people would care that she gave money. Often, a reporter explains, people who give large amounts of money - particularly the maximum contribution - have political interests that they are trying to advance, or at least that's what people suspect.

Nazarenko said she made the donations because she wanted to be part of the American political process. "I know a lot of people here do that," she said. "I'm just trying to be in American culture."

"I have plans for the future," she continues, "I want to go to the University of Maryland, and I think it's going to help me," she says of her contributions. "I have a friend, he's been here eight months, and he thinks it's going to help me enroll."

[Nazarenko seen at right in this picture from 2008 that was posted to her Myspace space and circulated in an attempt to discern her identity]

But how did she come up with $7,000, the reporter asks? She gave $3,000 to O'Malley in October, and $4,000 - the maximum amount for an individual in an election cycle - to Rawlings-Blake in January. Does she come from a wealthy family? She says her parents do well. The reporter asks what they do.  She says her mother is an accountant. Her father works for Severstal. There's a language barrier issue, but she indicates he's a manager.

Severstal is the former Russian owner of the Sparrow’s Point steel mill, sold recently as part of a $1.2 billion transaction. The company is in federal court with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the extent to which it’s required to look for and clean up contamination in the waters and neighborhoods around Sparrows Point under a 1989 consent order its predecessor, Bethlehem Steel, signed with the state and federal agencies.  The dispute was argued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore earlier this year, and a ruling is pending.

The steel mill at Sparrows Point also uses in its processes treated wastewater from Baltimore city’s Back River wastewater treatment plant. Nazarenko describes her father's role as that of a "manager."

It's an intriguing connection. Of course, there's no indication of surreptitious giving by anyone else connected to Severstal, as other special interests gave tens of thousands through various corporations (and completely in accordance with campaign finance rules). For example, during a two week period during which Nazarenko sent her check, homebuilder Stavrou Associates was giving O'Malley $36,000 through 10 different LLCs, records show. Was it her foreign-sounding name that attracted scrutiny? Her youth? Or just the stubborn inability over the course of months by bloggers to pin down any explanation?

Nazarenko seems genuinely preplexed by all this, and offers a simple explanation: she said her father gave her the money with the idea that the cash support and subsequent "thank you" letters the elected officials send to top donors would show that she is supporting her new state and country. "A lot of Americans do donations," she says.

Colleen Martin-Lauer, who coordinates fundraising for Rawlings-Blake and O'Malley, said Nazarenko's check came in among a flood of other donations for a January event at the Hippodrome Theater and that there was no obvious reason to red-flag Nazarenko's contribution. She said the donation was facilitated by a middleman fundraiser, who she declined to immediately identify.

She says her firm looked into the donations after Baltileaks - which did not know Nazarenko's immigration status - noted the rules on foreign giving. Foreign nationals are prohibited from making any contributions or expenditures in connection with American elections, though "green card" holders may contribute.

"The check went through regular vetting," Martin-Lauer said. "We look at a bunch of stuff, but we don't really look at citizenship. Nothing popped up. When we realized she was not an American, both campaigns returned the money."

[Nazarenko declined to confirm her immigration status.]

Baltileaks published two broad assumptions about Nazarenko with little to base it on - first, that because she was Russian she was connected to Severstal, and secondly, that she was not an American citizen. Dangerous stuff, and yet, they were right. Sort of.

Martin-Lauer said both checks were returned April 11th, though Nazarenko, who has since changed addresses, doesn't seem aware.

In Russia, Nazarenko studied tourism. Now, she has hopes of studying international relations. In her apartment are teddy bears from FAO Schwarz, and a replica of the Statute of Liberty sits on a bookcase. Her apartment offers sweeping views of the Bromo Seltzer tower and peeks into Camden Yards.

She doesn't know it, but for the past month she's been the source of much scrutiny. She just wants to go to school, she says.

"Am I going to get in trouble?" she asks.

[This post was updated to reflect a change in the fifth-to-last paragraph]

Posted by Justin Fenton at 10:24 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: City Hall

April 19, 2011

Congressional delegation remembers Schaefer

Memories of William Donald Schaefer continue to pour in from Maryland’s congressional delegation a day after the former governor and mayor of Baltimore died.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, called Schaefer a mentor, citing his “can-do spirit and never-give-up attitude.” Van Hollen recalled a time when Schaefer turned down an invitation to a White House dinner while in Washington. He took his staff out to dinner instead.

“He was not one to stand on formality,” Van Hollen said.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who has known Schaefer for years and who famously clashed with him as she fought a proposed highway that would have cut through East Baltimore, said that he “came out of machine politics…but he had the heart and soul of a reformer…He did incredible things in reforming housing and zoning to get rid of slums and blight, to give us a new economy, but also to give us new self confidence."

Rep. John Sarbanes recalled Schaefer’s love for his job and said the public benefited from that passion. "I think everyone has in their mind's eye an image of William Donald Schaefer doing something that was about making Baltimore stronger, or making Maryland stronger," the Democrat said. "We all carry those images around."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he was surprised when Schaefer decided to run for governor in 1986 because of his deep connection to the city.

"Not only did he have a phenomenal vision, but he knew how to turn his vision into a mission," Cummings said. "The thing that probably made him stand out more than a lot of leaders is that you knew he had a deep and abiding love of the city of Baltimore.

"Not only did he build buildings, but he built people, too," Cummings said.

Democrats weren’t the ones in Washington praising Schaefer.

Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett noted Schaefer's willingness to work with Republicans in the state. "He came to a lot of Republican events," the Western Maryland lawmaker. "He was known and loved by people on both sides of the aisle."

"I hope that those who go to the Inner Harbor know that it wouldn't be there if it weren't for William Donald Schaefer,” Bartlett said. “I will always remember him when I go there."

Republican Rep. Andy Harris served as the minority whip in the Maryland Senate when Schaefer was state comptroller.

"He was someone who put people above politics," Harris said, calling Schaefer a "good steward of the state of Maryland."

Posted by John Fritze at 2:01 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Washington

April 18, 2011

O'Malley (in person) on Schaefer

Gov. Martin O'Malley dropped by the state house around 8:45 p.m. to offer reflections on former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. What follows are notes I sent to my colleague Michael Dresser, who is putting together tomorrow's story for The Sun.

"He was a real inspiration to anyone who served," O'Malley said. "He carried the concerns of every person in our state every person in our city."

"He was not the sort of person who rode in the back of a car with his nose in the newspaper," O'Malley said. "He was a person who was wide awake, eyes wide open, and head always on a swivel looking for opportunities to make the state a better place."

The last last time O'Malley dined with Schaefer was about a year ago when the former governor came to Annapolis for a dinner at the mansion.

"As he chatted up Katie, he enjoyed ribbing her husband," O'Malley recalled. (O'Malley said he did not remember why Schaefer was poking fun at him.)

"I think one of the tremendous qualities that he brought to office was that sense that everyone had that he marched to the beat of his own drum," O'Malley said.

"He was not the sort of person who was going to be pushed around or bullied by other elected officials or by the fashions or the whims of the politics of the day. He was a person who had pretty strong opinions and he was a person who was not shy about sharing them," O'Malley said.

"What I found most endearing about the man was the fact that I would see him on the street and pause for people on the street that approached him. I would see him show tremendous concern and compassion and care and infinite patience for people who would ask him for help," O'Malley said.

"There wasn't a person in the city of Baltimore that didn't feel like they couldn't stop him and approach him with a problem. ... They knew he was always their mayor and he was always on their side," O'Malley said.

As an aside that has little to do with Schaefer, O'Malley gently chided this reporter for being on her cell phone when he started giving his remarks.

Apologies to the current governor for any distraction, and also to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., who was on the other end of cell phone conversation cut short rather abruptly. Ah, Maryland. 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:39 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Administration

O'Malley's statement on Schaefer's death

The following is a statement from Gov. Martin O'Malley:

Governor Martin O’Malley, on behalf of the State of Maryland, announces with deepest sorrow, the death of William Donald Schaefer, who served eight years as the 58th Governor of Maryland, eight years as the 32nd Comptroller of the State, and 15 years as the 52nd Mayor of Baltimore.

“I join all Marylanders in mourning the loss of one of our own – Maryland’s indomitable statesman, William Donald Schaefer,” said Governor O’Malley.

“William Donald Schaefer loved his city and his state with great exuberance because there was nothing more important to him than the people that he served with such loyalty.
From his famous ‘no excuses’ leadership style, to his celebrated public persona, William Donald Schaefer demonstrated an unrelenting drive to make Maryland a better place.

His legacy lives not merely in the buildings that bear his name, nor the statue that bears his likeness, but in the lives and hearts of all those fortunate enough to have known him and lucky enough to have been served by him.”

Governor O’Malley has ordered the Maryland State Flag flown at half staff effective immediately.

Governor O’Malley has directed that the former governor will lie in state in the State House in Annapolis and the Rotunda of Baltimore City Hall. Times and dates for lying in State and funeral services will be announced.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 7:37 PM | | Comments (4)

William Donald Schaefer, 1921-2011



Former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the dominant personality in state politics for half a century, died Monday evening. He was 89.

See full coverage at

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:00 PM | | Comments (5)

Study: Md. immigrants pay $275M in taxes

Illegal immigrants in Maryland will pay $275 million in state and local taxes this year, according to a study released Monday by a Washington group that advocates for immigrants. The report ranks Maryland as the 11th-highest state in the nation in collecting tax receipts from unauthorized immigrants.

Maryland comes in after California, Florida and New York but ahead of Nevada and New Mexico. The state will collect $76 million in state income taxes, $22 million in property taxes and $177 million in sales taxes in the 2010 tax year, according to the Immigration Policy Center study.

The report’s authors acknowledge that “it is difficult to know precisely how much these families pay in taxes, because the spending and income behavior of these families is not as well documented as is the case for U.S. citizens.” The study’s release was timed to coincide with Monday’s deadline to file state and federal income taxes.

“Tax Day is an appropriate time to underscore the often-overlooked fact that unauthorized immigrants pay taxes,” according to an Immigration Policy Center release sent Monday. “Add this all up and it amounts to billions in revenue to state and local governments.”

In all, the group estimates that households headed by illegal immigrants will pay $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010.

The Immigration Policy Center supported a proposal in Congress known as the DREAM Act that would have created a path to citizenship for some immigrants if they spent two years in the military or in college. The proposal failed. The group's estimates are based on a model developed by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, whose board includes four academics as well as the co-editor of the liberal American Prospect and a union official.

Proposals to overhaul the nation's Immigration policy have largely fallen off the radar in Washington in recent weeks as Congress and the White House focus on the budget and deficits. In Maryland, the General Assembly approved a bill this year that allows undocumented students who have attended three years of Maryland high school to qualify for discounted tuition at state universities and colleges.

Posted by John Fritze at 3:31 PM | | Comments (72)
Categories: Washington

Billboard criticizing mayor, council wins ad award

A billboard criticizing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Baltimore City Council for overhauling the fire and police pension system did more than ruffle feathers at City Hall -- it won the top award from the city's advertising association.

The billboard, created by Barb Clapp Advertising & Marketing of Lutherville for the Fraternal Order of Police and the firefighter's union, won the Best in Show award at last week's ADDY Awards. 

Saying Rawlings-Blake and the council "turned their backs on our Police & Firefighters,"  the billboard was posted near City Hall for several weeks last summer. 

The unions launched a flurry of public attacks after Rawlings-Blake and the council overhauled benefits to cut back on skyrocketing pension costs. The changes are expected to save the cash-strapped city $400 million over five years. 

The American Advertising Federation of Baltimore selected the the billboard from among 50,000 entries, according to a news release. 

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Posted by Julie Scharper at 3:21 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: City Hall

Currie's treasurer sentenced to one year in jail

The longtime treasurer to powerful Sen. Ulysses Currie sobbed in court this afternoon after an Anne Arundel County judge sentenced her to 12 months in the county jail for stealing more than $166,000 in campaign donations.

Olivia Harris, 65, spoke just before she was sentenced. "I'd like to apologize and say how sorry I am," she said. "I have for all of my life been an upstanding citizen. ... I'm remorseful for what I did." She had pleaded guilty to theft in February.

State prosecutors began investigating Currie's campaign spending after a Sun story raised questions about payments to a private defense firm.

The investigators found much of the account depleted: Harris had withdrawn funds and spent some of it with her family and friends gambling at Dover Downs and Trump Plaza. As part of the sentence, she will have to be evaluated for a gambling addiction.

Harris said in court that most of the money was spent on bills including medical expenses. She's had breast cancer twice since 2007, according to her attorney Gerry Martin.

But Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Hackner focused on the gambling. "It is not a pittance," he said, referring the $166,000 stolen. He said it was "hard to swallow" the notion that she needed the money to pay medical bills since she "found herself in a casino."

He sentenced her to be locked up for five years, but suspended all but a year. She will also have to pay the money back. She paid $50,000.

Harris wore a brown suit with a long skirt for her court appearance. She stood at the defense table as the sentence was read. When a sheriff put handcuffs around her wrists and led her away from the defense table she sobbed. The sheriff later handed her a tissue.

Her husband was in court, but declined to speak to reporters.

Harris was Currie's treasurer for 16 years, including while he was the chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee. The panel oversees the state's $14.6 billion budget and developed the framework from Maryland's gambling program.

Currie has been charged in an unrelated federal case. It is set to begin in the fall.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:56 PM | | Comments (1)

Delegate to challenge in-state tuition measure

Gov. Martin O'Malley has not yet signed the state's new rule that gives discounted college tuition to illegal immigrants -- but it is already facing a pair of challenges.

Freshman Delegate Neil Parrott, one of the few Maryland elected officials who rode the tea party wave to victory last fall, is organizing an effort to petition the measure to referendum. If his efforts are successful, the bill would appear on the 2012 ballot and tuition breaks would be postponed until the voters determine whether the law should be put on the books.

"There is a lot of angst with this bill in the public," said Parrott, a Washington County Republican. "The more people think about it, the more they get upset about it."

The measure passed both houses on the final day of session.

It would allow illegal immigrants pay in-state or in-county tuition at Maryland's colleges and universities. To qualify, students would have to attend Maryland high schools for three years and show that they or their parents paid taxes. Students would have to start at community colleges, but could transfer to four year universities after two years.

The bill is expected to cost $3.5 million by 2016, though opponents believe the cost could be much higher.
Parrott and his supporters have considerable work to do -- and not much time to do it. They must collect roughly 55,000 signatures by the end of June.

Parrott does not anticipate receiving money or organizational help from national groups. "People are going to go to their neighbors to get signatures," he said. Over the next week or so he expects to announce a website and a state-wide organization.

Separately, Del. Pat McDonough, a long-time opponent to extending rights to illegal immigrants, plans to bring a lawsuit alleging that the new Maryland provision would violate federal law.

“Maryland has become a Disneyland for illegal immigrants, providing attractions and free rides and is costing taxpayers billions of dollars," McDonough said in a news release.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:54 AM | | Comments (22)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Landers to officially announce mayoral bid

 Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors Vice President Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III intends to officially launch his bid for mayor on Wednesday, his campaign announced early Monday. 

Landers, a former city councilman, "will officially file for office on the Democratic ticket at the City Board of Elections that morning and host a press conference in the afternoon," according to an emailed announcement. 

Barring any surprises, Landers would be the second candidate to formally announce a bid to unseat Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Otis Rolley, the city's former planning director, filed to run last week.

Landers, like Rolley, says the city's property tax rate must be lowered to attract and keep residents and businesses. Two other potential candidates, City Councilman Carl Stokes and State Sen. Catherine Pugh, have also emphasized lowering the city's property tax rate, which is nearly twice as high as most surrounding jurisdictions.

Landers will hold a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at “Chef Mac’s and All That Blues," in the 4700 block of Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore.

“It’s only appropriate to start my campaign in the community where I was born, raised and currently reside,” Landers said in a statement.“The success of the Lauraville-Hamilton business association over the past decade is an excellent example of a community working together for one cause, and will be one of the focal points of my campaign for other communities to follow.

Landers said "personal frustration" with the decline of population and city services over the past 20 years motivated him to run. 

"I will work with residents and business leaders to develop a clear set of priorities for our City government to operate under, advocate innovative and efficient methods to deliver city services and make reducing the City’s exorbitant property tax rate my top priority in order to promote future growth," he said.

Rawlings-Blake, who in January had raised more campaign funds than all her likely challengers combined, has launched a task force to examine the city's long-term financial health and diversify the tax base over 10 years. She cut $65 million from the city's expenses to close a shortfall in the city's $1.29 billion preliminary operating budget, while raising overall operating spending by 1 percent.

Here's the complete text of Landers' announcement:

Photo courtesy of Landers' campaign

BALTIMORE, MD, April 18, 2011 – Lifelong Baltimore City resident Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III will formally announce his candidacy for office of Mayor of Baltimore City on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Mr. Landers will officially file for office on the Democratic ticket at the City Board of Elections that morning and host a press conference in the afternoon. 

The press conference will be held at 1:30 pm, at “Chef Mac’s and All That Blues” supper club, located at 4709 Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore.

