baltimoresun.com

July 22, 2011

O'Malley to sponsor same-sex marriage bill

Standing with House and Senate supporters, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced this afternoon that he will lead the charge for gay marriage in Maryland and put his name on a bill that allows same-sex couples to wed.

"Marylanders of all walks of life want their children to live in a loving, stable, committed home protected under the law," O'Malley said. He said it would be one of "a small handful" of legislative priorities.

The governor was supportive of same-sex marriage last year, but stayed mostly in the background. Today's announcement was rumored for weeks, with chatter increasing after a gay marriage bill was signed into law in New York.

O'Malley said he hopes to learn from the New York effort and spoke admiringly about the religious protections offered by that law, though he did not offer any specific changes that he might make.

The Maryland Catholic Conference immediately issued a statement calling the governor's decision "regrettable." "The moral and social impacts of redefining marriage would be pervasive and severe," according to the statement.

A same-sex marriage bill passed out of Maryland's Senate last session. But it was withdrawn from the House of Delegates when leaders determined it was a few votes shy of passage.

O'Malley tasked his top lobbyist, Joseph C. Bryce, with spearheading the effort to move the bill in 2012. Bryce, a well respected Annapolis aide, will coordinate the new Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition and develop a strategy to garner additional votes.


Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:58 PM | | Comments (47)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

April 27, 2011

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.

Continue reading "RI shifts from same-sex marriage to civil unions" »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:14 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 24, 2011

Senate approves same-sex marriage

The state Senate voted 25-21 Thursday evening to recognize same-sex marriage, sending the bill to the House of Delegates, which will begin hearing testimony on Friday.

Read more at baltimoresun.com.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:12 PM | | Comments (2)
        

February 14, 2011

V-Day gift for gay advocates: Kasemeyer will support same-sex marriage

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer said this afternoon that he will support the controversial same-sex marriage bill, giving the measure 22 of the 24 votes it would need to clear the senate.

Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Howard and Baltimore counties, had not previously said how he planned to vote on the bill. Many had believed he would not support it because he represents a conservative area.

His pledge means there are five senators who either have not decided how they will vote or have declined to share their position publicly. (See full vote list after the jump.)

This year changes in a key senate panel delivered advocates the best chance they've ever had to legalize same-sex marriage. They believe that they have the 29 votes needed to cut off debate in the chamber and vote. The bill is expected to be voted out of committee this Thursday.

Advocates for the bill will shower legislators with carnations following an afternoon rally to support the bill. One organizer estimated that roughly 700 flowers will be distributed to various senators.

Each flower represents a phone call made to the senator on behalf of the bill. In some districts nobody called, and those senators will be empty handed this evening. Senators not receiving flowers include: Sen. Anthony Muse, who opposes the bill; and Sens. Nancy King and Verna Jones-Rodwell, who are cosponsors. Sen. Ulysses Currie, who has not yet decided how he will vote, will not receive a flower.

Next week, when the bill is expected to come to the senate floor, the Catholic Conference will hold their lobby day. They oppose the legislation.

Continue reading "V-Day gift for gay advocates: Kasemeyer will support same-sex marriage" »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:08 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

December 15, 2010

Retiring senator donates 52 acres for conservation

Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports:

Outgoing Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus and his wife, Sharon, set aside 52 acres of their land in Somerset County for conservation, a donation that abuts a larger parcel the couple agreed not to develop several years ago.

The property, which is on Back Shelltown Road south of Snow Hill, is valued at about $314,000, according to a preliminary estimate from the Department of Natural Resources. Stoltzfus said he’d initially planned to build homes on the property, but decided against it.

“It is like a little garden of Eden,” he said. The land is wooded and full of turkeys, deer and other wildlife, Stoltzfus said.

The Maryland Environmental Trust will oversee the property, though it will remain in Stoltzfus’ name. Under the terms of the conservation easement, any future landowner will have to respect the arrangement and will not be allowed to develop the property. Stoltzfus will receive a tax credit for the donation.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:15 PM | | Comments (3)
        

December 1, 2010

Senate GOP shakeup after election losses

The new, thinner state Senate Republican caucus has returned former minority leader David Brinkley, of Frederick County, to its leadership team, dropping Harford County Sen. Nancy Jacobs from the minority whip post.

In caucus elections Tuesday, Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard County held onto the minority leader post, which he has held for the past two legislative sessions. Brinkley was the top Republican in the Senate during the 2007 and 2008 sessions, but did not seek a return to the post for the following year. In a widely publicized incident in 2008, police responded to a domestic disturbance at his home. No criminal charges were ever filed.

"I have enough to deal with personally," he told the Frederick News-Post at the time. "When things are sufficiently addressed in those areas, then I can pursue [the position] again if I choose."

The Republicans voted for only two leadership positions. The whip is the lower of the two, and is largely responsible for helping round up votes for or against legislation.

Brinkley's addition gives the Republicans a leadership voice on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which makes many crucial decisions on the state budget. This year, he was the only Senate Republican appointed by President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to the powerful budget conference committee, which negotiates differences between the House and Senate on the state's operating budget.

Republicans will need to leverage their negotiation strengths next year, after losing two seats in the November election. The caucus now holds 12 seats in the 47-member body.

Posted by Andy Rosen at 10:49 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

October 1, 2010

Drivers can't make calls and other new laws

Taking a brief break from the breathless gubernatorial horse race, we'd be remiss to neglect the host of new laws that officially go on the books today.

The one getting the most attention is a new rule barring drivers from talking on cell phones. There's been a lot of coverage of eager rule followers hitting Best Buy to stock up on earpieces for their phones including this story by my colleague Gus Sentementes.

As a reminder, talking on the cell phone is a secondary offense, meaning a driver has to be breaking another rule (like speeding or having one light out) before triggering a citation.

Asking the two gubernatorial candidates about for their take on the rule we found some common ground. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who signed the bill into law, told my colleague Julie Bykowicz this week that the new law is "important" and added that "distracted driving leads to death."

He noted that he has a driver and is rarely behind the wheel, but said that his two driving-age daughters "better be ready."

Challenger Robert L. Ehrlich, the Republican former governor, is also being driven around this campaign season. When asked about the new law he also talked about his children, saying he plans to teach his sons drew and josh to be careful on the roads when the boys turn 16. "It is all common sense," Ehrlich said. "I hope everyone pays attention to the law and drives safely."

Another new rule that drivers have to give at least three feet of space to bikers when passing (we are curious to see how this ends up working on the crowded Baltimore streets) and others listed after the jump.

Continue reading "Drivers can't make calls and other new laws" »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:24 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

September 7, 2010

Currie gets a court date

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, indicted by a federal grand jury last week on corruption charges, is set to make his first court appearance at a hearing Sept. 17, Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports. The Prince George’s County Democrat is expected to plead not guilty.

Currie is alleged to have accepted $245,000 in payments from Shoppers Food Warehouse in exchange for his help removing state bureaucratic hurdles. He stepped down from his position as chair of the senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee after the indictment was announced.

Currie’s attorney, Dale Kelberman, describes his arrangement with Shoppers as a consulting position similar to the outside employment many of the state’s legislators hold during the nine months that the General Assembly does not meet. The supermarket chain is headquartered in Currie’s district.

Two former executives from the chain also were indicted last week. Former president William White is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 17. Former vice president for real estate R. Kevin Small has not yet been assigned a court date.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:33 PM | | Comments (1)
        

September 1, 2010

Currie, supermarket execs indicted

A federal grand jury in Maryland has charged the chairman of the Senate’s powerful budget panel and two former supermarket executives with bribery, extortion and other criminal offenses in an 18-count indictment, Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports.

In announcing the charges Wednesday, prosecutors said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Democrat, misused his influence for personal gain while helping Shoppers Food Warehouse expand in Maryland.

“Government officials cross a bright line when they accept payments in return for using the authority of their office, whether they take cash in envelopes or checks labeled as consulting payments,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.

“When businesses can obtain valuable government benefits by putting a senator on the payroll, it diminishes public confidence and disadvantages companies that refuse to go along with the pay-to-play approach.”

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, a close ally, said in a statement that Currie has agreed to relinquish his post as the chairman of Budget and Taxation Committee, which oversees the state’s $32 billion annual spending plan. Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the vice-chairman, will lead the committee, Miller said.

Currie’s attorney, Dale Kelberman, put out a statement saying Currie would plead not guilty to the charges.

A 15-year veteran of the Senate, Currie filed for reelection in January and faces no opposition in the primary or general election.

Continue reading "Currie, supermarket execs indicted" »

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 2:51 PM | | Comments (0)
        

August 20, 2010

Ehrlich pledges to give counties roads money

* Updated with O'Malley campaign response. * 

Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said today that he'd restore $60 million in road maintence money to counties, making the announcement as local leaders met nearby for their summer convention.

Both he and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley took chunks from the "highway user revenue fund" -- gas taxes and bridge fees and such -- to plug holes in the state budget. The fund is supposed to be used for road maintenance and improvements.

This fiscal year, O'Malley and the Maryland General Assembly cut that aid by more than $300 million.