"It’s only appropriate to start my campaign in the community where I was born, raised and currently reside,” said Landers. “The success of the Lauraville-Hamilton business association over the past decade is an excellent example of a community working together for one cause, and will be one of the focal points of my campaign for other communities to follow. My career began here in Northeast Baltimore as Executive Director of the HARBEL Community Organization over 30 years ago, and it was the start that allowed me to be actively involved in the public, private and non-profit sectors since that time. 

My decision to pursue the Mayor’s office is based on personal frustration observing the continued decline of the city’s population and city services over the past 20 years. Baltimore cannot continue with the same old policies that have been adopted in the past. I will work with residents and business leaders to develop a clear set of priorities for our City government to operate under, advocate innovative and efficient methods to deliver city services and make reducing the City’s exorbitant property tax rate my top priority in order to promote future growth.”

Mr. Landers is the eldest of eight children of Janet Landers and the late Deacon Joseph T. Landers, Jr. He was raised in the Hamilton area, and attended St. Dominic’s Elementary School, Northern High School and the Baltimore Experimental High School. He graduated from Morgan State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration.

He resides in the Lauraville neighborhood, with his wife Cecilia, who works as a school nurse in the Baltimore City Schools. They are the parents of three adult children, Brigid, Kieran and Joseph IV, and one grandchild, Scarlett, age 9.

Access to Mr. Landers’ biography and his vision for the City’s future can be accessed at his campaign website,

Posted by Julie Scharper at 12:21 AM | | Comments (17)
Categories: City Hall

April 15, 2011

Md. lawmakers split vote on GOP 2012 budget

Maryland’s congressional delegation split along party lines Friday over a controversial Republican budget plan for 2012 that would make deep spending cuts while overhauling Medicare and Medicaid.

Democrats vowed to use the vote – and the proposed changes to entitlement programs -- as an issue in the 2012 election, but Republicans cheered the budget as a first step toward putting the nation’s fiscal house in order.

“We face a mountain of debt, even looking just at the part that is most visible,” said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican. “Just like an iceberg, most of our unfunded liabilities as baby boomers continue to retire isn’t even visible.”

The proposed budget – which in Congress is more like a guideline – would trim $6.2 trillion from budget deficits over the next decade. Part of the savings come from changes to Medicare. The plan would provide direct subsidies to seniors on Medicare that they could use to purchase private coverage. The proposal would not apply to seniors who are currently over 55.

The state’s six Democratic members of the House of Representatives voted against the plan. The two Republicans voted for it. The vote was 235-193. It now goes to the Democratic-controlled Senate, which will likely make significant changes.

“We believe the Republican plan makes the wrong choice,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Montgomery County lawmaker who is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “We will continue to fight this Republican plan.”

Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and portions of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, said the GOP plan would save Medicare from its current unsustainable path and argued that a proposed Democratic version of the budget would have killed jobs.

“Building an environment for job creation is my top priority,” Harris said in a statement. “President Obama’s plan, which would try to tax our way out of the problem, and the various proposals introduced by liberals in Congress, would destroy jobs and ration health care for the most vulnerable among us – our seniors."

Posted by John Fritze at 6:21 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Washington

Online voters to decide Balto. Co. GOP awards

Two finalists for the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee’s Ellie awards will be selected by online votes.

The award will recognize 12 women throughout the state from different decades. Ten finalists have already been selected. Nominations for the remaining two finalists will close Wednesday.

Voting will begin late next week. Recipients will be honored at the committee’s annual Lincoln/ Reagan Dinner, “A Night at the Ellies,” on May 4 at Martin’s East in Middle River.

“We would like every Republican activist to use their virtual voice in choosing our final two Ellie recipients,” committee chairman Tony Campbell said.

The finalists selected thus far include pioneers and rising leaders within the party, including three from Baltimore County – Helen Delich Bentley, who served 10 years in Congress; gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey; and Julianne Grim, president of the 42nd District Republican Club and the youngest honoree. Former Rep. Marjorie Holt from Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City’s Nicolee Ambrose, former chairman of the National Young Republicans, are also on the list.

Other honorees include former Bowie mayor Audrey Scott; Joyce Lyons Terhes, the state's Republican committeewoman; Rachel Audi, who ran last year for the House of Delegates from Prince George’s County; Dottie Kelly, president of the Republican Women’s Club of Frederick County; and Diana Waterman, first vice chair of the state Republican Party.

-Raven L. Hill

Posted by Andy Rosen at 5:33 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties

Longest-serving Arundel worker to retire

Anne Arundel County Council Administrative Officer Judy C. Holmes, who is currently the county’s longest-serving full-time employee, will retire in June.

Holmes has served as the council’s administrative officer for the last 29 years. She will be succeeded by Elizabeth E. Jones, a legislative assistant to the council for 11 years.

The council greatly appreciates Holmes’ years of service, Council Chairman Richard Ladd said. “Judy has been an integral part of county government for many, many years and the entire council wishes her well in retirement. Her knowledge, expertise and wisdom will be sorely missed.”

Jones has also worked on Capitol Hill and the House of Delegates

-Raven L. Hill

Posted by Andy Rosen at 2:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties

Fundraising race begins for 2012

Though it’s nearly 19 months off, members of Maryland’s congressional delegation are already raising money for the 2012 election – some at a faster clip than others – to prepare for the ever-more-expensive campaign season to come, according to campaign disclosure statements due to the Federal Election Commission today.

Rep. John Sarbanes had one of the more active fundraising quarters, pulling down $233,000 from Jan. 1 through the end of March. The Baltimore County Democrat had $554,272 on hand.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, raised only $60,650, but the Baltimore Democrat has a sizeable $769,908 in his campaign's bank account. Baltimore County Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, also a Democrat, raised $67,020 and had $336,857 on hand.

It’s early – the last three months marked the first quarter of the 2012 federal campaign cycle -- and the real stories in these reports are usually found in the back pages by analyzing who gave to whom. But early top line numbers can carry political significance: A lot of money in the bank for an incumbent can intimidate potential rivals; a low number can be interpreted as a vulnerability.

And safe members who are ambitious often try to stockpile enough cash early so they can spread it around to more at-risk colleagues across the country.

Campaign reports for House members are not due to the FEC until 11:59 p.m. and most of the delegation did not have a report posted on the agency's website as of midday. The Sun has separately requested summary numbers from each member of the delegation.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski reported raising $9,880 and having $867,171 on hand. Mikulski is not up for re-election again until 2016, so the low number of contributions is not a surprise. The state’s other senator, Benjamin L. Cardin, will be running in 2012. His campaign report was not yet available. Both are Democrats.

Updated: More numbers are starting to come in. Cardin's campaign released a copy of his report, which shows the senator raised $641,979 this quarter and has more than $1 million on hand, not bad for a lawmaker whose seat is currently considered safe. Cardin's report shows he raised an additional $114,000 through joint fundraising with other candidates, which would bring his his total "raised" figure up to $755,979. Rep. Andy Harris, one of two Republicans in the delegation, raised $211,559 and has $215,634 on hand.

The "raised" numbers include only contributions from individuals and political action committees. They do not include loans or interest on investments.

Posted by John Fritze at 11:12 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Washington

Rejected as official, third parties sue

Maryland's Greens and Libertarians are no longer official political parties, according to the State Board of Elections. They failed to win enough votes in the fall election and, the board says, weren't able to collect enough signatures to petition to remain on the ballot.

But the parties aren't over. The Libertarians filed a lawsuit Monday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court claiming they did, in fact, submit enough signatures. The Greens said Thursday that they have joined that suit, which names Elections Administrator Linda Lamone as a defendant.

Here's the lawsuit, provided by the Green Party.

The parties were hopeful after a recent Maryland Court of Appeals decision allowed illegible signatures on petitions. But, as recent Green Party gubernatorial candidate Maria Allwine acknowledged at the time, "the bigger problem is the insistence that the name be exactly as it looks on the person's voter registration."

Maryland allows two ways for a third party to be deemed "official," which gives them the all-important ballot line. They must either win 1 percent or more of the vote in a gubernatorial election or collect 10,000 or more signatures on a petition.

In a release, the Green Party said it submitted 14,886 signatures but was told by the Board of Elections that there weren't enough valid ones.

The Greens say the board broke down the signature count this way:

* 5,905 were deemed valid.

* Of those, 1,977 of these signatures had been initially rejected because of issues with the legibility or readability of the signers' signature, but were reconsidered after the Court of Appeals released its recent opinion.

* 2,164 were rejected for various technical reasons.

*6,817 signatures were rejected because of differences between a signer's registration record and name printed on the petition.

Results were similar for the Libertarians: Of 14,994 signatures, only 3,815 were initially accepted, and the recent court ruling meant another 2,417 could count, according to the lawsuit.

The Greens, like many groups that collect signatures for ballot petitions, say Maryland's rule that the signer's name must match a fairly exact version of his or her voter registration record, is "excessively strict."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:12 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Elections

O'Malley talks pensions, education on national TV

Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe a few hours ago, Gov. Martin O'Malley presented himself as a chief executive who can make deep cuts without causing a meltdown in relations between the government and unions.

He contrasted his style with Republican governors in Wisconsin and New Jersey who've aggravated public employee unions and slashed education funding. O'Malley's message: Democrats know how to balance a budget without starting a war.

"Education gets hit much harder" in states with Republican governors, O'Malley said.

Since becoming the head of the Democratic Governors Association last December, O'Malley has sought to raise his national profile, picking fights with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and conservative "tea partiers" at Democratic events in Virginia and New Jersey. He faced criticism for spending too much time on his new national job during the legislative session -- now that it is over many predict that he'll step up those appearances.

During his TV slot this morning, O'Malley hit many of the same themes Marylanders have been hearing for years. The governor had to "make tough choices" in order to "move the state forward." Tuition at the state's university system remained frozen for four years in a row, he said. (He did not mention that it went up by three percent this year and will rise by that amount again next year.)

It remains to be seen how effectively O'Malley can nationalize his message. Maryland has never had the deep budget problems faced by states like Illinois, California and New York. That's in part because the state's economy is bolstered by steady federal government jobs and the recession didn't hit as hard here.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 10:15 AM | | Comments (6)

April 14, 2011

Sen. Catherine Pugh "looking at" mayoral run

State Sen. Catherine Pugh said today that she is "looking at" the possibility of running for mayor.

"I'm really concerned about the future of the city," said Pugh. "I'm concerned about the leadership. I'm concerned about the budget. I'm concerned about how lead paint settlements are being handled. And I don't think we've amply responded to the citizens of Baltimore about what you do with property taxes."

Pugh said that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget does not address the needs of young people.

"Recreation and job opportunities for young people have to be in the forefront," said Pugh. "How do we make our city more community driven and less developer driven?"

Pugh has become more vocal on city issues in recent weeks, criticizing the Housing Authority of Baltimore City for failing to pay more than $12 million in legal settlements to lead poisoning victims.

Pugh has served in the state senate since 2007 and chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. She was a member of the House of Delegates from 2005-2007 and represented West Baltimore on the City Council from 1999-2004.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 6:56 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: City Hall

April 13, 2011

Mayor's budget predicts failure, youth advocates say

Julie Scharper reports:

Scores of children, teenagers and young adults expressed concern about Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s spending plan at a public meeting Wednesday evening, saying it devoted too much funding to stopping crime and not enough to activities for young people.

“Tonight, I stand to challenge you to match our dollars with the ideal that we can protect our children’s future instead of predicting their failure,” said LeVar Jones, a staffer with the advocacy group Safe and Sound.

“When I look at the budget, it makes me wonder if you even think it’s important to fight for youth like us,” said Isaac Cobb Jr., 17, of Harlem Park. “It seems like our own mayor doesn’t even believe in the citizens of Baltimore City, especially our youth.”

The young and their advocates were among about 80 people who attended “Taxpayer’s Night,” an annual event hosted by the city’s Board of Estimates to solicit comments on the mayor’s preliminary budget.

Rawlings-Blake trimmed $65 million from the city’s $1.29 billion operating budget to balance expenditures and revenue. Overall operating spending would grow by 1 percent from last year’s spending plan.

“This is tough budget, but, with no new taxes, it’s also a smart budget,” said Rawlings-Blake before inviting residents to comment on the plan.

The budget fully funds the city’s obligation to city schools, provides for 300 police officers to be hired to fill vacancies and increases funding for some technology initiatives.

Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that additional allocations from the state would allow all branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library to maintain their current operating hours.

Mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said that an additional $1 million would be added to the library system’s $21.9 million budget. The city received about $6 million more from the state than the $88.4 million that finance officials had anticipated, he said.

Many of the 80 people who attended the meeting expressed displeasure with the city’s spending priorities.

Community activist Leo W. Burroughs Jr. noted that Rawlings-Blake had increased funding for the Baltimore Convention Center and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, but cut funds for the Department of Recreation and Parks and summer jobs for youth.

Burroughs said officials should solicit business leaders to help fund the Baltimore Grand Prix and the War of 1812 commemoration and use the money Rawlings-Blake would allocate for those events to support youth employment.

“You need to show the leadership to provide those jobs,” he said. “Use your creativity as leaders to figure it out.”

Many young people said they were concerned that city leaders were supporting the construction of a youth jail, while cutting funding for recreation programs.

“I’m devastated that my brother and sister are not able to go to rec centers, but you have all these jails you’re building for us,” said Shamar Dixon, 13.

O’Doherty, the mayoral spokesman, wrote in an email that Rawlings-Blake’s budget funds many youth inititiatives despite the tough economy.

“Juvenile homicides and shootings declined 35% during the Mayor’s first year in office and she is making important investments in public safety programs and youth services to continue that progress,” he wrote.

Mayoral challenger Otis Rolley, who attended the meeting, said Rawlings-Blake’s budget priorities were “off-kilter.”

“They’re off-kilter because we’re not investing in our neighborhoods,” he said. “We’re investing the way we always have and we’re going to get the same results — a loss of population and a loss of jobs.”

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 10:14 PM | | Comments (4)

Expect lots of shin splints next session

Filibusters are supposed to slow the legislative process, not speed book sales or promote exercise fads. But state Sen. David Brinkley’s choice of filibuster reading material this week might have some of those unintended consequences.

When the Frederick County Republican wanted to stall a vote on granting in-state tuition to certain undocumented students, he took the Senate floor to read aloud from Christopher McDougall's “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.”

The book, which promotes barefoot running, suggests that high-tech running shoes are to blame for many running injuries. (Sounded good to my husband when the book came out a couple of years ago, until he wound up with plantar fasciitis.)

Brinkley is not a runner, much less a barefoot one.

“Hell, no,” he told me by phone. “If you saw my physique you’d know I wasn’t a runner. I bike. If you’re 220 pounds, you got no business running.”

But he is nonetheless taken with the book.

“I’m into it,” he said. “I just bought it the day before. I was at a Borders book store waiting for my daughter, she was going back to college. I looked down and I became fascinated by it.”

Brinkley only got five or six pages into the book before the Senate agreed to send the bill back to a conference committee. But that was enough to hook some listeners.

“I had four people send me an instant message and e-mail, ‘Tell me about that,’” he said. “This is the first time that somebody read something on the floor that people were actually enjoying listening to.”

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 7:18 PM | | Comments (1)

Effort to block drilling near Chesapeake Bay fails

A proposal moving through the House of Representatives that would speed up permitting for offshore oil drilling will not include an exemption for rigs near the Chesapeake Bay after an amendment offered by Rep. John Sarbanes to carve the area out of the legislation failed.

The amendment, which died on a 28-14 vote in the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday, would have eliminated a provision permitting lease sales for oil and natural gas drilling off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula.

“We ought not jeopardize the health of the Bay in pursuit of an extremist ‘drill everywhere’ agenda,” Sarbanes, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The legislation, which Republicans hope to bring to the floor later this year, would reverse the moratorium on new drilling leases President Barack Obama imposed in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Committee chairman Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican, said the effort is intended to address rising gas prices and reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

The legislation “allows drilling to resume in a safe manner and provides certainty to businesses by implementing firm timelines for the Interior Department to act on permits,” Hastings said in a statement. “This bill ensures that endless bureaucratic delays and non-answers will no longer be tolerated."

Posted by John Fritze at 7:18 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Washington

Maryland pols: Twitter flirts

In Tunisia and Egypt, Twitter helped topple governments. Here in Maryland, it’s helping government leaders flirt with celebrities.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake tweeted Wednesday @MayorSRB: “Just finished hosting Common at City Hall. He's here filming a movie. Ladies ... he's more fine in person (Shhh!..I didn't say that).”

Sun City Hall reporter Julie Scharper, who brought that tweet to my attention, also came across Gov. Martin O’Malley’s tweet to Bruce Springsteen last week.

Writing as @GovernorOMalley, the guitar-strumming gov tweeted @springsteen: “I quoted your @nytimes oped in a speech last night Next time you're in MD, let me know. I'd love to meet.”

Too soon to say if SRB’s tweet will be unrequited, but it looks like O’Malley’s is. Spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor has not heard back from The Boss.

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 7:16 PM | | Comments (0)

Van Hollen leads Democratic budget effort

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top-ranking Democrat on budget issues in the House of Representatives, unveiled the Democratic proposal to fund the government in 2012 on Wednesday, offering the latest in a series of budget proposals lawmakers will consider as they shift attention to deficit reduction.