Ehrlich said today that local leaders have begged him to give them more roads money. This fiscal year, the 23 counties are splitting $10 million -- which for many places translated to a more than 90 percent decrease in what they're supposed to receive. Baltimore City, which maintains all of its roads, got $130 million, less than it usually receives but still enough to anger some in the counties.

Continue reading "Ehrlich pledges to give counties roads money" »

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:52 PM | | Comments (3)
        

August 2, 2010

After Bartlett, tighter rules for lawmaker lodgings?

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch is calling for tighter rules on lodging expenses for lawmakers after a Western Maryland delegate was found to be using taxpayer money to pay rent to his girlfriend, the Capital of Annapolis reports.

Frederick County Republican Joseph Bartlett, the son once seen as the political heir of Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, decided against running for a fourth term after it was revealed that he had spent more than $30,000 in public funds since 2007 to rent space in his girlfriend's house.

Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, told The Capital that legislative and ethics officials should review lodging regulations to see if there is a way to tighten them up.

"We can have a discussion about how to avoid this," he said.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:30 AM | | Comments (1)
        

July 27, 2010

Race for education $$$ follows political turbulence

Maryland is among 19 finalists in a U.S. Department of Education competition for hundreds of millions of dollars -- welcome news to the state officials who once disagreed about when even to enter the "Race to the Top."

The Sun's Liz Bowie reports that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is likely to pick about a dozen states as winners by early September; Maryland stands to win $250 million.

"I can barely contain myself," said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools. "We are so excited because there was tremendous work that went into this and it has such potential for our schools."

Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement that he is "honored" to be among the finalists. "To Maryland, this process has always been about more than simply a race for education dollars," he said.

Continue reading "Race for education $$$ follows political turbulence" »

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:25 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Families, General Assembly 2010
        

July 19, 2010

Eastern Shore gets new delegate as widow sworn in

Del. Carolyn J. Elmore was sworn in at noon today, taking the seat held for seven years by her husband D. Page Elmore, who died in June of cancer.

Carolyn Elmore, a Republican and longtime educator, will represent parts of Somerset and Wicomico counties until the new crop of 188 lawmakers takes over in January. Elmore is not running for the seat.

After Speaker Michael E. Busch administered the oath of office on the House floor, Elmore posed for photographs with friends and new colleagues and stood by her husband's desk, which was adorned with a single white rose.

Elmore said it was her husband's wish that she fill the seat in the interim between his death and the 2011 legislative session.

"I want to honor him and continue his good works on the Eastern Shore," she said. "This also helps my family make the transition, too."

Continue reading "Eastern Shore gets new delegate as widow sworn in" »

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:15 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

July 1, 2010

Have a look at new Maryland laws

It's no Oct. 1 -- when the majority of laws passed this year take effect -- but today, July 1, sees a few new rules hit the books. The good news: You have three more months to use your handheld cell phone while driving.

New laws that could affect you include the right to foreclosure mediation and increases in civil court filing fees. Most of them, however, are technical in nature, including liquor board tweaks and the formation or continuation of study and oversight panels.

Check out today's story for details on some of the most high-profile new laws. And here's a link to a complete list of legislation with a July 1 start date.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

June 23, 2010

State House, Senate to broadcast committee action

Leaders of the House and Senate committed Wednesday to broadcasting all committee proceedings beginning next session, a move they say will make the state's government more transparent and accessible, Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports.

Video and audio of House committees will be available online, but the Senate will provide only audio. Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller said his chamber’s committee rooms did not have adequate technology to provide images online. Hearings and voting sessions will be broadcast.

When in session, the General Assembly broadcasts audio of full House and Senate floor debates, but those who want to hear action in committee must go to Annapolis.
The leaders also said they will waive the $800 fee for up-to-the minute information on bills and resolutions.

“We consider this a big victory,” said Del. Heather R. Mizeur, who with fellow Montgomery County Democratic Sen. Nancy King, pushed for those changes during the session.

As a test Wednesday, the state Board of Public Works was broadcast online; 17 viewers tuned in. Those proceedings will continue to be shown on the state’s website, a change that Gov. Martin O’Malley said will “strengthen the bond” between Marylanders and government.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 7:03 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

June 22, 2010

Audit finds problems with elections board

The state Office of Legislative Audits has again found "deficiencies" in the state elections board's oversight of local boards and in its financial management, the agency said in a report released Tuesday morning.

The auditing arm of the General Assembly reports that the State Board of Elections:

* Has failed to develop an adequate system to ensure the accuracy of voter registration information generated by local board for the statewide voter registration database;

* Has not obtained an audit of system controls over the statewide voter registration database, even though such an audit is required by the board's contract with the system consultant;

* Has not conducted formal, comprehensive reviews periodically of each local board's compliance with election laws and regulations;

* Failed to report an unfunded liability of $2 million, related to unpaid vendor invoices, to the state comptroller at the end of Fiscal Year 2009; and

* Did not ensure adequate controls for processing cash receipts, accounts receivables, purchasing and disbursement transactions, contract monitoring, information systems security and control, and equipment.

The report includes a point-by-point response to the audit submitted by state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone.

"During this audit period, the agency experienced significant turnover in the two financial positions and other senior management positions, and some of the resulting audit findings are the likely consequence of this turnover," Lamone writes.

She takes issue with some of the findings, and describes plans to address others.

Continue reading "Audit finds problems with elections board" »

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 12:22 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Elections, General Assembly 2010
        

June 21, 2010

Early voting: Which side benefits?

Two years after Marylanders approved early voting, voters this fall may cast ballots at any time during the week leading up to Election Day.

As Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey writes, the state's major parties are divided over which side stands to gain from the change.

Democrats, who enjoy a 2-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration in Maryland, see the expanded window giving them more opportunity to get the party faithful to the polls.

But Republicans say relying on registration will backfire this year. They say the rules will make it easier for angry Marylanders to cast their votes to send the majority party packing.

One thing, Linskey writes, seems certain: The campaigns will have far more information about who has been to their polling place and who has not during the course of the voting period, opening the door to a prolonged and closely targeted get-out-the-vote effort that could mean days of phone calls to Maryland households.

Read the rest of the story at baltimoresun.com.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 12:12 PM | | Comments (1)
        

May 26, 2010

Maryland gang law, explained by a delegate/attorney

It was a humbling experience, said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, to face a judge regarding a law he helped put on the books.

Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, spent recent days in a Baltimore courtroom, defending a client charged with, among other crimes, violating the state's anti-gang law.

It was a notable juxtaposition: Simmons had voted for the 2007 gang law that was being used to prosecute his client, Jose Miguel Hernandez, who took a plea deal this week. Simmons also voted this year to enhance the gang law.

But Simmons told The Sun's Peter Hermann that the Hernandez case was an eye-opener, beginning with jury selection. Hermann writes:

Before testimony began in Jose Miguel Hernandez's attempted-murder trial, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge asked potential jurors a simple yet crucial question: "Do you believe that being a member of a gang is a crime?"

More than half of the panel answered yes.

Simmons said the jury pool's response got at the heart of one of his biggest concerns -- that people would be unfairly singled out because of their friends.

"We need a major overhaul to make the gang statute more effective and less cumbersome," the lawyer-lawmaker said after the trial for his client ended. "But at the same time, I don't want to see a young man be tarred and feathered and hung out because he's associated with a gang, and that's the only reason jurors find him guilty."

Click here to read the whole story.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:59 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Crime & Justice, General Assembly 2010
        

May 20, 2010

Of making laws and defending those charged with breaking them

There's an interesting juxtaposition taking place in a Baltimore courtroom today: Prosecutors are trying to convict Jose Hernandez of violating Maryland's anti-gang statute. Hernandez's attorney is Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a state lawmaker who sits on the legislative committee that weighs crime laws.

Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and longtime defense attorney, has strongly questioned gang laws over the years, saying they potentially infringe upon a person's freedom of expression and are redundant of other laws.

"I would hope you don't embark on a crusade to put people in jail because of the color that they wear," Simmons told prosecutors at a 2007 House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Continue reading "Of making laws and defending those charged with breaking them" »

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:52 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Crime & Justice, General Assembly 2010
        

April 12, 2010

Deal reached on sex offender legislation

The Senate and House of Delegates appear to be well on their way to resolving one of the last outstanding major issues of the session: sex offender reforms.

After a series of deals and legislative horse-trading, the chambers' negotiations team has agreed to combine both contentious bills into one big bill -- which happens to be backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Lawmakers added an expansion of Jessica's Law, lengthening the minimum prison sentence for certain sex offenders from five to 15 years, to O'Malleys sex offender registry bill.

For those keeping track, the House wins big on this one. The Senate backed down on both its request to lengthen sentences to 20 years and its quest to add other provisions (such as marking sex offenders' driver's licenses and admitting evidence of prior bad acts) to the registry bill.

By fusing the bills, the powers that be created a bill too sweeping for even the senators who had hoped for more to oppose.