Though the plan has little chance of passage, it gives Democrats an opportunity to offer an alternative vision to the one proposed by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, which is scheduled for a vote in the House on Thursday. The Montgomery County Democrat said the proposal would cut budget deficits $1.2 trillion over 10 years beyond the cuts called for in President Barack Obama’s budget.

“Like every American family, we must tighten our belts,” Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said in a statement. “But it is clear that the Republican budget amounts to a yellow-brick road for the already prosperous and a dead end for the rest of the country.”

The 2012 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Van Hollen’s plan freezes discretionary spending for five years, cuts security and defense spending by $308 billion over the next decade and does away with Bush-era income tax credits for high-income individuals and families – the same credits at the center of the battle in Congress late last year. The plan does not address the spiraling cost of entitlement programs such as Medicare.

The budget proposed by House Republicans, which is unlikely to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate, would cut budget deficits by $4.4 trillion, Republicans say. That legislation has stirred controversy because of its proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid. Under the plan, new Medicare enrollees would receive subsidies from the government that would allow them to purchase private health insurance.

Democrats rolled out their vision for next year’s budget on the same day Obama proposed lowering budget deficits by $4 trillion through cuts in Medicare spending and increased taxes.

“After Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed,” Obama said during a speech at George Washington University Wednesday. “And now that our economic recovery is gaining strength, Democrats and Republicans must come together and restore the fiscal responsibility that served us so well in the 1990s.”

Posted by John Fritze at 2:58 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Washington

City could see 9 percent jump in water bills

The city's spending board voted today to hold a hearing to increase water and sewer rates by 9 percent -- the third consecutive year of substantial rate increases-- in an effort to offset the cost of federally-mandated improvements to the city's reservoirs and pipes.

The average family of four would pay about $88 more per year under the rate increases, according to the Board of Estimates agenda.

"We have to be sure we can pay for infrastructure improvements," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

The federal government has ordered the city to repair sewer lines to prevent overflows and cover reservoirs to prevent contamination, said Department of Public Works director Col. Alfred H. Foxx.

The board also voted to propose raising water rates by 9 percent for residents of Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll Counties.

The rate increase, which is subject to a public hearing on May 18, represents the third consecutive 9 percent hike. Rates are expected to increase in 2012 and 2013 as well, said Foxx.

"We have been trying to hold the increases to single digits," but rates could increase more in future years, said public works spokeswoman Celete Amato.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 2:25 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: City Hall

Mayor: A 'terrible decision' on Read's drugstore

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was "frustrated and disappointed" that the city's preservation committee had voted to temporarily add a former Read's drugstore to a list of historical landmarks, a move that will halt demolition for at least six months.

"It's unacceptable to throw away a good compromise," said Rawlings-Blake following the city's spend board meeting Wednesday. "The commission made a terrible decision."

The city's Commission for Historical and Architectural preservation voted yesterday to grant temporary landmark status to the West Baltimore building because it was the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in that impacted the national civil rights movement.

Rawlings-Blake had announced a deal last month with developer Lexington Square Partners to preserve two exterior walls and work them into the new project.

The commission's decision stymies progress on the already long-delayed redevelopment of the area known as the Superblock. The $150 million project will bring jobs and economic growth to West Baltimore, developers say.

Rawlings-Blake criticized the commission for slowing work on the project. The commissioners, she said, don't live in neighborhoods were residents lack jobs and don't understand the importance of creating jobs on the Westside.

"We can't continue to have benign neglect," she said. "If we do the same thing, we're going to have benign neglect."

Earlier this week, Councilman Carl Stokes, a likely candidate for mayor, and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called for the commission to preserve the former drugstore.

The building's legacy is "too important to be bulldozed," Clark said in a statement.

“This isn’t just about Baltimore’s history, this is part of our nation’s history and we have an opportunity to make sure this story doesn’t get lost," Stokes said in a statement.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 12:45 PM | | Comments (24)
Categories: City Hall

April 12, 2011

Rolley to officially declare candidacy Wednesday

Former city planning director Otis Rolley plans to formally file as a candidate for mayor with the city's board of elections Wednesday.

"I know the next five months are going to be the toughest five months of my life, until I get elected, and then they'll all be tough," Rolley said this morning at an interview in his campaign headquarters in Hampden.

Rolley's schedule is packed with community meetings, church visits, small gatherings at homes, and fundraisers. He said he was undaunted by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's substantial fund raising lead, although he declined to say how much he currently had in his campaign account.

"We have a good finance committee. Things are pumping," he said. "I wouldn't be filing tomorrow and I wouldn't excited about filing tomorrow if I weren't doing very well."

Rolley said he has been garnering smaller sums from many donors, rather than receiving the big ticket donations from developers and business owners.

"How I'm running this campaign is how I'll run the city as mayor," Rolley said. "We are going to give Baltimore back to the people of Baltimore, and that's why some people are afraid of my campaign."

Rolley says he plans to cut property tax rates in half over eight years, grow small businesses and focus on the city's neighborhoods, not just the Downtown tourist areas. His slogan -- "Elevate Baltimore" -- a play on the Otis Elevator Company, is about "elevating expectations" for the city, he says.

"I can't pay twice the rate of my neighbors and get one third the service," said Rolley.

Rolley today criticized Rawlings-Blake's response to reports of the city housing authority refusing to pay nearly $12 million in lead paint damage settlements. Rawlings-Blake concurred with housing authority executive director Paul T. Graziano that paying the settlements would bar the $300 million entity from paying other obligations.

"The courts have made a determination that we need to pay and we have to pay," said Rolley. "This is more of the same, the city's leadership not taking responsibility. People were poisoned and the housing authority, as determined by a judge, was responsible."

Although the Housing Authority of Baltimore City is an independent agency, the mayor chooses the board of commissioners and Graziano serves as her housing commissioner.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, another likely mayoral candidate, other state leaders and City Council members have joined the call for the housing authority to explain why it has not paid the settlements.

Barring any surprises, Rolley will be the first of a field of about half a dozen mayoral candidates to register. According to the city board of elections, no one else had officially filed a candidacy by Tuesday afternoon. Candidates have until early July to register.

Rolley has captured a lot of early press attention, and was the focus of cover story in the City Paper and a glowing profile in the Jewish Times. Last week, Tom Loveland, a member of Rawlings-Blake's transition committee who was appointed the city's Google Czar by the mayor, endorsed Rolley in a letter in the Baltimore Business Journal.

But Rawlings-Blake is likely to gather the big ticket endorsements. Rep. Elijah Cummings was slated to endorse her at an event at Mondawmin Mall last Friday, but had to cancel due to federal budget negotiations. She has a close relationship with Gov. Martin O'Malley and many politicos feel a deep loyalty to her father, the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

Yet Rolley professes that he can win by energizing communities and reaching out to residents through social networking.

"We're going to win this race. It's not crazy confidence, it's based on the pulse of the people," he said. "I feel the energy in the communities."

Posted by Julie Scharper at 3:50 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: City Hall

Official calls for federal oversight of 'fracking'

Robert M. Summers, Maryland's acting environment secretary, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the federal government must step in to help protect the environment from the possibility of contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.

“We need the federal government to take a more active role,” Summers told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, adding that the state has applications pending from two companies that want use the process, known as “fracking,” to drill for natural gas in Marcellus shale deposits in Western Maryland.

“While we believe states should retain the responsibility and should be able to enact more stringent requirements," he said, "a federal regulatory ‘floor’ would ensure at least basic protection of the environment and public health.”

Energy experts predict there's enough natural gas under Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio and Western Maryland to supply the nation's needs for 15 to 20 years. The reserves are in particularly high demand given the wild swings in prices for other energy sources.

But the fracking process uses millions of gallons of liquid that can become contaminated. In Pennsylvania and other states where the procedure is used, residential wells have been polluted with drilling fluid.

Summers told the committee that the procedure “will not start in Maryland until we know whether, and how, it can be done safely.”

The General Assembly, which adjourned Monday, failed to pass a proposed two-year, industry-financed analysis of the procedure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also studying the effects of the process.

Regulators from several other states who testified in Washington Tuesday argued that federal involvement is not necessary because local officials have already stepped up oversight on their own. “After all, and not be trite, we drink the water, too,” said Jeff Cloud, a vice chairman of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities in that state.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was a co-chair of the hearing.

“The industry has failed to meet minimally acceptable performance levels for protecting human health and the environment,” the Maryland Democrat said. “That is both an industry failure and a failure of the regulatory agencies.”

Posted by John Fritze at 12:56 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Washington

Done and left undone in 2011 legislative session

Legislation flew through the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates yesterday, the final day of the 2011 session. Think you missed something? Here's a guide to what is to become law, and what is to wait for another legislative session. 

Gov. Martin O'Malley hosts his first of several bill-signing sessions this morning. Most new laws begin October 1, though some launch July 1 and some have a special effective date. 

These bills squeaked through just yesterday:

Alcohol tax: Come July 1, Marylanders will see the tax on beer, wine and spirits rise for the first time in more than a generation. Late Monday, lawmakers signed off on a plan to bump the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent.

In-state tuition for illegal immigrants: Undocumented students who attend at least three years of high school in the state and whose parents or guardians pay state taxes will be able to attend community college at in-state tuition rates. After earning 60 credit hours, those students could transfer to four-year institutions and continue to pay in-state rates.

Medical marijuana: Maryland will study how to develop and implement a plan to distribute medical marijuana. Meanwhile, sick people found with less than 1 ounce of the drug would be able to argue medical necessity as a defense.

Picketing at funerals: Horrified by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right for protesters to jeer during funerals for war veterans, the state increased a buffer between picketers and funerals from 100 feet to 500 feet.

Horse racing subsidies: The legislature extended a multiyear deal brokered by O'Malley to allow cash-strapped horse tracks to use slots money to keep a full racing calendar. A cut of the nascent slots program was supposed to go to track improvements, but the Maryland Jockey Club argued it needed to use the money to stay open.

Rocky Gap: After failing to attract a developer in the first two rounds of bidding, the legislature sweetened the deal for the prospective operator of the slots casino proposed for Western Maryland. The General Assembly would slash the tax rate on gaming revenues from 67 percent to 50 percent and waive $3 million in fees. But the casino would be limited to 1,000 machines.

Waste to energy: Over objections of some environmentalists, the General Assembly approved incentives for facilities that make energy by burning trash. O’Malley supports the bill, which will make it far easier for the state to achieve its goal of obtaining 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2022.

Invest Maryland: The House reduced the size and scope of O'Malley's Invest Maryland capital fund. The state will sell tax credits to make available about $75 million -- down from $100 million -- for venture capital. The state Department of Business and Economic Development would dole out about one-third of that money, less than the 50 percent O'Malley had sought for the state agency. The rest would go to private venture capitalists to invest.

Capital budget: Lawmakers approved $925 million in new borrowing as part of a $3 billion capital budget. Sen. Catherine Pugh unsuccessfully sought to require Baltimore City government to explain how it will pay victims who have been awarded compensation for lead paint poisoning. Conferees believed a last-minute letter from the mayor sufficed.

Also blessed by both chambers and bound for the governor's desk:

Pensions: State workers would increase their contribution to the pension plan from 5 percent to 7 percent of their income, the age at which they could receive retirement benefits would go up and the conditions under which they could receive a cost of living increase would change.

Child neglect: The General Assembly created a new category of crime for those who neglect children. O'Malley wanted to make neglect a felony; lawmakers would make it a misdemeanor.

Interlock for drunk drivers: Drunk drivers who far exceed the blood-alcohol limit will be required to use ignition interlock devices on their vehicles. Drivers who decline to take a breathalyzer test would also be required to use the devices. Anyone who declines to participate would have their license revoked.

Stents: A pair of bills aims to track and curtail the use of unnecessary medical procedures, such as heart stents, through information sharing. The move comes amid an investigation of stent procedures at St. Joseph Hospital.

Health care exchanges: The legislature approved a framework for a market allowing the purchase and sale of health insurance, a structure that must be in place before the federal health overhaul can go forward in the state.

Wine shipping: Beginning July 1, Marylanders can get up to 18 cases of wine per year shipped directly to their homes. Wineries must pay $200 per year to ship to Maryland.

Primary date: Under pressure from the national Democratic and Republican parties, Maryland moved the date for the 2012 presidential primary to April. The 2008 primary was in February. The legislation also moves the 2014 gubernatorial primary to June. The 2010 primary was in September.

Independent expenditure reporting: Reacting to last year's Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision, Maryland will impose reporting requirements on groups that spend $10,000 or more on ads and other material in campaigns, either for candidates or ballot issues. These "independent expenses" currently go undocumented by the State Board of Elections. Groups will have to disclose the identity of donors and more.

Online voter registration: Marylanders would be able to register to vote without leaving their homes. Republicans objected, noting that the $245,000 cost of creating a new system comes from the Fair Campaign Fund, cash that taxpayers gave to the State Board of Elections with the belief it would be used as public funds for gubernatorial campaigns.

Baltimore water bills: Lawmakers would make it more difficult for the city to seize a home for unpaid water bills by raising the trigger amount from $250 to $350 and the number of months delinquent from six to nine.

Employer credit checks: After constitutents complained about lost job opportunities over bad credit, the legislature limited when employers can pull the credit report of a job applicant or employee.

Dining with dogs: Beginning July 1, restaurants would be able to let owners bring their dogs for outdoor dining.

Phone books: Phone companies would no longer be required to deliver the White Pages to residential customers every year. Customers can access the white pages online, or request an electronic or print copy free of charge.

Didn't quite make it:

Gay marriage: The Senate wanted the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but the measure did not find enough support in the House, where the leadership sent it back to committee.

Transgender anti-discrimination: Though the House approved a plan to prohibit employers, creditors and housing authorities from discriminating against transgendered people, the Senate on Monday bottled up the bill in a committee, killing it for the year.

Septic system ban: O'Malley proposed a ban on septic systems in most large new developments; lawmakers, concerned about the impact on rural areas, opted to study the idea.

Wind energy: Nervous about the potential costs to utilities ratepayers, lawmakers sent O'Malley's idea to create an offshore wind farm to summer study.

Farm estate tax: Though O'Malley backed the bipartisan effort, legislative committees sidelined a proposal to offer estate tax breaks to relatives who inherit farmland and intend to keep it that way, citing the estimated $2 million cost.

Abortion: Lawmakers were aghast at news that a New Jersey doctor had started abortions in his state and completed them in Maryland, but rejected an effort by conservatives to regulate the procedure more closely. The state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is charged with writing new rules over the summer.

Negro Mountain: Lawmakers declined to appoint a commission to rename the Western Maryland mountain, the current name of which some called offensive and outdated.

Statues: Senate decides not to remove a statue of founding father John Hanson to make room for one of Underground Railroad hero Harriett Tubman in the National Statuary Hall Collection of the U.S. Capitol.

Fits both categories:

Cell phone use while driving: The legislature expanded the existing ban on writing texts while driving to prohibit reading them, as well. But a Senate committee squashed House legislation that would have authorized police to pull over drivers for using their handheld cells. A driver must also be committing another offense to be issued a citation for talking on the phone.

And let's not forget:

State budget: The General Assembly approved a $14.6 state operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, closing a budget gap of about $1.5 billion. Part of a $34 billion spending plan that includes federal contributions and other pots of money, the general fund spending plan includes several fee increases, raising the cost of obtaining a birth certificate, getting a vanity license plate and recording real estate transactions, among others.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:49 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

April 11, 2011

Senate approves increase to alcohol sales tax

The Senate just agreed to a 50 percent hike to the sales tax on alcohol, moving the tax from 6 percent to 9 percent.

There was almost no debate in the chamber about the bill, a far cry from the House debate where the GOP caucus sought to slow down the process by giving lengthy speeches on procedural votes.

The tax raises about $85 million and at this at this point the legislature has only spent $30 million of it. Cash will go for operating costs at Prince George's County and Baltimore City schools and the developmentally disabled.

The Senate is now debating a separate bill that allocates the rest of the money to school construction in the largest counties and adds more for developmentally disabled. The GOP is fighting harder on that portion of the bill -- with Sen. Getty trying to add an amendment sending the extra cash to the ailing pension fund instead.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:43 PM | | Comments (16)

Tuition breaks for illegal immigrants goes to gov

Both the Maryland Senate and the House of Delegates agreed on a compromise plan to extend in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, sending the controversial legislation to the governor's desk.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign the bill. Cheers erupted from undocumented students sitting in the House galleries when delegates cast their final votes. The bill passed the House on a vote of 74 to 65, a preliminary tally shows.

The House move came about an hour after the Senate passed the compromise 27 to 19.

The measure allows undocumented students who've attended three years of Maryland high school to qualify for discounted tuition at state universities and colleges.

The compromise measure requires male students to sign up for selective service. Also the undocumented students will not count against the requirement that 70 percent of students are Maryland residents. Students will be able to start their higher education in Fall 2011.

The bill also tightens requirements that students or their parents pay taxes: They must show that income taxes were withheld for three years prior to starting. The House-Senate committee removed an amendment added by Del. Luiz Simmons that loosened the tax paying requirement.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:14 PM | | Comments (75)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Medical marijuana measures head to governor

Maryland will study how to develop a medical marijuana distribution system, and decriminalize small amounts of pot for sick people, under legislation now headed to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk for a promised signature.

The more controversial portion of the two-part bill provides an "affirmative defense" for sick people arrested with 1 ounce or less of marijuana. If the person convinces a judge or jury of a "medical necessity" for the drug, he or she would be found not guilty.

The new law will go a step further that what Maryland already has on the books. Right now, a person showing medical necessity receives a lower sentence -- a $100 citation -- but still has a conviction on his or her criminal record.

Also under the legislation, the state will begin to study of how to develop and implement a medical marijuana distribution system. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:03 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Senate quashes transgender equality bill

The Senate has ended debate for the year on a bill that would have protected transgendered people from employment, credit and housing discrimination.

"The Senate’s treatment of this legislation will be remembered for a long time by the LGBT community and Marylanders who believe in equal rights for all," Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. wrote in a statement this afternoon. A Montgomery County Democrat and the chamber's only openly gay member, Madaleno vowed to file the legislation again next year.

Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, who sponsored the bill, said in an email that she is "greatly disappointed."

"After going through the painstaking process and getting so close to passage of [the bill], the Senate shamefully voted to not even give the bill an up or down vote," the Prince George's County Democrat said. "By this action, the Senate has allowed housing and employment discrimination against a vulnerable community to go unchecked."

A 27-20 vote to send the measure back to a Senate committee capped weeks of fits and starts.

The House of Delegates gave final passage just before the crossover deadline a little over two weeks ago. But in break from protocol, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sent the bill to the Rules Committee, rather than one that directly vets legislation. Rules did end up moving the bill to the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which in turn passed it along to the Senate floor.

Instead of being debated on the floor this morning, Sen. James E. DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, asked that it be sent back to Judicial Proceedings. Miller and other Democrats joined 11 of the 12 Senate Republicans in voting to doom the bill. 

Senators were reluctant to debate the controversial issue on the final day of legislative work. Opponents said the legislation might go to far. For example, they said, schools and child care facilities should be exempted so that parents of young children are not forced to contend with questions about gender identity before they are ready to do so. 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:50 PM | | Comments (30)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

House and Senate breaking - still much to do

The House and the Senate are both breaking until around 6 p.m., but there's still much to do ... or as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller put it: "The tough stuff still needs to get done."

Miller said that the body will "find a way" to pass a bill that allows in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. The bill was stalled by a Senate filibuster and House and Senate members are hashing out some differences.

Much of Gov. Martin O'Malley's agenda won't get done: A bill that would have created a wind farm off the Eastern Shore and another measure limiting septic tanks in new developments were both shelved.

The governor said in an interview this afternoon that the two ideas were difficult because they required "a shift not only in the way we think and the way we act."

"The forces of tradition, the forces of the we have always done things always have a lot more stakeholders in the hallways of the state house than the people who stand to benefit from a new way of doing this," O'Malley said.

"I think the size of one and the sweep of the other made the General Assembly choke on those," O'Malley said.

Miller shot back this afternoon that he wished O'Malley had "choked" before announcing the septic tank legislation. The governor surprised members of the General Assembly when he mentioned it in his State of the State address.

The Senate President called both bills "laudable goals" but said the legislature just isn't ready for them.

Miller had better news for the Invest Maryland bill that O'Malley is still pushing. The legislation creates at $75 million venture capital fund to be invested in Maryland firms. It passed this afternoon in the Senate.

Still up in the air is the alcohol tax: Miller said "it is going to be tough for people to swallow." House wants to increase the tax rate on beer, wine and liquor by 50 percent. In the first year much of the extra cash would go toward building schools in Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

O'Malley said he did not have a problem with the school construction allocations -- saying that the Eastern Shore (which does not receive much of the revenue) has received more school construction money over the past four years than many had expected.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 4:45 PM | | Comments (2)

Senate rejects House plan on tuition for immigrants

As key Democrats appeared to withdraw support for a plan to provide in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, the upper chamber voted to reject the House's version of the bill. The move, which followed the beginning of a filibuster attempt, means the two chambers have hours to work out their differences.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports the tuition bills, told senators "it's not fair" that the House took so long to develop a plan. He noted that the Senate initially passed the legislation March 14, and it took the House until today -- Sine Die -- to send it back with revisions. (It actually could have come up during Saturday's Senate session but did not.)

In-state tuition could be the nail-biter of the day, though as colleague Annie Linskey writes, much work also remains to be done on a politically freighted issue of whether to raise the sales tax on alcohol.

Republicans appear ready for a fight on both issues. On tuition, Sen. David Brinkley (pictured right) rose to begin a filibuster when he saw that some Democrats who had voted "yes" on the Senate proposal voted "no" on agreeing to the House version. The Senate first adopted the House version by a vote of 24-23.

Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, read from Born to Run as Democrats scurried to develop a new plan of action. Miller said his party could not reach the 29 votes necessary to end the filibuster. Instead, Democrats rallied to reconsider the concurrence to the House measure -- a move that incensed education committee Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway, who said the Senate should keep the House proposal as her committee had suggested.

Senators differed greatly on whether the House plan makes it tougher or easier for illegal immigrants to access the tuition breaks. Some senators complained that the chamber's carefully crafted plan on how immigrant families must show they've paid state taxes appears to have been scuttled by a long, technical amendment attached to the bill last week by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons.

The Simmons amendment seems to toughen the tax proof requirement by calling for 90 days of withholdings to be shown -- but it simultaneously provides an out for family members who have a disability or other reason they can't work. Some senators also objected to a House plan to count undocumented students as out-of-state pupils even though they'll be paying the in-state rates.

In March, the Senate voted 27-20 to approve on the tuition bill. On the original motion today to concur with the House version, Democratic Sens. John Astle of Anne Arundel County, Ed Kasemeyer of Baltimore County and Jim Robey of Howard County voted no.

Check out this blog to see how all 141 delegates and 47 senators voted on the in-state tuition bills.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:55 PM | | Comments (32)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Immigration

House *still* debating hike in tax rate

** UPDATE: Part 1 of alcohol tax bill passed the House (78 to 62). The bill must go to the Senate, it hikes the sales tax on alcohol from 6 to 9 percent and allocates about $50 million in revenues for school construction in the largest counties. A second measure is still on the table. It increases the sales tax too, and allocates a different portion of the money for school operations in Baltimore and Prince George's counties.  

** Original Post
GOP members of the House of Delegates are trying their best to gum up the passage of a 50 percent hike in the sales tax on beer, wine and liquor.

The caucus members are all taking advantage of a rule that enables each member to explain their vote for two minutes ... and they are doing so on the procedural and the substantive votes. The body had been debating the tax increase since noon.

Republican members jumped to their feet and hollered with outrage when the vote was called at 12:30 p.m. They are still explaining their votes.

Some Democrats appear to be joining the GOP in opposition. (But aren't tying up floor time by explaining their votes.) We caught up with Democrat Del. John Bohanan, is the vice-chairman on the Appropriations Committee, and said he does not support the tax hike because the budget was balanced without it.

Republicans have been complaining about the way the revenues from the taxes will be distributed to counties. The large counties get tens of millions. The smaller counties split a couple million.

Bohanan concurred with the concern. He explained the distribution thusly: "It gives you the votes you need to pass the bill."
Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:43 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Set date night with Fido for July 1

Dog lovers could bring their four-legged friends to friendly restaurants with outdoor dining areas under a plan passed today by the Senate and headed to the governor's desk.

The statewide bill permits restaurants with outdoor patios and tables to welcome dogs, starting July 1. Many bars and restaurants have long been looking the other way (as you can see from the Basset Hound pictured left at a popular Annapolis bar).

Dog-owning Gov. Martin O'Malley will sign the bill -- and might well participate, said spokesman Shaun Adamec. The first family has two dogs; their beloved Lady recently passed away, Adamec reports.

Del. Dan Morhaim, who sponsored the legislation, believes it will provide a financial boost for restaurants and bars heading into the outdoor dining season.

Not all senators were panting over the proposal, which gained final passage this morning. Sen. Delores Kelley said people should not be able to bring dogs to eateries, saying people pet them and then touch utensils -- among other nasty habits.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:50 AM | | Comments (35)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Out like a (liberal) lion? Session 2011 ends today

We've almost made it to the end of another legislative session, dear Maryland Politics readers.

The atmosphere in Annapolis is jubilant, thanks to the sunny weather and impending conclusion of legislative work. But as we barrel toward the midnight confetti drop, it's important to remember that many weighty -- and progressive -- issues remain.

Among them: a 50 percent hike to the sales tax on alcohol, in-state tuition for undocumented students, decriminalizing marijuana for the sick, a transgender discrimination ban and assistance for the cash-strapped horse racing industry

Gov. Martin O'Malley has his fingers crossed that the Invest Maryland venture capital legislation makes it to his desk, especially because several of his signature proposals this year have been converted to studies.

The 188 lawmakers are eager to conclude their first chunk of work, though they'll be coming back this fall for a special session on redistricting and more. Lobbyists crowded the State House entry this morning for one last push (pictured: photo by Annie Linskey).

This morning, we examined some of the projected winners and losers for the session, with an eye toward the seemingly conflicting messages the legislature sometimes sends.

Lawmakers largely avoided new taxes, though they had no problem imposing millions of dollars in new fees.

They tightened up a prohibition on texting while driving, but shied away from letting officers pull over drivers who are chatting away on their handheld cell phones.

And while legislators decried the use of bisphenol A in plastic materials, they decided they needed more time to explore the harm caused by trace amounts of arsenic in chickens.

Additional winners and losers will be minted by midnight. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (pictured during 2010 confetti drop) wield extra power today.

The Democratic leaders set the schedule, determining which issues to vet first, and which to hold for "later."

Already in the Senate this morning, jokes are being made about taking up issues after the in-state tuition debate, which could take up a considerable amount of time today. 

Leaders in both chambers also are bracing for a long haul on the alcohol tax. The House and Senate have approved different plans, and each much take up the politically freighted issue again before midnight.

Follow @annielinskey and @bykowicz on Twitter for news from the legislative floors. 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:42 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

April 10, 2011

Van Hollen reserves judgment on spending deal

Noting that it's not yet clear which programs would be cut, Rep. Chris Van Hollen said he is reserving judgment on the 11th-hour spending plan negotiated Friday between the White House and Republicans in Congress.

Uncertainty over the specifics of the proposal, which broadly calls for $38 billion in cuts, could make for another messy showdown when the measure comes up for a vote this week. Congress passed a stop-gap spending plan Saturday to give lawmakers until April 15 to work out the details of the bill.

Montgomery County's Van Hollen, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Sunday that lawmakers are still "sifting through" the specifics of the proposal. "We don't know yet what the cuts are," he said.

Van Hollen appeared on ABC's "This Week." He said he does ultimately expect Congress to approve the spending bill, which will fund the government through September.

Rep. Mike Pence, who squared off with Van Hollen on the program, said he did not expect to support the deal but said he, too, is still waiting for specifics. Pence, an Indiana Republican, authored a provision that would have cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That "policy rider" became a sticking point in talks last week and ultimately was not included in the deal.

"This county's in trouble," Pence said. "We were asking for a 2 percent cut in the budget and that ended up being too much of a cut."

Posted by John Fritze at 10:59 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Washington

April 9, 2011

House panel wants a 50 percent hike to alcohol taxes

** Update: After a six hour debate, the House of Delegates Saturday night gave initial approval for measures that increase the tax rate on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent and dedicate the revenues to education and the developmentally disabled (for one year.) The bills have a ways to go, and not much time before Gov. Martin O'Malley can sign: They need final passage in the House Monday and must be approved by the Senate the same day.

** Original post:
The House Ways & Means Committee Saturday afternoon approved a pair of bills that will increase the sales taxes on beer, wine and liquor from 6 percent to 9 percent, and dedicate most of the extra money to school construction in the state's largest counties.

The additional revenues are not needed to balance the state's budget, which has already passed in both chambers. The tax will raise about $85 million for the budget year starting July 1. A portion of the cash will also go to Maryland's Developmentally Disabled Administration, which has years long waiting lists for programs. (See proposed school construction allocations after the jump.)

Lobbyists for the disabled hung around the committee room and gleefully grabbed reporters on the way out. They've long targeted the alcohol tax as a funding source for their programs.

The state's powerful liquor lobby appeared gloomier (photographed on the right). Representatives from the wholesale, distributor and retail layers opposed the tax saying that it would cause Marylanders to buy alcohol elsewhere. The plan, however, was not as odious to them as a different proposal that would have increased the excise tax on alcohol.

Republican lawmakers said the new tax will cause job losses and hurt the economy. "We are still in a Great Recession," said Del. Mark N. Fisher, from Calvert County.

They also objected on procedural grounds: Because the bill came up so late in the Senate, the House never had a full hearing on the measure and opponents didn't have a chance to speak before the committee.

Democratic lawmakers brushed off that concern: They'd heard a similar bill that hiked the excise tax on alcohol in previous years and felt the arguments would be very similar.

Proposed allocation of revenues from increase to alcohol tax:

Developmental Disabilities Administration:
The agency would receive $15 million

School construction money:
*Anne Arundel County: $5 million
*Baltimore City: $9 million
*Baltimore County: $7 million
*Howard County: $4 million
*Montgomery County: $9 million
*Prince George's County: $9 million
*Eight Eastern Shore counties: $1.25 million (Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne's, Somerset, Talbot, *Wicomico and Worcester)
*Five Western Maryland counties: $750K (Allegany, Garrett, Washington, Carroll and Frederick)
*Three Southern Maryland counties: $750K (Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's)
*Two N. Maryland counties: $1.25 million (Cecil and Harford)

Education aid:
* Baltimore city: $12.2 million
* Prince George's County: $8.8 million

Posted by Annie Linskey at 5:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

House affirms affirmative defense for marijuana

The House of Delegates on Saturday gave final passage to a plan to decriminalize marijuana possession for the sick.

The bill, which also includes a medical marijuana study component, must be adopted by the Senate (which has already blessed a slightly different bill) before the conclusion of the legislative session Monday night. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign the proposal into law.

Lawmakers are looking to extend the affirmative defense option as Maryland officials research a plan to develop and implement a system for the prescription and distribution of medical marijuana. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use.

Under the House's affirmative defense proposal, a person arrested for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana could present a doctor's note, medical paperwork or the live testimony of a doctor in court as evidence of a medical necessity for the drug. The judge or jury would have to be convinced of the necessity by a preponderance of the evidence in order to find the person not guilty, the House plan states.

Delegates registered objections to the affirmative defense portion of the proposal, but an amendment to strip that portion out of the larger medical marijuana bill failed on a vote of 42-79.

Del. Theodore Sophocleus, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, asked colleagues how the legislature could "put our stamp of approval" on what is listed as a Schedule One drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Why rush in Maryland to circumvent the FDA process?" Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican asked, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's lack of action on medical marijuana.

Del. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat, defended the bill as a "half-step" forward for medical marijuana. In 2003, the state legislature allowed sick people arrested for marijuana possession to present medical evidence as a way to secure a more lenient sentence of a $100 fine.

But lawmakers said they'd heard compelling testimony from patients who felt it was unfair that they be marred by the criminal conviction that comes with those lesser penalties.

"They've been saddled with a criminal conviction that has ruined their lives," said Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat.

The legislature's only medical doctor, Morhaim has spearheaded the legislation in the House. On the Senate side, Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, and Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat -- both cancer survivors -- are leading the effort.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:54 PM | | Comments (20)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Most Md. lawmakers cheer budget deal

Most members of Maryland’s congressional delegation backed a last-minute agreement reached late Friday night that will avert a government shutdown and cut nearly $40 billion in spending from the federal budget.

After days of behind-the-scenes negotiations and bitter public exchanges between the White House and the Republican-led House of Representatives, President Barack Obama, with the National Mall visible behind him, said he was “pleased to announce that the Washington Monument, as well as the entire federal government, will be open for business.”

The deal, which is headed to a vote next week, would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, which runs through September. Overnight, Congress passed a separate, short-term funding bill to keep the government running through April 15 in order to give both sides more time to finalize the agreement.

Without an agreement, the government would have shut down today. Experts and elected officials predicted that would have had a more widespread impact in Maryland than most other states because of its high concentration of federal employees and contractors.

Maryland Democrats supported the short-term measure and the state’s two Republican members in the House split their vote: Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett backed the funding measure while Rep. Andy Harris joined 28 Republicans and 42 Democrats in voting against it. In all, the House vote was 348-70 in favor of the proposal. The Senate approved the measure on a voice vote.

Harris said in an interview he was particularly concerned about Department of Defense cuts included in the short-term measure, especially given recent U.S. involvement in Libya. Asked whether the brinkmanship that led up to the agreement presages even tougher fights ahead, Harris said: "I think it does show just how hard it is to decrease spending in Washington."

Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said in a statement that “the American people won when Congress voted to avoid a shutdown.

“Now it’s time to turn our attention to meeting the important challenges that face our nation,” he said. “Those include reducing our deficit in a way that preserves important programs for American families, protecting our environment, and helping to grow our economy for the future.”