It's widely expected to sail through when the chambers reconvene after their dinner break.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:37 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Crime & Justice, General Assembly 2010
        

Miller: 'Workman-like' Senate moving along

As a five-hour Senate session concluded this afternoon, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller characterized his chamber as "workman-like." In a quick interview, he also named a few pieces of legislation he'd like to see cross his desk by the midnight deadline.

"Almost all of the big bills are out of the way," the Democratic senator from Calvert and Prince George's counties said, noting the operating and capital budgets are ready for the governor's signature.

What's on Miler's to-do list?

Rocky Gap and BOAST. He said it's important for the General Assembly to pass legislation that could help entice bidders for a slots parlor at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland. And he also indicated he wants to see the chambers pass a controversial measure that would give tax credits for private schools.

Miller said he believes the Senate will pass a House plan for a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of the second-degree rape or second-degree sex offense of a child under 13 -- less than the 20 years the Senate was seeking.

He called the Assembly's passage of a bill to ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones "a safety issue" and predicted "even tougher bills in future years."

The "workman-like" Senate convenes again in moments.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:27 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

General Assembly: It's almost a wrap

The clock is ticking. The 2010 General Assembly legislative session ends at midnight, at which time your 188 state lawmakers and Gov. Martin O'Malley will switch to campaign mode. But before they do, take a look at this year's accomplishments -- and what's still left undone. Check the main page of the baltimoresun.com for dispatches throughout the day.

Last day preview:
With the budget now out of the way, what do lawmakers have left on the final day.

Top 10:
Here are some of the trickiest issues remaining.

We are Getting There:
Mike Dresser, a State House veteran himself, is here in Annapolis today keeping track of last-minute traffic laws and other issues.

As of 1 a.m., the Assembly had passed 552 bills. Take a spin through them.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

April 9, 2010

The House is on fire

The much anticipated “Rock The House” Graduation Celebration in Annapolis ended with alarm bells sounding Thursday evening.

The room began to smell of smoke. People grabbed their belongings and left via a narrow stairway. We spotted flakes of ash dropping from a ceiling vent onto Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery County). Read our breaking-news coverage here

Minority Leader Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard County) this morning joked that the Baltimore Sun’s reporting on the evening tarnished his squeaky clean image. It was the only time he went out to a bar all session, he said.

Sadly, news of the evacuation overshadowed a star performance by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) who roasted the junior lawmakers in his chamber for about 20 minutes, coming up with zingers for each of them.

Continue reading "The House is on fire" »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:34 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

April 6, 2010

House goes after gangs

The House of Delegates this morning approved a get-tough on gangs measure -- over the opposition of black and Hispanic delegates from the state's urban areas who worried it would be overreaching.

Delegates and prosecutors had been working on the bill for months, saying they had addressed some concerns of public defenders civil liberties groups. The compromise that emerged defines what a gang is and gives judges the ability -- but not the mandate -- to extend by up to a decade prison terms for members convicted of certain crimes.

Del. Ana-Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat, warned that the anti-gang measure is "bad public policy" because it is "criminalizing kids." Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the bill "brings in people who may or may not be associated with a crime."

But the sponsor of the bill, Del. Gerron S. Levi, a Prince George's Democrat, called those concerns baseless.

"It does not punish 'association,'" Levi said. She argued that the new statute is detailed in who can be subjected to the extended sentences, saying a person must be convicted of a crime, a proven gang member and either have killed someone or committed two gang-related offenses.

The debate now moves to the Senate, where Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has urged Democratic city Sen. Lisa Gladden, "to help guide the bill to a quick vote in the Senate." Gladden is vice-chairwoman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where the gang bill has lingered. But she's also a public defender likely to oppose the new measure.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:12 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Crime & Justice, General Assembly 2010
        

April 5, 2010

Warren on the state budget

Key lawmakers from the House and Senate are hashing out their differences over the state’s $13.2 billion budget with the help of fiscal analyst Warren Deschenaux.

Deschenaux is known for his overwhelming knowledge of the budget and his dry wit … we’ve taken a couple favorite snippets from Monday's two hour meeting and copied them below.

- On the House proposal to borrowing an additional $100 million from an obscure account where local income taxes are collected:

“It is like Easter. Easter morning finding a basket. Except you might get a bill. It is a nice thing if you can pay for it.”

“I can’t guarantee you that that the accountant mavens will not come back and say something horrible” about the idea.

“This is an account that had a huge balance. We went to a large balance. We are now going to a small balance.”

- On the Marylanders who voluntarily check off a box on their state income tax forms to donate money to publically fund elections:

“For some crazy reason people keep checking off the box even though it [the fund] has not been used in recent memory.”
Posted by Annie Linskey at 9:33 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 31, 2010

No scholarships, no bond bills.

Fiery Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier sent a stern message of fiscal responsibility to the other chamber Tuesday: No bond bills for you!

"We're at a point where we are rubbing pennies together," said Klausmeier told us. "I did it because I felt it was the right thing to do." Klausmeier amended the Capital Budget (SB 142) to say that Gov. Martin O'Malley should "not include funds for legislative initiatives" in FY2012 and FY2013.

That money, instead, should go to public school construction funds. This year O'Malley set aside $15 million for lawmakers' pet projects.

Klausmeier said the amendment was not at all connected to a decision by the House Appropriations Committee to strip legislative scholarships from the FY2011 budget, a popular program among Senators. (The program costs $11.5 million. It works like this: the 141 delegates split $5 million for scholarships. The Senate's 47 members split $6.5 million.)

But several other lawmakers smelled retribution. "This may have been an effort to get the House's attention," said Del. Frank Turner. "She probably put in a friendly amendment -- to remind us of the importance of the scholarships to the Senate."
Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:04 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 30, 2010

Senate joins House in approving governor's sex offender reforms

The Maryland General Assembly has given its blessing to all of Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed sex offender reforms.

The Senate yesterday joined the House of Delegates in passage of a plan that adds more information to the state's publicly available sex offender registry and of a measure to reconstitute a long-dormant Sex Offender Advisory Board. O'Malley, a Democrat, was criticized earlier this year by some lawmakers for not activating the board sooner.

The Senate has also signed off on "lifetime supervision" of certain violent and repeat sex offenders who leave prison.

Sex offender reforms have been a hot topic this session, with lawmakers vowing to take up the cause after an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl was killed in December. A convicted sex offender has been charged with capital murder in Sarah Foxwell's death.

Although O'Malley's package is nearly ready for his signature, two major sex offender proposals by other lawmakers remain in a key Senate committee as the legislative session winds down. It is unclear whether the Senate will OK a House plan to eliminate good-time prison credits for the worst sex offenders and extend prison sentences for child molesters.

Chairman Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said his Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee may vote on those bills later today.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:45 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Crime & Justice, General Assembly 2010
        

March 23, 2010

Senate says: No holding cell phones while driving

Late, late, late Monday night the Senate gave preliminary approval to a measure that bans talking on a handheld cell phone while driving. Marylanders could still chat on the phone via a headset. They lowered the fine for violations to $40 from $100.

The legislation (SB 321) prompted a lengthy debate in the Senate, with members rejecting eleven amendments offered by Sen. E.J. Pipkin who wanted to weaken the bill. As the evening wore on his, his colleagues – notably Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden --became increasingly impatient. (The Sun's Michael Dresser has written extensively about the bill here.)

The most substantial debate came early with Sen. Rona E. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, implored her colleagues to place a complete ban on cell phone usage while driving. “The danger comes from engaging your mind in the conversation,” she said. “If we want to be safe what we need to do is ban cell phone use.”

The measure as written, she argued, merely encourages Marylanders to buy headsets for their phones. “I would proffer that we are asking our constituents to flush money down the toilet,” she said.

Sen. Michael G. Lenett acknowledged that bill might not prevent the “cognitive” distraction that arises from yammering while driving, but he said it does end a type of a “physical distraction” presented when a driver holds a phone instead of the steering wheel.

Then Sen. E.J. Pipkin began producing his amendments. He wanted to tweak the language and allow drivers to “adjust the volume” of the phone while driving. (“We don’t ban turning the radio up or down,” he said on the floor.)

Sen. Brian Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, objected. “You are going to make the bill unenforceable,” he said. He offered an example: “Let me just adjust the brightness of the screen,” he said. “It just gets silly.” The change failed 15-31.

Next Pipkin wanted to let drivers to use the speaker phone function on their phone. It failed 17-29. Then Pipkin suggested a carve out for using a GPS on a phone wile driving. That went down 15-30.

Perhaps to give him a break, Sen. David Brinkley rose to amend the bill so drivers could look up a contact before making a call. That seemed to be gaining traction as some Senators realized it might be preferable to look up a name than dial a 10 digit phone number.

But Frosh noted the change would open a loophole in the legislation. “You can’t go mining the contact info for data” while driving, Frosh told Senators. The amendment failed 17 to 28.

Pipkin, refreshed, rose again with a fourth amendment. It let drivers fiddle with the music functions on their phone while on the road. The idea failed 14-31. Next he wanted to allow drivers to call for towing services while driving. Pipkin also wanted an exemption for highway employees, and then he wanted the bill to only create a violation if a driver got into an accident.

 “Can we put these on a consent calendar?” McFadden asked, hoping to group them all together and then reject them all in one swoop.

As time went on Pipkin tried to exempt all calls from parents to children, a change that would have essentially gutted the bill in the opinion of some senators. It failed and he rose to offer another amendment. 

Exasperated, McFadden exclaimed “Here we go again!”

All of Pipkin’s idea failed. The bill still awaits final Senate approval and must be taken up in the House of Delegates.



Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:40 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 19, 2010

NJ mocks MD budget

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a swipe at Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget in a recent address, saying that Maryland's $13 billion spending plan relies on “borrowing to cover current obligations” and “in doing so they are piling one problem on top of another, reducing the creditworthiness of their state, and creating a crisis that will be larger in the future.”

True Maryland is undergoing tough times. The state faces a $2 billion budget hole that O’Malley plugs using a combination of cuts and one-time accounting maneuvers. O’Malley borrows about $350 million from account that collects state income taxes to cover operating costs, a move that raised some eyebrows but did not impact the state's top credit rating.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown stressed that point when we asked his opinion. “Maryland has a triple- A bond rating,” he said. “We don’t take that for granted.” He also defended the state’s used of bonds, saying that debt is plowed back into the local economy. State-financed construction projects, he said, represent 16 percent of Maryland’s construction industry.

Some on the Senate Budget and Tax Committee are not so sure and are considering major cuts to O'Malley's budget. (Update: B&T cut about $120 million from O'Malley's plan, despite their tough talk.) Regardless of the in-state budget discussion, is Maryland even in the same league as New Jersey?

A call to Fitch revealed that NJ's GO bonds just got a AA- rating in December. Also that state now faces $10.7 billion hole in its $29 billion budget, according to Christie. “It is a massive deficit,” the NJ governor told his legislature. “The largest deficit of any state in America.”

They are closing Motor Vehicle offices one day a week, chopping nearly a $800 million from local school aid, increasing prescription drug co-pays for seniors and reducing tax rebates, according to the New Jersey Star Ledger's statehouse reporters who've compiled their budget related coverage here.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:28 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 18, 2010

Card games, table games and VLTs

A local bill backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to provide a financial stimulus to Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County opened the door this morning to a long and loud debate about the state’s fledging gaming program.

The bill permits card games at Rosecroft – this means poker, blackjack – but not slots or table games like roulette. The struggling racetrack is on the verge of collapse, according to owners who testified at a Senate hearing last week.

One owner teared up describing the potential loss of 600 jobs. But permitting such gaming at Rosecroft would require a constitutional amendment and a statewide referendum. While the voters at it, why not expand gaming across the state? That was the question Minority Leader Allan Kittleman asked on the floor, offering an amendment that would allow the state slots commission to award six “table game” licenses anywhere in Maryland.

The licenses would be distributed by the slots commission either in the locations already approved for slots … or anywhere else the commission determines they should go. BWI Airport, for example, one place some have discussed.

Some Senators objected saying Kittleman’s idea has not had a hearing and is too vague. But they also sounded frustrated that surrounding states are enhancing their own gaming programs while Maryland is being left behind.

“All of the state around us are better situated,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelly, a Baltimore County Democrat. She also cited cost: “Why do all of us have to pay for a referendum that only deals with one jurisdiction?”

Den. George Della, from Baltimore also wants to expand gaming options. “This would be a great way to help ourselves,” he said, supporting Kittleman’s idea. Della was once opposed to gaming, but now that it has passed he wants the types of gambling expanded. “This would take us to the next level,” he said.

Senators didn’t vote on the amendments this morning. They plan to continue the debate Friday. No matter what they do, the idea of expanding gaming will likely come before the body again this session. Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she’s confident the Senate Budget and Tax Committee will approve her bill that allows table games.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:22 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

House joins Senate in approving civil filing fee bump

The House of Delegates this morning approved raising the cost of filing a lawsuit -- money that would be used to support civil legal services for the poor. Lawmakers this year have looked to fees as a way to fund social programs hard hit by the economy.

The House plan is more moderate than what the Senate approved earlier this month. Delegates want to charge $130 for Circuit Court filings, instead of the $105 they now cost. (The Senate approved raising the cost to $150.) Under the House plan, District Court filing fees would go up by $7 or $15, compared to the $10 or $20 increase approved by the Senate.

Delegates also demanded more financial reporting from Maryland Legal Services Corp., the recipient of the additional fees, and want the increases to end after three years. The two proposals must be reconciled before the 90-day legislative session ends April 12. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, warned his colleagues that he will not support the Senate plan. Other delegates, including House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County, opposed even the moderate fee increase.

O'Donnell said it's unfair to "nickel and dime citizens" in the midst of a bad economy, regardless of the cause that money supports.

The court fees would be used to prop up legal assistance in foreclosure filings, child custody battles and landlord-tenant disputes -- civil cases where poor people are not entitled to a lawyer, unlike in criminal cases.

Legal aid revenue has been walloped even as those services are more in demand than ever, advocates say. A traditional source of funding -- interest accrued on lawyers' trust accounts -- is quickly drying up because interest rates are so low. Maryland Legal Services Corp., which distributes money to about three dozen free legal clinics across the state, estimates interest this year will generate about $2 million for them, down from $6.7 million in 2008.

The House plan would provide about $4 million in new money for legal services, delegates said.

Other court fees, including extra charges for divorce petitions in Prince George's County and marriage licenses in Baltimore City, are under consideration this year. Revenue from those increases would be used to support domestic violence programs.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:40 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: General Assembly 2010, Tax & Spend
        

March 17, 2010

Sex offender bills on the move (in the House, at least)

The Maryland House of Delegates today gave early approval to two major sex offender reforms, eliminating good-time prison credits for the most violent and repeat predators and establishing lifetime supervision for them.

Republican lawmakers pushed to expand several of the provisions, including ones that would force judges to bar all high-level sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools and day care centers and require global-position devices. Those efforts were defeated after Democratic leaders argued that they would be too costly and could concentrate offenders in rural areas.

On Thursday, the House is scheduled to take up legislation that would bring the state into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act by adding more information to the state sex offender registry.

The House must give final approval to all of the measures, and a key Senate panel has just begun debating them. The Senate Judiciary Committee has in previous years been loath to restrict good-time prison credits. That same committee has also previously rejected efforts to change the requirements for registration for homeless sex offenders — one of the provisions the House is to consider Thursday.

Sex offender reforms have been a hot topic this session, with lawmakers vowing to take up the cause after an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl was killed in December. A convicted sex offender has been charged with capital murder in Sarah Foxwell's death.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:59 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Crime & Justice, General Assembly 2010
        

Wine almost at your doorstep

The contentious idea of lifting the ban on the direct shipment of wine to Maryland house nearly received a vote on the Senate floor this morning – by accident.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, was considering attaching one of two different amendments to an unrelated wine bill during this morning's session.

  • Amendment A: Lifted state ban on direct wine shipping to residences.
  • Amendment B: Directed Comptroller Peter Franchot to study how other state have implemented direct shipping.

Raskin consulted with his colleague Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the committee overseeing the wine debate, and pledged to offer the weaker Amendment B. Critical in his thinking were the pleas from the state’s wineries who worried his idea would kill the underlying bill which they’ve long wanted. (The underlying bill allows vineyards to sell their wine a farmers' markets, that bill was delayed for one day).

However, Raskin accidently handed out the stronger Amendment A, a mistake that caused Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to nickname the two-time Harvard graduate “Absent Minded Professor.”

Raskin swapped the amendments and later told us that he’s “been frustrated” with the lack of action on the direct shipping issue. He says the years of delay on the issue show an example of “the public interest being ignored because of the pleasure of a special interest.” (The Washington Post recently wrote about the power of Maryland liquor lobby; The Sun tackled the issue a few years ago - read it after the jump.)

Raskin predicts that next year will be the year for direct shipping – otherwise he says he’ll “bring a sleeping bag” and filibuster in the Senate.

Across the hall in the House Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the Economic Matters Committee, said he plans to talk with his committee members today about Raskin’s amendment. He said he would not be surprised if it is offered in the House Thursday when that body is set to debate a similar underlying bill allowing wine sales at farmer’s markets.

Continue reading "Wine almost at your doorstep" »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:32 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 16, 2010

Vallario shows his hand on electing judges

A package of sex offender legislation was delayed on day in House floor at the request of Republican Leader Tony O’Donnell – but that didn’t prevent delegates from starting to debate the issue which, curiously, led to a revelation about the probable fate of Attorney General Doug Gansler’s bid to curtail competitive elections for circuit court judges.

In the floor exchange this morning, one delegate worried that the language in a proposed sex offender bill allowed judges too much discretion over sentencing and supervision.

House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario shot back.

“Judges will be responsible for their decisions,” Vallario hollered on the floor. “That is why we elect them. We have elected them for the last 200 years and hopefully we will continue.”