“It was time for Democrats and Republicans to come to the table, compromise accordingly and get the job done,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. “I am still not pleased with the draconian cuts that balance our recovery on the backs of the middle class and most vulnerable in our society. However, I am pleased that the government will be able to provide critical services, with museum and park doors kept open, and 800,000 federal employees hard at work.”

Rep. Donna F. Edwards said that a shutdown would have been a “disaster” for children, seniors and federal workers.

“It is no small victory that the 150,000 federal workers in my district, the 700,000 in the metropolitan area, and the 2.1 million across the country will continue to receive paychecks and our children and seniors will continue to receive essential services,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said in a statement.

Members of both parties cast the agreement as a victory over the other side.

“I am pleased that Republicans backed away from their hard line position of shutting the government down over divisive social issues,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland, said in a statement. “I will carefully review the details to ensure it contains spending cuts that do not greatly harm our ability to create jobs and invest in our economy. I believe that we must reduce the deficit, but it can be done in a way that protects investments in our future.”

House Republicans said they hoped to put the current-year funding debate behind them so they could move on to next year’s budget.

“We need to move forward and get to work on the much larger debate over how to cut trillions, not billions, in government spending and help make our economy more competitive,” said Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican who heads the House Republican Policy Committee.

Posted by John Fritze at 1:26 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Washington

April 8, 2011

In-state tuition for illegal immigrants moves ahead

The House of Delegates voted Friday to extend in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants -- the highest hurdle so far for a plan that has already passed the Senate.

(Click here to see how Senators voted; House roll call vote here.)

Delegates engaged in heated debate before approving the legislation by a close vote of 74 to 66. It now returns to the Senate, which has until the Monday night conclusion of session to concur with the House version.

One of the differences in the two chambers' proposals emerged just today, with an amendment to loosen the requirement that an undocumented student show his or her family has paid state taxes.

Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons crafted language to allow a student to convince school officials that relatives have a "serious and substantial reason" they are unable to pay taxes, for instance, because of serious illness.

Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, called the amendment "a modest safety valve." Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said it is more like "a loophole" large enough to accommodate a Greyhound bus.

(pictured: Casa de Maryland director Gustavo Torres embraces Del. Anne Kaiser, the bill floor leader, after the passage of in-state tuition.)

The House also requires that qualified undocumented students register for Selective Service and wants colleges and universities to count the illegal immigrants as out-of-state students so that they do not take seats from other Marylanders.

House passage of a tuition bill came after two days of debate. Yesterday, bill supporters fended off 13 amendment attempts. Simmons' amendment, considered friendly, was adopted, but other amendment attempts today failed.

Under the proposal, an undocumented student who attended at least three years of high school in Maryland and whose parents have paid state taxes would qualify for in-state tuition rates at a community college. After completing two years, he or she could transfer to a four-year institution and again pay the in-state rate.

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.

One fiscal analysis shows the state would pay about $800,000 next year in state aid to community colleges and cost about $3.5 million by 2016.

At least 10 states extend in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:47 PM | | Comments (69)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Immigration

Senate wants city to explain lead paint payments

Maryland's state senate adopted a last-minute amendment to the capital budget that asks Baltimore's city government to explain how they will satisfy outstanding payments owed to residents who won judgments against the city in lead paint cases.

The amendment, offered by Baltimore Sen. Cathy Pugh, does not carry the force of law. It was approved by voice vote.

The House and Senate have passed different versions of the state's $1.45 billion capital budget. Pugh's amendment is one of many differences that will have to be worked out in conference committee meetings over the next 96 hours.

Pugh said she became outraged after reading a Baltimore Sun story that revealed the city's housing authority had no intention to pay roughly $12 million owed the victims of lead paint poisoning. “I think this is unconscionable," Pugh said. "We owe our citizens better than that.”

She denied this signaled her making a move into the 2011 mayor’s race. “This has nothing to do with that,” she said. But the second half of her answer was decidedly political: "It was not about taking a pot shot at the mayor or the city housing. It was a reaction to their lack of response to the public," she said. 

An earlier draft of the amendment tied up funds for youth facility until a report was issues. The amendment that passed does not do that.
The housing authority’s refusal to pay, coupled with the fact that it has spent $3.8 million since 2005 to fight lead poisoning claims, is “just ridiculous,” Pugh said.

She talked about the well-documented harm caused by lead poisoning, including mental disabilities and behavioral problems that can lead to incarceration.

“It just makes no sense that we think we can walk away from a responsibility like this.”

Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:33 PM | | Comments (1)

Md. lawmakers to donate salary during shutdown

With the federal government hours away from shutting down, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and a growing number of other Maryland lawmakers vowed Friday to donate salary to charity if Congress fails to meet tonight's deadline to pass a spending plan.

The Baltimore County Democrat is one of a number of lawmakers across the country, both Republican and Democrat, making similar pledges to forgo pay during a possible shutdown as the government prepares to furlough roughly 800,000 federal employees and delay pay for members of the military, including those in combat overseas.

“With all of the political maneuvering going on between Republican and Democrats in Congress, I want to be clear. If the government shuts down, I will forego my taxpayer-funded paycheck. If federal employees are not paid, I will not be paid. If our troops are not paid, I will not be paid,” Ruppersberger said in a statement. “It is shameful that those elected to office cannot reach a compromise to keep our government up and running and Congress should not be rewarded for its inability to work together.”

Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, earns $174,000 a year, the base pay for most rank-and-file members of Congress. He said he would donate the money to the Army Emergency Relief Fund, which helps military families with emergency food, utilities and medical expenses.

Updated: – Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has also signed a pledge to forgo her pay during a shutdown.

“If we shut down the government and federal employees and contractors don’t get paid, Congress shouldn't get paid,” the Maryland Democrat said. “And not only should Congress not get paid, no back-pay, no way.”

More than two dozen senators have signed the pledge, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Sherron Brown, D-Ohio.

Updated: Rep. Andy Harris also said Friday he would donate pay if the government shuts down. "Because federal employees and our service men and women don’t get paid during a possible government shutdown, neither should I," the Maryland Republican said in a statement. “I plan to donate ... my earnings during the potential shutdown to a worthy charity.”

Posted by John Fritze at 3:08 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Washington

Pugh wants answers from Baltimore Housing

Baltimore Sen. Cathy Pugh is demanding that the city's housing department develop a plan to pay judgments owed to Baltimore residents poisoned by lead paint in city houses -- and is threatening to hold up about $17 million in funding until the report is finished.

A drafting error in Pugh's amendment held up the vote for now, but several senators, including GOP leader Nancy Jacobs, stood up to support it during a brief debate. The vote is expected in about an hour or so.

Pugh is offering an amendment to the state's capital budget that would stop funds for planning a controversial youth detention center in Baltimore city until the report is issued. There have been rumors flying in Annapolis that Pugh is gunning to challenge Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and today's move, with its implicit criticism of city government, could be the first step.

Pugh acknowledged that the amendment is largely symbolic: The youth facility is already on delay.

The Sun's Scott Calvert reported on Sunday that Baltimore's housing authority is refusing to make good on any of nine court judgments totaling nearly $12 million, even though in some cases it agreed to the dollar amount or lost an appeal.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake concurred with the housing authority's position, telling The Sun:  "It is not possible" to make the payments.

More From Calvert's Sunday story:

Since 2005 the city's housing agency has spent $3.8 million defending against lead paint cases, trying a succession of courtroom strategies that one plaintiff's lawyer likened to legal Whac-A-Mole. The authority's lawyers have argued that it is immune to lawsuits. They've argued it's too strapped to be sued. They've argued most of its assets are federal and therefore off limits. They've been accused in court of stalling.

City Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano acknowledges the lasting damage caused by lead-based paint. But legal arguments aside, he says the agency – the fifth-largest housing authority in the country, with a $300 million annual budget, according to its website – simply cannot afford to pay. Besides the judgments already entered against it, the housing authority faces 175 additional lead-paint cases whose potential claims exceed $800 million.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:06 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Councilman: Sell naming rights to city buildings

Sun colleague Jean Marbella reports:

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young has an idea for how the city can raise some much needed revenue: Sell itself.

Under legislation Young wants the council to consider, corporations would be invited to sponsor city buildings or programs, such as a city pool that might otherwise have to close because of budget cuts.

In exchange for their sponsorship, companies could get “visibility on City vehicles, logo space in City mailings, and more,” Young said in the introductory copy of the bill, which he plans to introduce at Monday’s council City Council meeting.

While corporate sponsorships are increasingly common when it comes to events or sports facilities — such as M&T Bank’s naming rights to Ravens Stadium, this would open up another level of private involvement in public programs and buildings.

Asked whether any city assets, such as City Hall itself, would be excluded from a corporate sponsorship, Young’s spokesman said such details have not yet been worked out.

“The Council President wants to make sure potential sponsorships are tastefully done,” spokesman Lester Davis said.

Young’s proposal calls for city staff to research what laws regulate the kinds of arrangements the city can enter into and then to create “a systemic approach to corporate sponsorships.”

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 2:01 PM | | Comments (7)

Mikulski fights Planned Parenthood budget provision

Vowing to “punch back” against attempts to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski accused the GOP of playing politics by attaching the controversial provision to a stop-gap budget measure needed to avoid a government shutdown this weekend.

Lawmakers in Washington appeared to be making progress toward an agreement that would keep the government afloat while cutting federal spending by $38 billion, but Democrats accused Republicans of jeopardizing the momentum with a handful of “policy riders” that dredged up longstanding debates over abortion and environmental protection regulations.

“We’re talking about the ‘a’ word,” the Maryland Democrat said, referring to “abortion” but, she added, “I want to talk about the ‘j’ word,” she said, meaning “jobs.” Speaking at a press conference on Capitol Hill with other Democratic female senators, Mikulski accused Republicans of changing “the topic from jobs, since they didn’t know how to do it.”

Mikulski is the Senate’s most senior female member.

Republicans, meanwhile, rejected the characterization that the budget battle had shifted to social issues. “There’s only one reason that we do not have an agreement as yet, and that issue is spending,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. “We are close to a resolution on the policy issues.”

Planned Parenthood provides abortion assistance. Democrats note it provides other women’s health services, too.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations continued Friday as the clock ticked toward midnight’s deadline to resolve the impasse or face a shutdown that would close federal agencies and furlough as many as 800,000 federal employees nationwide.

Despite making progress on some of the fiscal issues, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told The Sun in an interview Friday that it is hard to be optimistic for a final agreement. “In effect, they’re holding the government hostage,” the Maryland Democrat said of Republicans. “The ransom being exactly what they ask for.”

State and local officials, meanwhile, continued as best they could to prepare for a shutdown. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called an afternoon meeting with city agency leaders to discuss the potential impact.

Posted by John Fritze at 1:11 PM | | Comments (34)
Categories: Washington

Father of slain solider visits Maryland General Assembly

Albert Snyder, a man who has become the face of a movement to respect the families of slain U.S. soldiers, earned standing ovations when he visited Maryland's House and Senate chambers this morning.

Snyder's son Matthew was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, a handful of publicity-seeking church members stood outside his son's funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, waving signs that said "God Hates America" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

A Maryland jury awarded Albert Snyder a multimillion-dollar judgment in his lawsuit against the church whose members organized the protest. The issue was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the case.

Snyder now combs the internet looking for state legislatures that are considering laws would require buffer zones between funerals and protesters. Sens. Bryan Simonaire and Roy Dyson have introduced a measure (S.B. 977) to keep picketers 500 feet away from the services.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:06 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Ways and Means hears alcohol tax plan

Delegates this morning quizzed senate sponsors of the proposed alcohol tax about whether the three year phase in period could be deleted and the entire hike could be implemented in a single year. The committee has not yet voted on the bill.

The Senate-passed version of the measure bumps up the state sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent over three years. Senators want to use the revenues in the first year to fund health care for the developmentally disabled and provide a one-time grant to schools in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

The proceeds are not required to balance the budget.

Del. Joline Ivey, a Democrat from Prince George's County, noted that the "psychological impact" of raising the tax over three years might cause fatigue. "Post all of it at once," she said.  Ivey said that the phased-in approach could be problematic to retailers who would have to recalibrate their cash registers three years in a row to accommodate the slowly rising tax. 

Sen. Richard Madaleno, a sponsor on the tax, noted that there isn't a lot of time left to make wholesale changes to the bill. "It is a little late in session to go a different direction," Madaleno said. "There are 96 hours left."

Opposition to the measure is also jelling. The Restaurant Association of Maryland opposes the bill now, arguing that reprogramming cash registers to accommodate rate increases could cost anywhere from "$300 to several thousand dollars."

Lobbyists from Maryland's liquor industry, who initially held their tongues on the legislation, are now opposing it because of the expected loss in alcohol sales. A legislative analysis estimated that there would be an 8 percent reduction in the purchase of spirits, three percent reduction in wine sales and a 3 percent reduction in beer sales. 

Posted by Annie Linskey at 10:41 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

April 7, 2011

House begins in-state tuition debate

Delegates spent hours Thursday afternoon discussing a proposal to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at community colleges and four-year universities. The proposal, which has already passed the Senate, is scheduled for final consideration Friday morning in the House of Delegates.

Undocumented students who would benefit from the legislation — as well as immigrant advocates and supportive clergy from Baltimore, Montgomery County and elsewhere — listened from the House galleries. An even larger group is planning to attend Friday, activists said.

Thursday’s discussion remained relatively technical, with 13 amendments offered and rejected as opponents unsuccessfully tried to chip away at the bill.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel characterized the debate as “a difference in policies and principles.”

“Some of us want a bigger tent,” said the Eastern Shore Republican, who opposes the tuition bill. “Some of us believe that we do something to our society when the word ‘illegal’ not longer means illegal.”

Republican members raised questions about how much the plan would cost.

One fiscal analysis shows the state would pay about $800,000 next year in state aid to community colleges and cost about $3.5 million by 2016. Colleges and universities have said they can absorb a bump in enrollment without raising tuition, and bill advocates said other states that provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants counted such students as about 1 percent of their enrollment population.

Del. Anne Kaiser, who led the floor debate on the bill, said the cost should be weighed against the benefits of educating all Marylanders. “Many of us believe this should be a priority,” said the Montgomery County Democrat. “There’s room for everyone who wants an education.”

Under the proposal, an undocumented student who attended at least three years of high school in Maryland and whose parents have paid state taxes would qualify for in-state tuition rates at a community college. After completing two years, he or she could transfer to a four-year institution and again pay the in-state rate.

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.

Advocates said students who would benefit from the lower tuition rates often were brought illegally to the country as young children and know no other place as home.

“You shouldn’t punish students about a decision their parents made,” Kaiser said.

Opponents had a different take.

“They come here to game the system,” said Del. Richard K. Impallaria. The Republican, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said students who’d lobbied him on the bill had made the choice to come to America illegally to live with aunts and uncles while their parents remained in their native land. “It seems very unfair and very unbalance,” he said, noting schools are already “overcrowded.”

At least 10 other states give illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition rates. Kaiser said Maryland’s plan would be “the most arduous in the country,” saying that none of the other states call for proof of taxes paid and three years of attendance at state high schools.

States are required to provide kindergarten through 12th grade education to residents regardless of immigration status. Kaiser said many illegal immigrants pay taxes. In Maryland, more than 36,000 people have registered tax identification numbers, which do not require social security numbers, she said, and many of them are likely to be illegal immigrants.

The General Assembly passed similar tuition legislation in 2003, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would sign the bill into law.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:04 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Immigration

Lawmakers to study O'Malley's wind energy plan

The General Assembly is giving the "study" treatment to another of Gov. Martin O'Malley's major environmental policies. Offshore wind farms will join a septic system prohibition in summer school, our colleagues at B'More Green are reporting.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton said his committee this afternoon determined they would stop working on the bill and move on to other matters. The panel will not vote on the bill. "There is a lot more work to go into this if we are going to fully understand the impact," Middleton said.

From the blog entry:

Legislation aimed at boosting offshore wind development in Maryland has been tabled for further study amid lawmakers' concerns about the cost to consumers, according to Shaun Adamec, Gov. Martin O'Malley's press secretary.

O'Malley's spokesman said the setback was "not unexpected," given the debate and persistent questions being raised about the governor's bill, HB1054/SB861, which would have required Maryland utilities sign long-term contracts to buy power from offshore wind projects.

With just five days to go, the measure had yet to clear committees in either chamber of the General Assembly. The House Economic Matters committee had been scheduled to vote on it today, and the Senate Finance Committee just recently formed a work group to study the bill.

Adamec said the governor realized when he introduced the bill that offshore wind energy is such a new and complicated concept that it may take more than one year for legislators to endorse subsidizing it. The governor is committed to working with lawmakers on the study, his spokesman said.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:12 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Balto. Co. revenue board releases parking lot bids

The Baltimore County Revenue Authority on Thursday released details of the three bids it received last year in hopes of selling a Parkville parking lot, after insisting for several months that the information could not be made public.