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has not yet voted on the measure, SB 833. The House version, HB 1385, also not had a committee vote.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:36 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 10, 2010

Return of the death penalty debate

Five months after enacting tight restrictions on Maryland's seldom-used capital punishment statute, state lawmakers are considering another revision. Senators dismissed a total repeal of the death penalty last year in favor of a hastily crafted compromise plan. The new law means that prosecutors can only seek the death penalty in murder cases where there is DNA evidence, a video-recording of the crime or a video-taped confession from the killer.

It appears that just one prosecutor has filed capital charges since the statute took effect Oct. 1: Wicomico County State's Attorney Davis R. Ruark is seeking it in the case of James Leggs Jr. A registered sex offender, Leggs is accused of kidnapping and killing 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell days before Christmas.

Now, Sen. Norman Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat, wants to add fingerprints and still photographs to the list of evidence that can be used to initiate a capital case.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger testified in favor of the bill today before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, saying "it makes absolutely no sense" to dismiss fingerprints and photographs but allow DNA and video recordings.

On the other side of the debate, Katy C. O'Donnell, chief of the state public defenders' aggravated homicide division, which handles capital cases, said lawmakers sent a clear message last year. "We don't want just 'reliable' evidence," she said, "We want evidence with heightened reliability. She and other opponents raised questions about fingerprints, saying that more judges -- even in Baltimore County, where the death penalty has traditionally been used the most -- were dubious of the certainty that fingerprint identification provides.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, backs Stone's plan, but it is likely to be a tough sell in the House of Delegates. The House committee that would consider the measure favors repealing the death penalty altogether.

Five men are on Maryland's death row. The last execution was performed in December 2005. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, opposes the death penalty. His administration and a committee of many anti-death penalty lawmakers have been reviewing and revising execution protocols for the past few years, effectively instituting a moratorium.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Crime & Justice, General Assembly 2010
        

March 9, 2010

MD Senate acts on unemployment benefits

The Maryland Senate this morning unanimously approved a plan to change unemployment benefits as a way to tap into nearly $127 million in federal stimulus money.

Lawmakers worked feverishly with business groups that first opposed the plan because of concerns that it would impose long-term costs on employers. The compromise, which passed the full Senate today with no debate, increases the number of out-of-work Marylanders eligible for benefits by shifting the time period reviewed when calculating claims. But it offsets the estimated $20 million in new costs by reducing other benefits, such as sick claims.

A House of Delegates committee is reviewing the compromise plan and could vote on it as soon as this week.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:08 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 2, 2010

Gansler’s office: Gansler can’t be impeached

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s office came to the conclusion this week that the state’s General Assembly does not have the power to remove Gansler from office.

“The Maryland Constitution explicitly states that a ‘court of law’ is the forum for proceedings to remove an Attorney General,” wrote Gansler’s counsel Dan Friedman in a letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch. He points to Article V, section 1 of the Constitution.

Friedman then quoted his 2006 book “The Maryland State Constitution: A Reference Guide” ($136.95 on Amazon). “The Attorney General may only be removed by a court proceeding for the specified grounds, not by impeachment by the legislature,” wrote Friedman. As an aside, Friedman wrote the book before he was hired into the AG's office.

Why are we talking about impeaching Gansler? Last week Republican Del. Don Dwyer became angry that the AG issued an opinion saying out-of-state same-sex marriages should be honored here and threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against Gansler. The exchange prompted a candidate for Dwyer's seat to challenge him to a debate.

And Dwyer was outraged today by the letter from Gansler's office.

“I was not surprised to see that Attorney General Gansler opposes his own impeachment,” Dwyer said in a statement. “What is surprising is that Dan Friedman (Council [sic] to the General Assembly) who wrote the letter, refers to the book, Dan Friedman, The Maryland State Constitution: A Reference Guide as the basis for his opinion that the Attorney General may not be impeached or removed by the legislature.”
Posted by Annie Linskey at 4:57 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Marylanders WANT to pay $2.10 for a Miller Lite

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence is touting a new poll that says Marylanders “strongly” support paying more per drink at the pub if the extra tax money goes to help the disabled or addicted.

The group is backing what they call a $0.10 increase per drink to the state’s alcohol tax (the tax would actually be levied at the wholesaler level). The group says the revenues would fund programs for people with disabilities.

They commissioned a poll that says that 80 percent would accept an alcohol tax increase if the new funds pay for programs for the developmentally disabled, 79 percent would support it in exchange for higher funding for mental health, 66 percent want health care expanded to more uninsured Marylanders and 65 percent want more resources for alcohol and drug addiction.

As a gentle warning to our cherished readers who are nodding their heads empathetically while thinking about the priorities enumerated above, please do remember these two words: FUND TRANSFER.

The FUND TRANSFER is a mechanism the General Assembly likes to use when they realize they don’t have enough money for something they really want. Faced with that problem they simply move money from Pot A (programs for the disabled, for example) to Pot B (pick your cause). This year’s $13 billion general fund budget includes $900 million worth of FUND TRANSFERS.

In short, even if a law is passed that said all revenues from an extra dime per drink should fund some cocktail of programs for the disabled, mentally ill, uninsured and developmentally disabled, a simple change could be made to redirect that money to fund an upgrade to the elevators in the Lowe House Office building.

Here is what wouldn’t change: Your ten cent tax on a beer.

Cheers.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:01 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

March 1, 2010

Maryland Chamber now supports unemployment benefits changes

Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed changes to unemployment benefits have at last won the support of key business groups.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce just released a statement saying its legislative policy committee had voted this afternoon to back a heavily amended version of the Democratic governor's plan. The amendments resulted from lengthy negotiations among lawmakers, the administration, business groups and labor and were largely designed to appease groups, such as the Maryland Chamber, that had been concerned about long-term costs to employers.

Until today, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had opposed the legislation. Now, the Maryland Retailers, Associated Builders and Contractors and Maryland restaurateurs back the bill, though the National Federation of Independent Businesses continues to oppose it because it doesn't provide any tax relief.

Chamber President Kathy Snyder said in a statement:

"Our goals have been to give employers payment plan options, offset the cost of any unemployment insurance system changes and ensure the long-term health and stability of the unemployment insurance trust fund. This bill accomplishes those goals."

With additional support now secured, the Senate Finance Committee will likely vote on the proposal tomorrow. The House of Delegates will then take up the amended bill.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat and chairman of the committee, said he was "very pleased" with the outcome. "After all of the compromise that took place, I felt very optimistic," Middleton said. He led the weeks-long negotiations.

Middleton said he and the O'Malley administration are now working on a plan to help small businesses by developing loan guarantees for employers who will be hard hit by this year's dramatic increase in unemployment-insurance taxes.

If lawmakers pass the amended plan, which broadens the number of people eligible for unemployment benefits by shifting the time period that can be considered when calculating them, the state will be eligible for about $127 million in federal money.

That cash will be deposited into the state's unemployment insurance trust fund, which has been depleted by the high number of people collecting and businesses that have gone under. The governor originally wanted to use that money to provide tax relief to employers, but the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and other groups wanted to keep the money in the trust to build it back up.

To offset the long-term costs -- about $20 million per year -- associated with accessing the federal money, other benefits will be nipped. Among them: eliminating sick claims, increasing the minimum weekly claim to $50 (which knocks off a few of the lowest end claimants), increasing the penalties for misconduct and decreasing the amount of money an unemployed person can make while collecting benefits.

The Sun editorial board weighs in here.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:10 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010, Tax & Spend
        

February 26, 2010

Signing bonus ... for employers

The state Senate today approved a plan to give businesses a $5,000 tax credit for each unemployed Marylander they hire. Lawmakers went beyond the $3,000 Gov. Martin O'Malley had proposed.

The tax credits are limited to $250,000 per employer, and the state will cut off the program at $20 million. The legislation also accounts for potential problems by requiring the new employee to be filling a new position or one that has been vacant at least six months.

O'Malley said in a statement the plan serves two purposes, "creating jobs and protecting the small and family owned businesses that are the backbone of our economy and the driving force for job creation."

The House of Delegates must vote on the proposal, but leaders there believe it has the support to pass.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:24 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010, Tax & Spend
        

Compromise forged on unemployment benefits

Business groups that have opposed the governor's plan to cut unemployment-benefits taxes at a time when many employers are struggling say they will announce Monday whether they've been won over by a compromise plan.

The groups had opposed Gov. Martin O'Malley's idea to tap into about $127 million in federal stimulus money -- which could have reduced employers' taxes this year -- in part because it meant a slight but permanent increase in the amount the pay into the state's unemployment insurance trust fund. For the state to get the federal money, it must extend benefits to more part-time workers and those in qualified job-training programs and by adjust a technical formula so that more people would qualify for benefits. Those changes amount to an extra $20 million employers would have to pay each year.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who has been in the thick of near-daily negotiations, says he's confident the parties have reached a compromise that will enable the state to go after the federal money but offsets the new costs to employers. But two large business groups, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland Retailers Association, say they need time to present the plan to their members. They anticipate they'll have an answer Monday on whether they support it.

As we reported weeks ago, the new plan does not include unemployment-tax rate relief. Business groups said they'd prefer to use all $127 million to build up the depleted fund (so empty that the state may have to borrow $250 million to prop it up).

Most of the other changes involve decreasing certain benefits, including eliminating sick claims, increasing the minimum weekly claim to $50 (which knocks off a few of the lowest end claimants), increasing the penalties for misconduct and decreasing the amount of money an unemployed person can make while collecting benefits.

Aides to the Democratic governor helped design the compromise, and lawmakers could vote on it as soon as next week.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:47 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Chickens on the Senate floor

Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus announced this morning that the state has issued a reprieve for Eastern Shore farmers – for the next 30 days they can burn their chicken houses. Senators applauded the development, causing us to scratch our head.

Turns out the recent two-punch snow storm caused 50 chicken houses to collapse in and around Stoltzfus’ district. Dragging the broken buildings to the dump could cost farmers $45K to $60K in fees, Stoltzfus said. The farmers would prefer to pour a few gallons of gas on the structures and light a match.

But, the Maryland Department of the Environment just promulgated new regs barring burning. Stoltzfus began complaining about those rules on the Senate floor earlier this week, and by today, he said the Department agreed to wait another month before implementing the new rule.

Stoltzfus is not sure if the extension permits all types of burning, or just the burning of chicken houses. If we get a minute later today we’ll ask.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:37 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Same-sex politics

In perhaps the opening salvo of the “sex wars” that observers say Attorney General Doug Gansler's controversial gay-union opinion could instigate, budding politician Justin M. Towles decided to make a public stand in support of the state's AG.

Hours after Gansler issued an opinion that Maryland should honor same-sex marriages perfromed out-of-state, Towles' foe, conservative Republican Del. Don Dwyer called for Gansler to be impeached.

Towles, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, criticized the incumbent saying Dwyer’s call for impeachment both “unstatesman-like” and “radical.”

“This is yet another example of how Delegate Dwyer's extremist views divert attention and crucial resources from the real problems facing Marylanders, and continue to isolate the 31st District from mainstream policy discussions,” wrote Towles.

Dwyer, who opposes gay unions, says that Gansler should not have issued a fresh opinion because the Attorney General’s office in 2004 wrote an advisory letter that said out-of-state same sex-marriages should not be accepted here. With no change in Maryland law since that date, Dwyer says, there should not have been a new opinion.

** UPDATE: Del. Dwyer responded, saying he'd like to debate Towles and the other two Democrats in the race. See comments below.  

Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:32 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Families, General Assembly 2010
        

February 17, 2010

Republican senator says Senate president is bullying him

* Updated Thursday morning with better campaign contribution numbers and a link.

Republican Sen. Andrew P. Harris received a letter yesterday from the Democratic Senate president asking him to fire his chief of staff by Friday -- a directive that Harris called "Chicago-style" bare-knuckles politics.

Miller's stated reason for requesting the termination of Kathy Szeliga is that she is a candidate for the House of Delegates this fall and therefore cannot continue to work for the state legislature.

Harris believes Miller's move is a nothing more than a political power play. The outspoken Baltimore County representative, who is running for Frank Kratovil's congressional seat this fall, is pushing a number of measures aimed at scaling back state lawmaker pensions. The Senate this morning refused to give Harris an extra day to make technical fixes to an amendment he hoped to offer that would put lawmakers into a 401k-style pension system.

"The coincidence is stunning," Harris said of the timing of Miller's request. "This has come completely out of the blue."

Miller this morning disputed that the allegation that his request of Harris was about politics. "He's politicizing a personnel matter that I have absolutely nothing to do with," Miller said. He called Szeliga a "good friend" whom he had once asked to work for him.

The Senate president also said he'd received a complaint about the Szeliga situation weeks ago, long before the pension debate emerged. The complaint came from the Democratic Central Committees of Baltimore and Harford counties.

Miller's letter to Harris, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, states that Harris must terminate Szeliga because she is "in violation of the personnel policy's prohibition against employees of the legislature running for State legislative office." Miller refers to an attorney general's opinion he obtained.

Harris and Szeliga said ethics and human resources officials told them weeks ago that she could keep her chief of staff position until actually filing as a candidate, which she has not done.

From the Maryland General Assembly personnel policy:

"While employed by the Maryland General Assembly an employee may not run for an office in the Maryland General Assembly. Once the employee has filed with the Election Board to run for a state legislative office, the employee must resign his or her position in the General Assembly."

Harris calls the attorney general's opinion bogus and say he is talking with attorneys about his options. He says he won't fire Szeliga.

Although she has not filed with the State Board of Elections, Szeliga has made a number of moves that affirm she is a candidate. She has an official campaign web site and registered a campaign committee last May so that she could begin accepting donations. She'd raised $13,000* as of January.

Harris says there are "different standards for different people" in the state legislature.

A similar situation arose last summer, when Lisa Baugher, a legislative aide for Delegate Rick Weldon, a Frederick County Independent, sought a waiver of the personnel policy.

Baugher, a Democrat, had announced she would challenge Republican Sen. Alex Mooney of Frederick for his seat. Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch sought guidance from the attorney general and, after receiving it, told her she wouldn't be granted a waiver.

Weldon has since left his seat. Baugher dropped out of the race, according to the Frederick News-Post, choosing instead to stay on as legislative aide to Weldon's replacement, Del. Charles Jenkins, a Republican.

* Szeliga's campaign account stands at about $43,000 after totaling not only contributions, but loans and ticket sales. A blog for the Maryland Democratic Party has an assessment of what it sees as other problems with Szeliga working for the legislature while running for office.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:10 AM | | Comments (24)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 16, 2010

Fighting foreclosures could pack political punch

UPDATED. See below.

Today, Gov. Martin O'Malley will personally urge lawmakers to pass a measure that would increase the options for homeowners on the verge of foreclosure. This will be his first appearance of the year before legislative committees. Political observers call it a savvy move for a Democratic governor who faces reelection in a year that comes amid a prolonged economic downturn. See our story in this morning's Baltimore Sun.

We'll watch the hearings today to see how lawmakers feel about the proposal and gauge its chances of becoming law.

Some key points in the legislation:
* Before a foreclosure action can be filed in court, lenders are required to submit proof that they tried to modify the loan.
* If the borrower believes that he or she was wrongly denied loan modification, the lender must agree to a mediation session, which the court will organize.
The proposal also imposes a $100 fee to be paid by lenders whenever they file for foreclosure.

One potential problem: The court system, which would contend with a potential flood of foreclosure mediation sessions, isn't supportive of O'Malley's proposal as written. They cite the legislation's costs and lack of clarity as some of the reasons why. Court officials also point out that the proposal is "inherently unfair" in that it forces borrowers to show up in person for mediation but allows lenders to phone in.

A fiscal and policy analysis that became available this morning further explores costs.

Revenues could increase by about $200,000* next year, thanks to the $100 fee. But the analysis also speculates that court expenses could go up by $800,000 or more to establish a mediation program. (The analyst notes that he's just guessing because the court system failed to supply him with any real numbers.)

We aren't expecting to hear from the court system today. An official told us yesterday that they'd simply be submitting written testimony in opposition to the bill, not testifying at the hearings.

* Aides to the governor believe the legislative analyst grossly underestimated the potential revenue, saying it is likely to be $1.6 million or more per year. The analyst appears to have wrongly calculated revenue based on anticipated mediation sessions. However, the governor's proposal calls for the $100 fee to be assessed on ALL foreclosure filings, regardless of mediation.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:54 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 15, 2010

Constituent services Sen. Conway style

A seemingly minor bill introduced by Sen. Joan Carter Conway dominated debate in the Senate Monday night. 

The measure would have expanded insurance coverage of costly in vitro fertilization in one very specific instance: when the man can’t produce sperm because of a condition called non obstructive azoospermia AND the woman has ovarian hyper stimulation syndrome.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, was skeptical. A doctor by training, Harris told his colleagues the medical conditions outlined in the legislation are so narrowly crafted that the bill most likely “only covers one person.”

Conway (D-Baltimore City) argued that the analyst who wrote the fiscal note attached to her bill (SB 27) estimates one percent of Maryland couples could suffer from the combination of symptoms required to trigger coverage. But Conway said she introduced the measure after receiving a request from one couple who lives in her district.

“It is a constituent who had a problem,” Conway said after the floor debate. “I wrote it for that one person who brought it to my attention.” Conway won’t name the couple – at least for now. She promised to get back to us after checking with them.

The bill failed final passage on a 23-23 vote with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller abstaining. But it could still re-emerge. Sen. George Della (D-Baltimore City) asked that the bill be reconsidered on Thursday. 

It’s unclear what will change between now and then. After the session Miller said that he abstained because he was unfamiliar with the legislation, but he also seemed wary based on the floor debate. “My personal belief is that if somebody is going to receive sperm from somebody else, then they can pay for it,” Miller said.

We’d like to add here that Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) expressed an overall distaste for mandating insurance coverage for procedures that are not medically necessary. He pointed to a 2002 column by the Sun’s Jay Hancock that outlines how such mandates can drive up health care costs.