The plan to sell the property on Harford Road near Lavender Avenue last week brought protesters into the street insisting that the parking lot is essential to neighborhood businesses.
The bids, including an offer nearly twice the appraised value made by a developer who has built several Walgreens drug stores, were posted on the agency’s website Thursday afternoon. It’s not clear why the authority decided to release the information now. The agency’s chief executive, William L. Cook II, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ed Pinder, a lawyer active with the Parkville/Carney Business and Professional Association, said the authority has always insisted the bids were private.

“They were always telling us they wouldn’t tell us to protect” the bidders, he said. He speculated that the information has been released now to avoid criticism that “it was all done in secrecy.”

The authority’s five-member board is expected to discuss plans for the Lavender lot at its next scheduled meeting at the end of this month.

The top bid of $530,000 for the property measuring just under half an acre was made by David M. Schlachman, a managing member of DMS Development LLC of Towson.

Schlachman said he did not want to discuss his plans until the authority decides on the bids.
“It’s probably premature now for me to tell you about any plans right now,” he said. “I’m a little superstitious.”

His company’s website says the company has built seven Walgreens drug stores and expects to build four more by the end of the year. The site calls the company a “preferred developer” for Walgreens.

Asked why he bid $530,000 when the property was appraised at $278,000, he said “I wanted to make sure that I would get it.”

The second bid of $406,101 was put in by Richard Klemkowski, a realtor with Prudential Carruthers in Baltimore City. He said his plans would not eliminate all the parking in the lot, which has 56 metered spaces and two for handicapped parking, but he declined to go into further details.

The low bid of $360,000 was made by Joyce Devilbiss and Marlene Wagner. The two women are listed in a Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation database as owners of property on Harford Road near the Lavender lot.

Reached by phone, Devilbiss declined to comment on the bid.

The authority — a quasi-public agency that runs parking garages, metered parking, public golf courses and the Reisterstown Sportsplex — has owned the Lavender lot since the 1950s. Its discussions of selling the lot have raised alarm in the community since last year, when the Greater Parkville Community Council and Parkville/Carney Business and Professional Association organized the first protest on Harford Road in April, 2010.

Ruth Baisden, president of the Greater Parkville Community Council, said the authority is “trying to sell out Parkville.”

-Arthur Hirsch

Posted by Andy Rosen at 2:50 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties

Rolley opens campaign HQ in Hampden

Scores of supporters of Otis Rolley, the former city planning director who is challenging Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for mayor, packed into his campaign headquarters -- a three-story row house on The Avenue in Hampden last night.

"It's a race not just to be mayor, but for the heart and soul of Baltimore," Rolley said in brief speech.

"I love Baltimore. You love Baltimore. Let's translate that love into action," he said. "You don't love Baltimore when you overtax... You don't love Baltimore when you cut the services [people need most.]"

He is running on a platform of lowering property rates, growing neighborhoods and boosting small businesses. Last week, he criticized Rawlings-Blake's budget for cutting funds to recreation and parks and libraries while increasing spending to attract tourism.

Rolley, who served directed the planning department when Martin O'Malley was mayor and was Sheila Dixon's chief of staff for one year, declared it was a "new era for Baltimore."

"It's an end to the old boy's club," he said.

About 60-80 supporters trooped through the campaign headquarters throughout the evening, including entrepreneur Brian LeGette, who founded 180s earmuffs and met Rolley at a leadership training class about a decade ago.

"At the moment we met, I said, 'You're going to be mayor,'" LeGette recalled telling Rolley.

"He has the conviction and passion to overcome a difficult political landscape," said LeGette. "His compass is pointing in the right direction and that's what this city needs."

Entrepreneur Dave Troy, one of Rolley's most vocal supporters, called the campaign headquarters location in Hampden, a historically predominantly white neighborhood, "an inspired choice."

"If we think of Baltimore as one city, we can get past all the things that have divided us in the past," he said. And, he added, that Hampden's mix of small shops and restaurants represented "the kind of thriving main street Otis would like to see replicated throughout the city."

Many attendees said that they had never met Otis before, but had grown interested in his campaign and wanted to see him in person.

"He's got new energy and new ideas," said Gerald Hill, a caseworker from Upper Park Heights. "I like the direction he's heading for the city."

In an interview, Rolley praised the diversity of the crowd. "If Baltimore is going to move forward, this is what it needs to look like-- black and white, old and young."

Rolley's wife, Charline Rolley, the head of community outreach for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, his mother, a city Recreation and Parks employee, and his three young children wove through the crowd.

In his closing remarks, Rolley encouraged supporters to donate -- Rawlings-Blake has an overwhelming fundraising lead -- and rallied them for "war."

"Eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we go to war," he said.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 9:30 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: City Hall

O'Malley needles NJ's Christie on his home turf

Gov. Martin O'Malley's criticism of Gov. Chris Christie hit closer to home last night, as the Maryland governor spoke at the New Jersey Democrats' annual fundraising dinner.

"Balancing budgets is important, but what some Republican governors seem to forget is that creating jobs is also important," O'Malley said, according to his prepared remarks. Later, he added, "Instead of standing up for the middle class, we get stand-up comedy routines from colorful characters like your governor."

Christie's New Jersey Republicans fired back at O'Malley. "All you'll hear tonight is the sound of Gov. O'Malley's broken campaign promises as taxes/fees go up for Marylanders," the party wrote on its Twitter account. They flagged the Tweet with #weakkneedGov.

O'Malley made the trip up Interstate 95 as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. His appearance at the New Jersey Jefferson Jackson Day dinner in New Brunswick was a signal that Christie will be a featured element in the state's legislative races this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote.

O'Malley and Christie have been at each other's throats for more than a year now. Christie mocked O'Malley's budget in March 2010 and disparaged his pension plan in a February appearance on Fox Business Network. O'Malley, meanwhile, called Christie "a colorful character" at a February address to the Virginia Democratic Party.

O'Malley opened his speech last night with a jokey comparison of Maryland and New Jersey. He concluded by referring to Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"In Maryland, we threw out a mean-spirited, ineffective, Republican governor after just one term," he said. "And in New Jersey -- well, let's just say it's good to know we have so much in common."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 9:20 AM | | Comments (43)
Categories: Martin O'Malley

April 6, 2011

Rawlings-Blake plans "important announcement"

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to make an "important campaign announcement" Friday morning, according to an email sent to supporters this afternoon.

Rawlings-Blake will be joined by Rep. Elijah Cummings in front of the Marshalls at Mondawmin Mall at 10 a.m. to make the announcement, according to the email.

I'm waiting for a call back from Colleen Martin-Lauer, who handles fundraising for Rawlings-Blake, to find out more about the announcement. Rawlings-Blake's campaign also launched a Twitter account today, @srbforbaltimore.

Her most prominent challenger thus far, former city planning director Otis Rolley, has been ramping up his campaign in recent weeks. He hired Pennsylvania political veteran Daniel Fee as his campaign manager and is opening his campaign headquarters in Hampden this evening.

UPDATE: The event has been postponed due to the federal budget debate. Cummings is expected to announce his endorsement of Rawlings-Blake at an event in the coming weeks, said campaign manager Travis Tazelaar.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 6:09 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: City Hall

Have other housing inspectors failed checks?

Here's an interesting element of the city inspector general's report about a housing inspector who was hired despite having a criminal record and was promoted after lying on a background check application: nine current city housing inspectors also failed to meet the requirements to be certified as Special Enforcement Officers.

At a budget hearing today, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said there are currently about 80 housing inspectors. That means that about one out of nine failed the certification, which they are required to have under a procedure Graziano put in place in 2002.

Special Enforcement Officers undergo rigorous background checks and have the ability to make arrests, Graziano said. He plans to change department policy so that housing inspectors are no longer required to have the certification, which he says is unnecessary and a remnant from another time.

In response to a question about the nine inspectors, Graziano criticized today's story for not noting in the first couple paragraphs that he had fired the housing inspector, Algie C. Epps, after Inspector General David McClintock brought the falsified records to his attention.

According to McClintock's report, police informed housing officials in 2007 that Epps had listed a false Social Security number, birth date and middle name on his background check application.

Graziano said that "we were first advised" of the falsified documents by McClintock.

"None of us knew anything about that" in 2007, he said. "I never saw any of the documents because I don't deal with the paperwork."

At that point, mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said Graziano needed to leave for another meeting, effectively ending the interview.

When asked about the nine housing inspectors, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake read from prepared remarks that largely followed an emailed statement that O'Doherty sent the Sun Tuesday. She praised McClintock, whom she hired shortly after becoming mayor, and said this was the latest example of city agencies working closely with the inspector general.

After she finished reading the statement, Rawlings-Blake was asked about the nine inspectors again.

"We're looking into all of those," she said.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 5:02 PM | | Comments (22)
Categories: City Hall

Kamenetz taps Van Arsdale for planning dept.

Andrea Van Arsdale, a veteran manager and planner who has been leading Baltimore County's commercial revitalization efforts for 10 years, has been nominated as the new planning director, the county announced Wednesday.

Van Arsdale, 54, whose name will soon be submitted by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for approval to the Council, will replace longtime planning director Arnold “Pat” Keller, who retired in December after 22 years with the department, 16 as director. A county agency supervisor who has served in the Department of Economic Development and Office of Planning since 1983, Van Arsdale was chosen from among three finalists who interviewed with Kamenetz for the position, said county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler.

“I’m obviously very thrilled,” Van Arsdale said Wednesday. “The planning staff is a very talented group of people and I look forward to working with them.”

Calling Van Arsdale “bright” and “energetic,” Kamenetz said yesterday that he chose her because she’s got a planner’s vision, is practical and shares his ideas about county development.

“Andrea is bright, but she’s also realistic,” said Kamenetz, who has made government efficiency and innovation themes of his new administration. “We need to be pragmatic in our approach. …Planners can also be dreamers by their training.”

Van Arsdale, a native of northwestern New Jersey who lives in Baltimore City, studied city and regional planning at Ohio State University, where she completed a master’s degree, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University.

She joined the county Office of Planning soon after finishing graduate school in 1983, working as master plan coordinator, then chief of the strategic planning division.

Since 1995, she has worked for the Department of Economic Development, first as a project manager, and since 2001 as director of the commercial revitalization program. Focused on the county's older commercial areas including Towson, Dundalk, Arbutus, Catonsville and Woodlawn, the program provides loans, tax credits and free architectural services.

As planning director, Van Arsdale would be paid $129,000 a year, the same as Keller was making, said Kobler. That’s a 23-percent jump from Van Arsdale’s current salary.

She’d be heading a department of about 60 employees that provides staff to the Planning Board as well as the Landmarks Preservation Commission, supervises community improvement programs and fashions policies on what sort of development the county wants and where it should be.

The department produces a master plan every 10 years and supervises county zoning policy. Van Arsdale would be taking over the department as the county prepares for the 2012 zoning map revision, a process carried out every four years.

The County Council has 40 days from the date it receives the nomination to decide on Van Arsdale's appointment.

-Arthur Hirsch

Posted by Andy Rosen at 12:34 PM | | Comments (0)

House to invest less in Invest Maryland

Maryland would invest less in Invest Maryland under a revised plan moving through the House of Delegates. The House this morning began debating Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to leverage future tax dollars to invest in local start-up companies.

But the House Ways and Means Committee reduced the overall size of the program from $100 million to $75 million and downshifted the state's direct involvement. Under the new plan, the Department of Business and Economic Development would control one-third -- down from half -- of the investment money. The rest would go to private venture firms.

Delegates are to resume debate, and consider additional amendments, tomorrow morning. The Senate is also working its way through the bill with an eye toward changes. The two chambers would need to reconcile their plans before session ends Monday night.

O'Malley, a Democrat, pitched Invest Maryland as a way to spur jobs, innovation and economic growth, Sun technology reporter Gus Sentementes wrote earlier this year.

Sentementes wrote:

The Invest Maryland plan is designed to address a need among start-up businesses, which have trouble luring deep-pocketed venture capitalists. Young companies need start-up funds to experiment, to patent technologies, do market research and perhaps clinical studies — and it could be years before many see profits, or even revenue.

So there's greater risk in investing in newer, unproven companies, but that's where the state can play a key role, said Douglas M. Schmidt, CEO of Chessiecap Securities Inc., a Mid-Atlantic investment banking firm.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:27 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Martin O'Malley

House in-state tuition debate delayed a day

The House of Delegates has delayed debate on whether undocumented Maryland high school students should be able to pay in-state college tuition rates. They are now scheduled to take up the plan tomorrow morning.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted the bill out on a straight party-line vote yesterday, breathing life into it after it had lain dormant for weeks. The Senate passed a similar measure several weeks ago.

Movement out of the House committee bodes well for its final passage.

"We're optimistic that we have the votes," said Del. Justin Ross, chief deputy majority whip and a member of Ways and Means. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have voted it out of committee."

In a likely preview of the floor debate, lawmakers dabbed at tears and shared family stories Tuesday before the committee vote.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini talked about his grandfather, an Italian immigrant coal miner who struggled with alcoholism. The Washington County Republican said his father had to work hard to put himself through school.

"This is the land of opportunity, not the land of entitlement," Serafini said before voting against the bill.

Del. Eric G. Luedtke, a middle school teacher, recounted a story of seeing three honor students in tears one day because the mother of one of them had been detained by immigration authorities.

"They didn't understand what was happening," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Explaining why he would vote for the bill, he said, "We are talking about children. They didn't make the decision to cross the border."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:38 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Immigration

April 5, 2011

City law department reverses position on redistricting

The city's law department announced Tuesday that the new City Council boundaries would no longer be effective for representation April 1, a reversal of a decision issued by the department two week ago.

Baltimoreans will vote in the new districts in the fall citywide elections, but the 72,000 residents who were moved into new districts will not be represented by a new council member until December, City Solicitor George Nilson wrote in a memo issued Tuesday afternoon.

Nilson's memo contradicts an opinion penned by Assistant City Solicitor Victor K. Tervala on March 25, who wrote that the new districts would go into effect -- for purposes of both representation and the upcoming election-- on April 1. In the past, residents continued to be represented by their current council member until the new council took office in December.

Nilson interpreted differently a note on a 1994 amendment on which Tervala based his decision.

"Because it is consistent with general expectations, avoids the reported confusion of the last week, and most importantly avoids leaving communities represented for approximately 8 months by person for whom they didn't have an opportunity to vote," the revised interpretation is preferable, Nilson said.

Nilson noted that the language in the charter was vague and should be amended before the next time districts are drawn, a decade from now.

Nilson reviewed Tervala's opinion at the request of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office, a spokesman said.

Tervala's quietly-issued opinion drew outcry from some residents and community leaders when the Baltimore Sun reported it last week. Throughout a nearly two-month long series of hearings on Rawlings-Blake's new map, council members and a redistricting expert said residents would remain represented by current council members until December.

Mayoral candidate Otis Rolley said the last-minute decision "didn't smell right" and demanded answers from Rawlings-Blake.

"While all of us in the Law Department are dedicated to getting it right the first time, often -- as is the case here -- there is no silver bullet clear cut answer," Nilson wrote. "We appreciate the patience of all who are interested in this subject with our efforts to sort out conflicting and ambiguous Charter provisions.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 9:00 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: City Hall

Capital budget approved by House of Delegates

The House of Delegates voted Tuesday to approve $925 million in new borrowing as part of a $3 billion capital budget. The plan, which would fund major investments, now awaits the blessing of the Senate, which has until the end of the session Monday to act.

Democratic leaders praised the capital budget as responsible; Republicans warned that the borrowing could damage the state’s credit rating or prompt an increase in real estate taxes to service the debt.

Lawmakers rejected Republican attempts to reduce capital spending by 5, 3 or 1 percent, as Democratic leaders told colleagues they had already squeezed new 19 percent out of new borrowing.

The House voted 98-41 on final passage.

"Cutting for the sake of cutting itself is not the objective we should be achieving here," said Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve.

The Montgomery County Democrat said the Republican warnings were tantamount to "amputating your arm because you’re afraid it might be injured next year."

Del. Mike A. McDermott, an Eastern Shore Republican, fired back that Democrats "can’t even trim your fingernails."

"It’s a mistake to keep spending as much as we are," said Del. Ron George, an Anne Arundel Republican.

Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., the chairman of the Spending Affordability Committee, said approving the capital budget is "a vote for the future of our state."

The $3 billion capital budget includes federal funds and transportation projects in addition to the $925 million in authorized general obligation bonds. The bonds range from $150,000 for a replica of the Choptank River Lighthouse to $22 million to purchase new emergency services helicopters.

Within the capital budget is a $15 million pocket of money that lawmakers can dole out to favored projects.

Republicans resurrected the nearly annual debate on whether to do away with the bond bills. A move to cut off money for legislative bond bills failed on a vote of 41-97, according to an initial tally.

Although many Republicans voted to end such funding, many Republicans also sought money for their own districts, an assessment of this year's bond bills shows.

A 2009 Baltimore Sun special report examined how legislative pet projects have endured even in hard times. From that report:

The funding appeals are made through the General Assembly's version of pork-barrel spending, under which capital projects are financed with debt issued through bonds by the state and repaid by taxpayers. In these cases, lawmakers not only bring dollars to their districts that they can laud in campaigns, but they also secure funding for causes to which they are personally connected.