We’ve added the Hancock column after the jump.

** UPDATE: Several have noted in the comments that Sen. Conway opposes efforts to allow direct wine shipping in Maryland, an issue recently covered by Julie Bykowicz.

Continue reading "Constituent services Sen. Conway style" »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 10:15 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Harris picks up pension reform in Senate

State Senator Andy Harris (R-Baltimore County), is busy this afternoon drafting a pair of amendments that make changes to lawmaker pension plans. He plans to offer them tonight if they are ready.

**UPDATE** Harris said Monday night the amendments will be ready Wednesday.

The first would create a so-called “bad boy clause" in the lawmakers' pension eligibility code. This means state lawmakers would not get pensions payouts if convicted of crimes related. Harris said he drafted the bill in part because of voter outrage after former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon kept her $83,000-a-year city pension despite a jury conviction on a theft charge. 

The Dixon drama, however, is not the greatest example because the proposal Harris described for us Monday is actually weaker than the Baltimore’s clause. Harris’ provision would only apply to lawmakers found guilty of felonies related to their public duties. In the city, lawmakers found guilty of any felony or any misdemeanor related to duties can't collect pensions.

(Here is a Sun story describing a protest outside of Baltimore's City Hall over the Dixon pension, and explaining why she gets to keep it.)

Harris also wants to move all lawmakers into a defined contribution (401K-type) pension plan. Currently retired lawmakers receive a defined benefit, meaning they can count on a set amount each month. Harris believes the change will save taxpayers $750,000 a year. Del. William J. Frank (R-Baltimore County) tried and failed to offer a similar amendment in the House last week.

 

Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:42 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 11, 2010

Senate wants drivers to move over for cyclists

The Maryland Senate this morning unanimously approved a measure requiring drivers to give bicycles, scooters and other personal transportation devices, such as Segways, at least three feet of space when possible.

Drivers now are required to exercise "due care" when passing cyclists, but the Senate wants to get specific on what exactly that means. A House of Delegates committee is scheduled to hear the proposal next week.

Also included in the measure is a directive that drivers are to yield right-of-way at intersections when a cyclist is in a designated bike lane or lawfully riding on the shoulder.

Violating these new provisions would be a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $500.

The Baltimore City Paper pointed out in a recent commentary on its news blog that the measures come too late for cyclist Jack Yates, who was killed last summer at the intersection of Maryland and Lafayette avenues in Baltimore. From Michael Byrne's entry:

He was riding to the right of the right lane of Maryland as a truck passed him, also in the right lane. That is, both vehicles were smooshed into the right lane as the truck instigated a right turn onto Lafayette. The accident that resulted is a classic "right hook," one of the most dreaded occurrences in urban bicycling—and one of the most common.

Maryland lawmakers are also considering several "move over" measures that would require drivers to pull away from emergency vehicles that are stopped on shoulders to investigate traffic accidents or infractions.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:15 PM | | Comments (57)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

No 'warm Senate welcome' for Annapolis snow

The blizzards of 2010 have buried the state capital at a time when legislators are trying to plow through hundreds of proposed laws by April 12.

After taking a rare day off Monday because of hazardous driving conditions, many of the 188 senators and delegates made it to work Tuesday morning. More than 70 percent were here yesterday, possibly the worst day of the snow storms. (A majority of them take up quarters in Annapolis for the 90-day session.)

Public hearings have been canceled for several days; most were called off again today. Fear not: House Speaker Michael E. Busch says that because the snow came early in the session, he doesn't believe it will hinder the legislative work.

But for two full days now, all anyone can talk about is snow. From a story in The Baltimore Sun this morning:

Maryland lawmakers attempted, on the 29th day of the 427th legislative session, to keep their usual daily rituals and workloads. But Wednesday's storm quickly whited out those plans.

Even the morning prayer in the House of Delegates, delivered by Del. Pamela G. Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, contained a desperate plea: "While we have your attention, please stop the snow. We are ready for spring."

On Tuesday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller hurled a verbal snowball at the city of Annapolis, criticizing what he called the municipality's "disgraceful" efforts to clear icy and slippery roads.

Annapolitans, he said, "should have better treatment from their elected officials."

"This is a high-end city," he said. "It is a very wealthy city. What was good in the 1700s is not acceptable."

We'll see if today's sunshine melts away the snow talk. Lawmakers convene as a group at 11 a.m. Almost all public hearings are off, except in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. With most reporters returning to Annapolis today, it could be a very well-covered hearing. We just need to come up with a way to make estate and trust laws seem exciting.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:14 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 9, 2010

Bonds between lawmakers

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller railed against so-called “bond bills” this morning saying, “I’d prefer we don’t do them quite frankly” and “In past years when we had tough times we didn’t have the bond bills.”

The bond bills are essentially the state-level version of federal earmarks. The state legislature gets to dole out $15 million to favorite projects. Each chamber allocates $7.5 million.

Miller, a Democrat, blamed the House for initiating the bond bills this year, saying the members of that body are “newer” and “younger” and “they want to be able to deliver for their districts.”

“I think the [state] senators are more comfortable in their skins," Miller said. "They tend to look at the budget from a longer point of view.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, had a different take. He stopped by our office and explained that during the first two weeks of the session he considered not having any bond bills at all.

“We had a discussion,” he said. “It was split.” His staff found that roughly 60 bond bills had already been introduced – including requests from both parties.

Then he noticed there was one in from Miller.

“We saw that Miller put on in personally,” Busch said. “We took our lead from the Senate.”

A quick bill search reveals Miller wants $250,000 to renovate a field in Chesapeake Beach and $500,000 for a community center in Prince George’s County.

To be fair, Busch also has a bond bill. He wants $200,000 to repair the William Paca House in Annapolis.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 6:22 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 8, 2010

Corked: Popular direct-shipping bill likely a no-go

An effort to allow Marylanders to have wine shipped to their homes has more support than ever, as evidenced by the 100-plus legislators who co-signed this year's bill.

But the proposal must clear the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and the chairwoman tells The Sun that's not going to happen. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, says she is concerned about minors signing for the bottles and the potential problems enforcing state laws and tax collection when an out-of-state vendor is involved.

Still, she acknowledges that direct shipping is "conceptually... a good thing." Maryland is one of just a dozen or so states that ban direct-shipping, a Prohibition-era rule.

Affectionately known nationally as the "Free the Grapes" campaign, direct shipping is sure to draw a lively crowd when the Senate hearing is scheduled.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 7, 2010

Climate change in Annapolis.


We’ve been regaled with tales of State House fortitude in the face of wintry conditions since being assigned to cover Annapolis. The General Assembly session, lawmakers assured us, has NEVER been cancelled for snow. (We have research request into Baltimore Sun library to check this fact.)  
 
But Sunday at 11:58 a.m. this message arrived on our BlackBerries from Speaker Busch’s Communications Director Alexandra Hughes:

“The Presiding Officers have decided that the 8pm session of the Maryland General Assembly is cancelled for Monday, February 8, 2010, due to potential icy conditions.”

In Baltimore, however, it’s All Systems Go. The communications director for new Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent out an email at 3:21 p.m. Sunday saying “City Government Offices Open for Business Monday.” City work will start at 10 a.m., writes spokesman Ryan O’Doherty.

But it is unclear how many will be at work, SRB says that “nonessential employees” are on “liberal leave.” (We are extremely curious to see who and how many put themselves in this category as the city prepares to lop millions from its budget.)

**UPDATE** Former Sun Editor Howard Libit wrote us Sunday night to say YES YES YES  the General Assembly has been closed. It shut down during the last big snowstorm of 2003. The Sun covered it and the story was written (eh hem) by our current editor David Nitkin (sorry boss). Nitikin's fantastic story is posted after the jump. 

In other news, The Sun’s Jill Rosen had a great story on the politics of snow.

Continue reading "Climate change in Annapolis. " »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 4:13 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 5, 2010

Senator: Governor's plan to cut unemployment tax appears doomed; other provisions OK

One of Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature efforts this year -- a plan to cut the hefty unemployment-benefits taxes paid by businesses -- has not gained the support of the business community, despite weeks of talks, a senator said today.

"I don't think the tax cut is going to be a reality," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who has been in numerous discussions with business groups, the governor's office, labor and other stakeholders. "That's my gut feeling. We're moving away from it."

Middleton, who heads the Senate Finance Committee and the Unemployment Insurance Fund Task Force, had given the work group a deadline of today to reach a consensus, though he says talks will continue on early next week.

"We're running out of time," he said. The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation must tell businesses how much in unemployment insurance they need to pay this year in letters that typically go out March 1.

The O'Malley plan would increase the number of out-of-work Marylanders eligible for benefits so that the state can apply for nearly $127 million in federal stimulus money to prop up the depleted unemployment-insurance fund that businesses pay into through a tax formula. The governor proposed using $83 million of the federal money to reduce the taxes paid by businesses.