Disclosure of lawmaker relationships with organizations seeking state bond money is spotty. The legislature's ethics counsel, William G. Somerville, said that lawmakers, in the interest of full disclosure, should report the potential conflicts on forms kept by his office, but few lawmakers do so.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:11 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

In-state tuition bill moves to House floor

A controversial plan to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates is on track for passage this year, with a vote this afternoon to send the bill for debate in the full House of Delegates.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote of 14-7 (see jump). Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, abstained from voting, citing concerns about how the measure could impact the beleaguered state budget.

Under the proposal, illegal immigrants who attended at least three years of high school in Maryland, and whose parents have paid the state taxes, would qualify for in-state tuition rates at community colleges. After two years, they could transfer to four-year institutions and continue to pay residential rates.

The House plan makes several changes to what the Senate approved last month. Men would have to sign up for selective service, as all qualified 18-year-old males do, and the undocumented students would be counted as out-of-state students for admission purposes to avoid displacing other Maryland residents.

Lawmakers shared teary, personal stories before the committee voted -- a preview of what could be one more lengthy and emotional floor debate in the quickly waning session, which ends at midnight Monday.

Del. Justin Ross, chief deputy majority whip, predicted the tuition bill will gain final passage.

"We're optimistic that we have the votes," said the Prince George's County Democrat, who supports the bill and is a Ways and Means member. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have voted it out of committee."

Republicans raised numerous concerns at today's hearing.

"We're investing taxpayer dollars in people who may not ever legally be able to work in our state," said Del. Kathy Afzali, a Frederick County Republican.

Del. Andrew Serafini said higher education is not a "right."

"This is the land of opportunity, not the land of entitlement," the Washington County Republican said.

Voting yes
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrat
Del. Kumar Barve, Montgomery County Democrat
Del. Talmadge Branch, Baltimore Democrat
Del. Bill Frick, Montgomery County Democrat
Del. Carolyn Howard, Prince George's County Democrat
Del. Jolene Ivey, Prince George's County Democrat
Del. Anne Kaiser, Montgomery County Democrat
Del. Eric Luedtke, Montgomery County Democrat
Del. Aruna Miller, Montgomery County Democrat
Del. Justin Ross, Prince George's County Democrat
Del. Melvin Stukes, Baltimore Democrat
Del. Michael Summers, Prince George's County Democrat
Del. Frank Turner, Howard County Democrat
Del. Jay Walker, Prince George's County Democrat

Voting no
Del. Kathy Afzali, Frederick County Republican
Del. Joseph Boteler, Baltimore County Republican
Del. Mark Fisher, Southern Maryland Republican
Del. Ron George, Anne Arundel County Republican
Del. Glen Glass, Cecil and Harford counties Republican
Del. LeRoy Myers, Western Maryland Republican
Del. Andrew Serafini, Washington County Republican

Del. Jon Cardin, Baltimore County Democrat

* Del. Sheila Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat, is chairwoman and did not vote, as is customary. However, she sponsored the House version of the bill.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:18 PM | | Comments (20)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Immigration

Federal workers union sues over possible shutdown

A leading federal employees union that represents 14,615 government workers who live in Maryland sued President Barack Obama’s administration over what it calls a lack of information about how a government shutdown would be implemented if Congress fails to pass a spending plan by Friday, the union’s president said Tuesday.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said workers don't yet know whether they would be out of a job during the shutdown or deemed “essential” and required to work through it. The union also wants to know if essential employees would be paid. Gage said federal agencies have repeatedly failed to answer those questions.

"It's not something that should be cavalierly handled. If a shutdown goes on, there will be federal employees who are going to be hurt financially," Gage, of Baltimore, said at an event at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday. "They should know before the eve of a shutdown what is happening and it should be done orderly and not in a last-minute rush.”

The White House and congressional leaders are working to reach an agreement on a stop-gap spending plan to keep the federal government running through the end of September. The current short-term spending measure runs out Friday. Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday, but failed to reach an agreement.

"There’s no reason why we should not get this done," Obama said after the meeting. "And we’ve got more than enough to do than to be spending our time going back and forth, quibbling around the edges on something this important to the American people."

Boehner has argued that many of the budget cuts proposed by the White House are accounting gimmicks: "We’re not going to allow the Senate and White House to force us to choose between two options that are bad for America," he said in a statement, "whether it’s a bad deal that fails to make real spending cuts, or accepting a government shutdown due to Senate inaction."

The lawsuit was filed March 30 in U.S. District Court in Washington and names Jacob Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the defendant.

In a statement, an OMB spokeswoman said the budget agency has taken "unprecedented steps to improve government transparency" as part of the planning for a possible shutdown.

"We still believe that there is an opportunity to avoid a costly government shutdown, which would cause undue harm to the lives of federal employees, the services millions of Americans rely on, and the economic recovery underway," OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly said in the statement. "Plans for shutdown operations, which are governed by the law, remain in development...When plans are finalized and reviewed for sensitive information, we will work with agencies to provide [them] to the public."

Posted by John Fritze at 5:03 PM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Washington

House rules panel holds Senate bills

The House Rules Committee this morning held all Senate bills in their grasp, a maneuver orchestrated by Del. Maggie McIntosh who wanted to send the other chamber a message that they should release the House bills locked in the Senate rules panel.

"If the Senate moves our bills, we'll move theirs," McIntosh said in an interview this afternoon. "We've got a lot of them and they've got a lot of ours. ... We just want them to move our bills." She guessed that the House Rules Committee is now sitting on 30 to 40 Senate measures.

McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said the move was meant to help all of the House bills locked in the Senate rules committee, and was not focused on the transgender anti-discrimination bill that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller locked in the rules committee earlier this week.

McIntosh was one of seven House members to send a letter to Miller on Friday asking him to  release that bill.

Rules committees are often seen as leadership instruments -- the committees' purpose is to assign bills to other standing committees. A bill that does not get assigned to a standing committee does not have an obvious path to the chamber's floor.

But House maneuver might not have been needed. The Senate Rules Committee met shortly after session today ended and voted out about a half dozen House bills, including the transgender measure. McIntosh said she expects the House Rules Committee to follow suit either this afternoon when the House meets for a second session or tomorrow morning.

However, the House bills aren't out of jeopardy yet: The Senate rules report, which controls the fate of the House bills including the transgender one, must still be read across the floor. That is expected to happen on Wednesday, though any Senator can hold up the entire report.

** UPDATE 4/6/2011: Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, asked that the bills voted out of her committee yesterday hold for a day. That puts the transgender bill, and about half a dozen other measures, in some type of procedural limbo between being assigned to standing committees and having that assignment approved by the Senate. 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:29 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Transgender anti-discrimination bill not quite dead

The Senate Rules Committee just revived a controversial bill that prohibits housing and employment discriminating against transgendered people, voting 6 to 3 to move the measure to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The measure sailed through the House of Delegates last weekend 86-52, but met resistance across the hall when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller steered the bill in the rules committee. It was the only one of the 94 bills to come to his chamber on cross-over that met that fate.

Miller explained the decision by saying last week that his body had already spent considerable time on hot-button social issues and he guessed it would be unlikely that the bill would pass. "At this point in time I’d say the chances of passage of that bill are next to none," Miller said last week.

The budget still must pass again in both chambers and other complicated bills have not yet come out of committee with less than a week left of session.

That launched a campaign by supporters. House sponsor Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk sat outside Miller's office for an hour to try an meet with him. And on Friday members of the House gay caucus sent a letter to Miller, urging him to release the bill so it could be heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. 

"We believe that this bill is absolutely necessary for the civil protections of a subset of Marylanders who are most vulnerable to discrimination and prejudices," according to the letter, which was signed by the seven openly gay members of the House.

JPR Chairman Brian Frosh is a member of the rules committee and during the brief committee meeting he asked have the bill in his panel. He said afterward that he is a long-time supporter the measure and said he could hold a hearing as early as Thursday.

But the move might not save the bill this year. Frosh warned that he is unsure how many members of his committee support it. He also noted that many in the transgender community don't like it. And he warned that it could be amended, which would mean that, if the measure made past the Senate floor, it would still need to be passed again in the House.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:55 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

April 4, 2011

Power reliability press conference features outage

BGE delivered up the perfect prop for a Senate press conference today announcing reliability standards for electricity companies: a power outage.

Sen. Brian Frosh, who helped secure higher penalties for companies that have repeated outages, says people at the press conference at first assumed the afternoon blackout was a joke -- or maybe part of the plan.

It wasn't. Generators at the State House kicked on right away, but businesses on nearby Main Street were left in the dark for a while.

The reliability standards legislation was directed more at Pepco, which controls power in the suburbs around the District of Columbia. Perhaps BGE was signaling that it doesn't want to be left out.  

Both the Senate and House of Delegates have given final approval to Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to penalize electric companies for repeated outages. The Senate version, which the House is now considering, takes effect sooner and has higher fees for violations.

(Pictured: The Baltimore Sun's State House office only briefly went dark, though several of our surge protectors were fried. Photo is a reenactment.)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:00 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Rolley opens campaign headquarters in Hampden

Mayoral candidate Otis Rolley will open his campaign headquarters on The Avenue in Hampden on Wednesday evening, according to an email from his campaign.

Rolley, the city's former planning director, ramped up his campaign in the past week, arriving at City Hall to criticize Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget, questioning a last-minute decision by the city law department on redistricting and hiring a campaign manager, veteran Pennsylvania political strategist Daniel Fee.

Fee, who served as communications director during former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell's successful 2002 and 2006 campaigns, said he was drawn to Rolley because he is a "progressive, big picture candidate."

"I love urban campaigns," Fee said in an interview. "We have to make it clear that there's a real choice for Baltimore."

The president of the Echo Group, a strategic communications firm, Fee also worked as communications chief for Philadelphia mayor John Street's 2003 successful re-election campaign and Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams' campaign.

“His experience, work ethic and track record speak for themselves, and I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together," Rolley said in statement. "He knows how campaigns work and will make sure that we have the plan, the team and the resources to win.”

Posted by Julie Scharper at 2:46 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: City Hall

Budget talks back on track

Annapolis budget writers took the weekend off and came back to work Monday ready to make deals on the state's spending plan.

Progress was made on the thorny issue of pensions: State workers would see a hybrid plan that melds elements from the House and Senate passed versions of the reform package. Figures were not immediately available on how much will be saved by the latest version of the overhaul.

House Appropriation member John Bohanan called the result a "good compromise."

And Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ed Kasemeyer said the state workers' pension plan is "fundamentally preserved." 

The conference committee didn't vote on any changes to the budget that relate to the proposed sales tax on alcohol.

The Senate has passed a bill to elevate the sales tax on beer, wine and liquor by one percent a year for the next three years. The House hasn't yet voted on the proposal, but rumors are already flying that the full tax will be implemented in a single year.

The group also agreed to return $5 million to the Keeping Maryland Community Colleges Affordable Grant. The pool of money can be split among any group of community colleges that keep their tuition increases capped at three percent. Bohanan said there's a lot of interest in the grant this year. The Senate had removed money from this fund.

The group is going to reconvene at 4 p.m. Remaining issues include whether or not to direct the University System of Maryland to study creating a mega-university that would merge College Park and Baltimore campuses and how much the counties should pay for the costs of levying property taxes.

(Pension dorks: See the changes to the retirement system after the jump)
The new pension and health care plan looks like this:

* Prescription drug costs for retirees will be capped at $1,500 per year ($2,000 for a couple). The cap will *not* increase with inflation, as Senators had initially wanted.

* Cost of living increases are guaranteed at one percent a year as long as inflation rises by one percent. In years where the fund meets or exceeds the investment return target of 7.75 percent, employees would have a 2.5 percent COLA.

* The multiplier would dip to 1.5 for new employees. Current employees would keep their 1.8 multiplier. All would pay 7 percent of their pay into the system (up from 5 percent). A very similar plan was offered by Gov. Martin O'Malley and both chambers approved it. However, the state workers and teachers unions exerted pressure to allow new employees to have the 1.8 multiplier. Several have indicated that the issue will likely be revisited when the economy rebounds.

* Retirement age: The conferees adopted a "Rule of 90." It would apply to those who want to retire under the age of 65, and goes like this: Your years of service plus your age must add up to 90 in order to start getting a check. The Senate had favored a "Rule of 92." 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:16 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

O'Malley's end-of-session to-do list growing

Gov. Martin O'Malley has one week to extract his signature proposals from legislative committees and usher them to approval in the full General Assembly.

But even as he labors to save efforts such as offshore wind and an investment fund for small businesses, another agenda item is calling out for O'Malley's attention: pension reform.

Lawmakers grew so frustrated Friday that they took the weekend to cool down. Now, they must work to settle differences on state employee pensions and health care as they race to complete their budget duties. 

In an interview last week, O'Malley said he had aimed high this session.

"Those are big, difficult issues that require a lot of understanding and a lot of outreach within the General Assembly and within the public," he said. "I didn't run for a second term to do easy things."

Critics say there's another reason his agenda has foundered: his new role in Washington as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. He has spent sizable chunks of the 90-day state legislative session in the nation's capital.

Senate Republicans have questioned the governor's leadership throughout the 90-day session, including in several recent dispatches.

"The governor's press office has been working overtime to dispute the widely acknowledged fact that Gov. Martin O'Malley has been AWOL for most of the 2011 session," the Senate Republicans wrote on Saturday. "O'Malley has recently popped up in appearances in the legislative hallways to try and rescue his languishing legislative package."

O'Malley contends that he is no busier now than in previous years and that he is readily available.

Maryland's proximity to the capital, he said, makes it easy to travel back and forth in short order.

"It hasn't taken any more time," he said, "but it has become a higher target for the Republicans because I became chair."

So what's on tap for this final week? O'Malley's public schedule notes an appearance at the Orioles' home opener today, the Board of Public Works on Wednesday and a Smart Growth forum Friday, among other items.

It stands to reason that he'll also spend many hours working to win over legislators in hopes  of scoring policy victories in his first year of the second term.

Read more from our interview with O'Malley, including his comments that the same-sex marriage debate contributed to the session's odd pace.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 9:33 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 2011 legislative session, Administration

Effort to close loophole on driving and dialing crashes

A senate panel last week put the breaks on a measure that would have toughened penalties for motorists who talk on their cell phones while driving, voting down a bill that would have made the practice a primary offense.

The measure, sponsored by Del. James Malone, passed 92 to 39 in the House, but fell one vote short of Senate committee passage after a lively debate. Last year the General Assembly voted to outlaw driving and dialing. But lawmakers made the violation a secondary offense, meaning police are from pulling over motorists unless the drivers are breaking another rule.

Malone and other supporters argued that Maryland drivers have gotten wise to the loophole and are breaking the law with impunity and endangering the public.

But opponents, including Sen. Bobby Zirkin, noted that the moment  drivers who are yacking on their cell phones swerve slightly, police can switch on their lights and make traffic stops. Therefore, cell phone talkers who are endangering the public can be stopped, Zirkin argued. 

The General Assembly did vote this year to prohibit reading texts while driving, tightening a law passed two years ago that made it illegal to write texts while behind the wheel.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 5:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

April 1, 2011

Obama comes to Md. to tout clean cars

Flanked by a half-dozen electric-powered trucks owned by companies with some of the largest vehicle fleets on the road, President Barack Obama urged businesses Friday to help the nation reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by replacing gas-guzzling vehicles with more fuel-efficient models.

Obama’s appearance at a UPS distribution facility in Landover was part of a broader effort by the White House in recent days to refocus attention on the nation’s energy challenges as turmoil in the Middle East sends gasoline prices skyward. Earlier this week, Obama called for reducing U.S. oil imports by one-third by 2025.

“I know a lot of folks have been feeling the pinch of higher gas prices lately — whether you’re filling up your tank or running a business like UPS,” Obama said Friday inside the cavernous distribution facility, which serves Washington and its Maryland suburbs. “We can’t keep going from shock to trance, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall.”

The White House is encouraging companies to buy vehicles that run on electricity or other alternative fuels. In exchange, the Department of Energy is offering technical assistance, access to research and opportunities to pool purchasing power to limit upfront costs.

UPS, AT&T, FedEx, PepsiCo and Verizon have signed on to the voluntary program, which the administration is calling the National Clean Fleets Partnership. With more than 275,000 vehicles between them, the firms manage five of the 10 largest fleets in the U.S., according to the White House. The effort is expected to put 20,000 new electric or hybrid vehicles on the road.

Ultimately, the president said, an increase in demand for fuel-efficient vehicles by the private sector could help lower costs of the technology for everyone.

“If we’re serious about making the transition from gas-guzzlers to hybrids, we need to show automakers that there’s a real market for these vehicles,” Obama said. “We need to show them that if they manufacture fuel-efficient cars and trucks, people will actually buy them.”

The administration is talking about energy as political attention shifts to next year’s presidential election. Historically, the cost of fuel has been a potent pocketbook issue for voters; during the 2008 campaign, Obama used a spike in gasoline prices to help frame his energy platform.

Since then, his energy agenda has suffered significant setbacks. Cap-and-trade legislation that would have limited emissions from electric utilities and other businesses died in the Senate last year amid concerns about its effect on energy prices. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Japan have further complicated the nation’s long-term energy strategy.

Congressional Republicans have criticized Obama for not allowing energy companies to pursue new domestic oil drilling sites.

“There is no excuse for the Obama Administration’s repeated efforts to block, delay or cancel American energy development that will create good paying American jobs,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington said in a statement Friday.

The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in Maryland was $3.59 on Friday, according to the AAA Mid-Atlantic. That’s up from $2.80 a gallon a year ago. The national average was $3.62 per gallon.

With Congress locked in fiercely partisan debate over the federal budget for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear when lawmakers will revisit an overhaul of the nation’s energy policy.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said he believes some progress toward reducing the reliance on imported fossil fuels remains possible — so long as it is done incrementally.

“I support the comprehensive approach, but it’s not going to happen,” the Maryland Democrat told The Baltimore Sun on Friday. “So you need to do it in smaller pieces.”

Obama toured the UPS facility and spoke with representatives from the companies involved in the new federal initiative. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also attended.

“You got some corn chips?” Obama joked as he approached Steven Hanson, national fleet sustainability manager for Texas-based Frito-Lay.

Because the new electric trucks get great mileage, the snack food giant uses them on 65- to 70-mile daily routes — twice the average route, according to a company representative.

“Our operators love it so far,” Hanson said. “They like the quiet. They like the visibility. And they like not smelling like diesel fumes.”

But the upfront investment in the trucks is a significant obstacle. One of the new models now used by UPS costs nearly twice as much as a regular diesel-fueled truck, a company spokeswoman said.

UPS has about 2,000 fuel-efficient vehicles on the road out of roughly 100,000 in the fleet overall, spokeswoman Kara Ross said.

Gov. Martin O’Malley and other Maryland officials have long sought to increase the number of fuel-efficient cars purchased by the government — and they have made some progress.

In 2010, alternative-fuel or hybrid vehicles accounted for 23 percent of state vehicle purchases, up from 11 percent the year before, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Energy Administration.

The state currently operates 1,806 of those vehicles, spokesman Ian Hines said, or about 20 percent of its fleet.

O’Malley joined LaHood on a conference call with reporters Friday. He praised the administration’s efforts to help states add alternative-energy vehicles to their fleets.

“Every state has the potential…to put their back into this so that we can win this cleaner, greener energy future.”

Posted by John Fritze at 8:08 PM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Washington

Balto. Co. planning appointee had legal trouble

Howard L. Perlow, a recent appointee to the Baltimore County Planning Board, was convicted in the 1990s in a high-profile title insurance fraud case.

Perlow, who was appointed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in February, operated Bay State Title, the largest title company in Baltimore. In 1989, investigators found that $1.6 million was missing from an escrow account. Perlow pleaded guilty to misappropriating about $300,000 belonging to his company and to the Chicago Title Insurance Co. of Maryland, and served prison time. He was pardoned in 2002 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

When reached by phone Friday, Perlow said he did not want to comment, but that he did discuss the matter with Kamenetz before he was appointed.

Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for the County Executive, noted that the pardon expunged the conviction from Perlow’s record. “Beyond that, we wouldn’t have any comment,” she said.

Several County Council members and Planning Board chairman Edward J. Gilliss said they were not aware of Perlow’s background. His appointment did not require council confirmation. Two council members, Republican Todd Huff and Democrat Kenneth N. Oliver, said they believed that Perlow had paid his debt to society.

Huff said, “If the governor feels that he deserved to be pardoned and he served his time as they say, then it is what it is.”

“Sometimes we all make mistakes,” Oliver said. “If he has paid his debt to society, then he should be allowed to contribute to the betterment of our county.”

Since 2002, Perlow has contributed more than $33,000 to numerous political action committees and candidates, including Kamenetz, Oliver, Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich and others, according to a campaign finance database maintained by the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.

Perlow holds an at-large seat and lives in Pikesville. His term ends in 2013.

-Raven L. Hill

Posted by Andy Rosen at 6:56 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: In The Counties

Budget talks unraveling over pension issue

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the governor's pension overhaul led to a breakdown in budget talks Friday afternoon, a development that will likely mean lawmakers will miss the deadline for passing the spending plan.

"Everybody's taking a deep breath and stepping back," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch in an interview Friday afternoon. "It is time of year when people work really hard.  A good night's sleep and a little reflection will let everyone re-group and come back Monday. We have some significant issues we need to address."

Conferees from the House and Senate were supposed to meet at 3 p.m. in Annapolis to hash through several dozen remaining differences between the spending plans passed by each chamber. Instead Senators and Delegates* were told to stay in their offices, but wait by their phones. As the day wore on they were told to go home, a planned Saturday session was canceled.

The setback will almost certainly mean the state budget will not pass again in each chamber by Monday's deadline. The target date is frequently missed, though the development keeps the budget on the front burner while a stack of other legislative issues linger.

At issue are a handful of changes aimed at shoring up the state's overburdened pension plan, including a new idea that surfaced in an area that had already won approval in the House and Senate: The formula by which pension payments are calculated for new employees.

A proposed  change costs little in the immediate future, but in the long term the plan adds up: After five years it would add $20 million to general fund costs. In twenty years the figure would balloon to $400 million. 

"Where do we get the other 400 million?" Miller said on the Senate floor Friday morning. "Do we impose that on existing teachers? Do we make their contributions higher?"

"You want to negotiate? Fine," Miller said. "But come up with the money you are taking away from what the House and the Senate have previously agreed on."

Busch said that the budget panel should take a "holistic" look at pension reform and stressed that there are wide differences between the House and Senate plan in other areas. "The House is looking at the pension reform issue as the total impact that it has," Busch said. "There are significant differences between the House and the Senate bill."

"What we are really doing is looking at the overall impact ... we want to be fair and equitable to all state employees, whether they be current employees or future employees," Busch said.   

But most of those issues had been clearly identified.

The new facet to emerge Friday was a proposal that would let newly hired workers calculate the size of their pension check by multiplying their years of service by 1.8. (A teacher who worked for 10 years would receive pension checks equaling 18 percent of their pay through this plan -- 10 X 1.8 = 18 ... therefore ... teacher receives 18% of final pay.)

It is favored by the 71,000 member Maryland State Education Association which trucked thousands of supporters to Annapolis several weeks ago to protest cuts in education and pensions.

The governor had proposed lowering that multiplier to 1.5 for new employees (our example teacher would have a pension check equaling 15 percent of her final pay.) The Senate and the House both passed plans using 1.5, and there was no floor discussion in either chamber about keeping the 1.8 figure for new hires.

The change has little immediate budget impact, but the cost balloons as the new employees work and retire.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat who is on the conference committee, said he is "confused" by why the multiplier has emerged as an issue since there was no discussion about it during the floor debate.

He also said he is "concerned" that it will re-open other issues that are considered settled. "Clearly this is a chance to take a lot of things that were off the table and put them on the table," Madaleno said.

Other significant differences remain between the House and Senate plans:

The House guaranteed a one percent annual cost-of-living increase for retirees. It could be bumped to three percent if the pension fund meets its 7.75 percent goal for annual investment returns.

The senate plan is stingier: Retirees get no COLA unless the 7.75 investment returns materialize.

Retirement ages differ too.

The House agreed with O'Malley's proposal to require new employees work for 30 years before receiving a benefit regardless of their age (or retire at 65 with 10 years on the job.)

The Senate adopted a Rule of 92, which means pension can only be collected when the worker's age plus years of service equal 92. (A teacher who left the job at 52 after working for 30 years would wait until she was 62 before receiving benefits. ... 62 + 30 = 92)

The prescription drug plans also differ: The House plan caps retiree prescription drug costs at $1,000 ($1,500 with spouse); the Senate plan caps the costs at $2,000 ($3,000 with spouse) and increases those ceilings with inflation.

* Delegates showed up to the conference, but their Senate colleagues were not there.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 5:09 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

House committees weigh medical marijuana defense

Delegates say they want to rewrite a Senate plan to decriminalize marijuana for medical patients, though many expressed support for the overall concept.

In a combined hearing today of the House Government Operations and Judiciary committees, delegates pressed the Senate bill sponsors -- Republican Sen. David Brinkley and Democratic Sen. Jamie Raskin, both cancer survivors -- on the practical implications of the proposal.

Lawyers on the Judiciary Committee said they want to reduce the burden of proof required to show medical necessity from "clear and convincing evidence" to a "preponderance of the evidence." Such a change would align medical necessity with other forms of affirmative defense, such as self defense.

Many of the same delegates said they want to strip the Senate bill of details about what kinds of evidence could be presented in court. The Senate plan says a person claiming medical necessity may use a doctor's note, medical records or the the doctor in person. Delegates argued the general rules of evidence should be applied and that lawmakers should not be laying out a special list of evidence.

Delegates also said they'd like prosecutors to be given two weeks notice when a person plan to use medical necessity as a defense to marijuana possession charges. Others said lawmakers should consider limited the amount of the drug that can be claimed as use for medical reasons.

The senators who presented the bill, which won 41-6 passage in the Senate, said they were amenable to the suggestions.

Both chambers have already agreed to a comprehensive study of how to implement a medical marijuana system, but the two chambers have just over a week to work out differences on the affirmative defense concept. Medical marijuana is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:31 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Lawmakers: A bunch of jokers

April Fool's jokes abound in Annapolis.

Someone took the time to unmute all 141 delegates' phones on the House floor, making for a noisy morning legislative session.

Select delegates also found autographed portraits of Gov. Martin O'Malley, accompanied by a generic packet of Kool Aid on their desks. The implication: Your governor wants you to drink up. (Pictured is a puzzled Del. Curt Anderson with his gag gift.) Tea party captain Michael Smigiel was reportedly behind the prank.

The fun didn't end there.

O'Malley announced on his Facebook page: After months of deliberation, I am pleased to announce the latest addition to my cabinet -- "Goodwill Ambassador," Mr. Donald Trump. (this is of course pending a background check)

Freshman Del. Sam Arora disseminated a press release addressing a "rumor" that he is being considered as a replacement for retiring Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"While I am honored to be considered, right now I am focused on convincing everyone in Annapolis that I am a legislator and not a student," Arora said. "Some days they only let me in State House if I say I am bringing coffee to Delegate Ben Kramer."

One of the Senate's most liberal members spread word he was going to hold a press conference announcing his defection from the Democratic Party in favor of becoming an Independent.

And Patch reporter Bryan Sears got punked by Del. Kathy Szeliga, who left fake vomit on his laptop as she feigned illness and fled the House floor.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:02 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: For fun

Rolley: Sudden redistricting changes don't pass the "smell test"

Mayoral candidate Otis Rolley is questioning an eleventh-hour decision by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's law department to implement newly drawn City Council district boundaries today, a departure from past practices.

Rolley said the sudden shift "doesn't pass the smell test" and said Rawlings-Blake "owes the public an explanation, and she should not hide behind legalities or spokespeople.”

The city solicitor referred questions about the memo to a mayoral spokesman yesterday. Spokesman Ryan O'Doherty did not return repeated requests for comment yesterday.

Update: O'Doherty said today that this is "a legal matter that is being carefully and thoroughly reviewed by Solicitor Nilson and should not be politicized."

He said the mayor had asked Nilson to personally review the opinion yesterday prior to inquiries from The Baltimore Sun.

About 72,000 people found themselves in new council districts today in accordance with an opinion quietly issued by the law department last week. During nearly two months of hearings on the redistricting plan, officials said the new changes wouldn't take effect until December.

"I am concerned that it could confuse voters, further lessen their faith in the process and decrease voter participation," Rolley said in a statement. "I pray that this is not a voter suppression tactic in the disguise of mayoral prerogative.”

" I pray that this is not a voter suppression tactic in the disguise of mayoral prerogative," Rolley said.

Rolley's full statement is below:

Today, the Baltimore Sun reported that following approval of a new redistricting plan, as many as 72,000 Baltimoreans - 1 in 9 - will be in a new councilmanic district effective April 1st, not after this fall’s elections. This change blatantly contradicts what the residents of Baltimore City involved in the process were led to believe. Otis Rolley today called on the Mayor to explain why this change was made when Baltimoreans were told something else.

“It simply doesn’t make sense why the Mayor and her lawyer have made the decision to change representation effective April 1st when less than 3 weeks ago, at the redistricting hearings, we were told the change would go into effect after this year's general election," Otis said today. “This change doesn't pass the smell test. Where is the transparency promised in the Mayor's State of the City address? I am concerned that it could confuse voters, further lessen their faith in the process and decrease voter participation. I pray that this is not a voter suppression tactic in the disguise of mayoral prerogative.”

“In an election year, when there’s no obvious reason why a change like this is being made, there needs to be more disclosure,” said Otis. “Government must be transparent. The Mayor owes the public an explanation, and she should not hide behind legalities or spokespeople.”

Posted by Julie Scharper at 2:09 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: City Hall

City home seizure for unpaid water bills limited

State lawmakers have told Baltimore officials they can't seize houses for unpaid water bills so quickly, or for so little money owed.

Under legislation that gained final approval this week in the Senate, the city would be able to enforce a lien on a home only if the owner were at least nine months behind and owed more than $350 in outstanding water and sewer bills.

That's slightly more generous than current law, under which the city may take a home if the bill is just six months behind and totals $250 or more.

Some lawmakers had sought an end to water bill lien enforcement altogether. The legislation, which also has passed the House of Delegates and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley, represents a compromise.

"It's a balance," said Sen. Bill Ferguson, who sponsored the legislation. "It's weighing the city's need to help keep water rates low, against people who are really struggling."

With O'Malley's signature, the legislation would take affect July 1. It would not affect the city's annual property auction for unpaid debt, which is scheduled for next month.

Cities and counties across the state and country use lien enforcement as way to collect bills.

Ferguson, a freshman Democrat from Baltimore, said ending that ability "would be devastating to the city."

The city says it needs the threat of taking property to induce people to pay their bills.

"Every dollar that is overdue affects the rates of all customers," city legislative aide Mary Pat Fannon told lawmakers in committee, according to her prepared remarks. She said bond-rating agencies look unfavorably upon municipalities that are unable to collect revenue.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office helped broker the compromise to preserve at least some authority to continue enforcing liens, though the city could collect $3.1 million less in 2012 sales because of it. Much of that money might still be recouped in later sales, city officials said.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, in a statement, praised Ferguson "for taking up this issue on the state level and working to protect families from being kicked out of their homes and onto the streets."

Baltimore County residents use the city water system but are not subject to lien enforcement and would not be affected by the legislation.

Fannon called lien enforcement a "collection tool of last resort" and described for lawmakers how it has changed over the years. Until 2008, the city could take homes for unpaid water bills amounting to just $100. That year, the General Assembly raised the minimum amount to $250. At the same time, the city was allowed to turn off water sooner.

Those changes have halved the number of properties receiving final bills and legal notice solely for water and sewer liens, Fannon said.

Last May, however, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund reported that officials had just auctioned liens on 12,689 Baltimore properties whose owners failed to pay local taxes and municipal bills, including water, a possible record annual amount.

A 2007 investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that at least 200 Baltimore homeowners had lost their residences in the previous three years because they owed $500 or less in unpaid municipal charges, such as water bills.

Del. Jill Carter was among the thousands of city residents who received notice this year that their homes would be on the city's tax auction block in May.

The Baltimore Democrat said she was unaware of her unpaid water bills, dating to April 2009, until a Sun reporter called last month. The city said she has since paid her bill of $1,027.16, so her house will no longer be offered at the auction.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 2011 legislative session

Farm estate tax breaks put out to pasture?

A bill to provide tax relief to relatives who inherit family farms hasn't moved out of either legislative committee considering it, despite bipartisan support that includes a freshman Republican lawmaker and Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Environmentalists and farmers alike praise the idea as a way to preserve open space and foster agriculture. But any tax break comes with a price tag, and that appears to be what's weighing on the members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

"There's uncertainty about the cost," said Joseph Bryce, O'Malley's top legislative aide. The bill's fiscal note shows it could cost the state more than $2 million per year.

Under the proposal, heirs to agricultural land who pledge to use it as a working farm for at least 10 years would be exempt from the first $5 million in estate tax. They'd pay a 5 percent rate -- far lower than the 16 percent now on the books -- on any additional value.

O'Malley made a personal plea for the proposal in the Senate, where it was sponsored by new Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat. Agricultural Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance voiced support at the House hearing.

Del. Kathy Afzali, a freshman Frederick County Republican, said she won over the administration by pulling the bill from her purse when she encountered O'Malley and Hance at a February dinner for farmers. 

Afzali, Young and O'Malley aides met recently to try to come up with a way to pay for the tax breaks, Bryce said. An idea to use agricultural land preservation funds fizzled because that program is bonded and has no cash.

Likely, the cost would need to be covered by thinly stretched $14.6 billion general operating budget.

In addition to the payment problem, there could be political maneuvering in the works.

Afzali said she'd heard talk of trying to tie the estate tax breaks to the governor's effort to curb septics at new developments. And Young said some had floated the idea of coupling the tax breaks with a bill concerning development rights for farmland.

Young said he remains hopeful the estate tax break proposal will gain passage on its own. But, he said, "it's hard to tell what someone is discussing behind closed doors."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
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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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