Business groups, including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and Maryland Retailers Association, have said the one-time cash infusion would be quickly outweighed by the permanent costs -- estimated at about $20 million annually -- that come with the required increase in benefits.

Middleton said new problems have emerged in discussions.

For one, he said, most business groups would prefer to keep all of the federal money in the fund rather than using any of it to cut their taxes, believing that a healthy fund is more important than rate relief. And before they would sign onto the effort to go after federal money, the business groups would need assurance that the cost of the new benefits would be offset by cutting some existing benefits. Middleton said all of the stakeholders are furiously researching what cuts could be made.

Moreover, the senator said, businesses dislike the idea of tapping federal stimulus money altogether. To reach a deal, Middleton said, the business groups "need to get over the feeling that stimulus money is bad... Right now they're saying, 'We don't want anything to do with the federal stimulus.'"

Aides to the governor remain hopeful, and the discussion continues.

"We are actively working with employers to reach a consensus on the remaining issue -- rate relief -- and will do so as long as people are willing to talk," said Joseph Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer. "We’re all pulling in the same direction and trying to help ease the burden on employers."

Meanwhile, other parts of the governor's unemployment-insurance proposal, including spreading out the payments and reducing interest for late payments, have gained broad support and appear poised for passage by lawmakers, Middleton and Bryce said.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:57 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 4, 2010

Lawmakers turn down raises for themselves and gov

This comes as no surprise, but lawmakers today officially rejected salary increases.

A House of Delegates committee unanimously voted down the recommendations of two independent commissions that called for moderate pay raises in about three years.

Most of the state lawmakers make $43,500 yearly; the House speaker and Senate president earn $56,500 each. The governor’s salary is $150,000, and the lieutenant governor’s is $125,000. The commissions meet only once every four years, meaning that the salaries of those elected officials are to remain the same until 2015. That will make for eight years without raises.

General Assembly Commission Chairman Sean W. Glynn said the recommendation for small pay increases for lawmakers reflected a desire to be “sensitive” by balancing current issues, such as pay freezes for state workers, with the infrequent salary reviews.

However, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the two legislative leaders quickly declared they weren’t interested in pay raises.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:59 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Rewrite the Maryland Constitution? It's up to you.

Here's one reason to read all the way to the end of the ballot when you vote this November.

Maryland voters will choose a governor and all 188 state lawmakers this fall, but they'll also likely face an even weightier decision: Should the state constitution be ripped up and rewritten?

Every 20 years, state lawmakers are required to pass legislation placing a "constitutional convention question" on the ballot. The bill is expected to win easy approval because, as Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman told lawmakers on Wednesday, "You really don't have a choice."

Once the question is on the ballot, it has a long record of going nowhere - just one has been called since 1867, and the document produced was rejected. But some wonder if citizen activist groups might be able to rally enough support this year for rewriting the state's governing laws.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pan the idea of a convention, though they acknowledge that it's their duty to pose the question to voters.

Some citizen groups have already begun rallying for a convention. Here's a recent opinion piece, published in The Baltimore Sun, that explores some of the pros of a constitutional update by citizens.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 9:56 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 3, 2010

Effort to block gay marriage blocked

Maryland lawmakers just rejected an effort to prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages lawfully performed elsewhere.

Del. Emmett C. Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat and minister, had proposed that the state, which does not allow same-sex unions, pass a law explicitly declaring that such marriages are illegal, even when performed in another state.

The Burns proposal was seen as a pre-emptive strike against a legal opinion that state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has been working on since a senator requested it last year. Top lawmakers have predicted that Gansler will allow same-sex marriages to be recognized in Maryland, following the state’s legal tradition of recognizing unions, including common-law marriages, that are illegal in Maryland but lawful elsewhere.

Burns had said that with a growing number of nearby states and Washington giving the green-light to gay marriage, it was especially important for Maryland to close what he called a legal loophole.

By a 12-8 vote, the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee decided to give the bill an unfavorable report, dooming it.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:12 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 2, 2010

Governor to address lawmakers in annual State of the State

At noon, Gov. Martin O'Malley will deliver the annual "State of the State," a speech expected to include lots of talk about protecting and creating jobs amid another year of a national down economy. The Democratic governor, like all 188 state lawmakers who will be in the House of Delegates chamber listening to him, is up for reelection this fall.

While the governor's office puts the finishing touches on this year's remarks, let's remind ourselves where we were last year. Here are the opening paragraphs of The Baltimore's Sun's coverage of the 2009 address:

Gov. Martin O'Malley charted a course for the state through a national recession yesterday, pledging to protect safety net programs, freeze college tuition and eradicate childhood hunger.

The Democratic governor laid out the vision in his third State of the State address before a joint session of the General Assembly, which must approve many of his plans. In a 30-minute speech, O'Malley said he "never felt more energized" despite bleak economic times, and repeatedly invoked President Barack Obama's name, drawing applause in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

"Our great challenge for this session is to redouble our efforts, doing all we can to stand up for Maryland families and to power through the other side of this recession ahead of every other state," O'Malley said. "The very good news is that we actually have a president and a Congress who, rather than looking at government as the enemy, are committed to moving us forward."

This year, O'Malley has agreed to end his signature tuition freeze, instead backing a 3 percent increase now that he has achieved his goal of making college more affordable, he says. He may address this in today's speech.

And with the president's popularity declining and growing discontent with incumbent elected officials from both parties, it will be interesting to listen for how frequently O'Malley drops Obama's name -- and just how enthusiasticly lawmakers respond this time.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and the Senate minority leader, will give his party's response immediately after O'Malley's address. Republicans have already put out a sort of preview of Kittleman's talking points, pointing out what they say is the "irony" of State of the State being delivered on Groundhog Day. (The speech was moved twice, first to accomodate the State of the Union and then to account for Baltimore's change in leadership, coming Thursday.)

Maryland citizens must feel like they live in a perpetual budget Groundhog Day under Governor O'Malley. For the fourth year in a row, Governor O'Malley introduced a budget plan that papers over deep deficit spending by one-time transfers, fund swaps and "found money."

Governor O'Malley continues to plug the hole in the dam instead of providing the long-term structural repairs that are needed to solve the state's gaping black hole of deficits. The next Governor will need to resolve over $8 billion of deficits caused by O'Malley's misguided budget policy.

To add insult to injury, these deficits were rolled up by O'Malley after he promised Maryland taxpayers that the 2007 special session historic tax hikes would solve Maryland's future deficits.

Check back shortly after noon for an update covering O'Malley's address.


Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:39 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

February 1, 2010

Governor appoints sex offender advisory board

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced today the appointment of six members to the newly revived Sexual Offender Advisory Board, which had lain dormant since being established by law in 2006. Last week, he tapped former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. as the board chairman. Curran, who is O'Malley's father-in-law, has studied sex offender reforms for years and favors civil commitments for certain predators.

From O'Malley's statement on the appointees:

"The new members of the Board announced today have one thing in common: a strong desire to protect our most vulnerable citizens – our children," said Governor O’Malley. “I am confident that their combined knowledge, background and expertise, and their advocacy of our legislation to impose the strictest standards of supervision of sex offenders will help strengthen our efforts to ensure that Maryland’s children are protected.”

The six are (with brief bios from governor's office):

Michele J. Hughes, Victims Advocacy Group – Ms. Hughes serves as the Executive Director of the Life Crisis Center, a non-profit, 24-hour facility which provides comprehensive support services to victims and child victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore.

Annette L. Hanson, M.D., Mental Disorders Expert– Dr. Hanson is a Board Certified psychiatrist at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, where she has worked since 1989.

Karla N. Smith, State’s Attorney – Ms. Smith is the Chief Attorney for the Family Violence Division of the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, where she is responsible for the prosecution of all child abuse, domestic violence, vulnerable adult abuse, and physical elder abuse cases.

David Walsh-Little, Esquire, Criminal Defense – Mr. Walsh-Little is an Assistant Public Defender in the Felony Trial Division of Baltimore City.

Laura Estupian-Kane, Ph.D., Sex Offender Treatment Provider – Dr. Estupian-Kane, a licensed psychologist, holds her own private psychology practice focusing on the assessment of adolescents who have committed sexual offenses and/or are involved with the juvenile court system.

J. Patricia Wilson Smoot, Citizen – Ms. Smoot is currently the Deputy State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County and has served in that role since December 2002.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:59 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 27, 2010

Prescription pot this session …

In a year when lawmakers seem to have their minds focused only on the budget and the election, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sounded optimistic about legislation introduced Tuesday to legalize medical marijuana. (The Sun’s Kelly Brewington wrote about that legislative proposal today.)

After session Miller held his regular gaggle with reporters said:

“I think if it comes to the floor of the Senate it will pass. We have Senator [David] Brinkley here who is a cancer survivor who a cancer survivor and he supports the bill. ...

"The secret is not to let it get abused. People come from California, these young people, they have cards. You have to make sure it is for truly medical purposes and there is some check and balance and if that happens in a meaningful way it could have a positive effect. If some bureaucrat in California decides to let everybody to have them it is a misuse of the system.”
Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:22 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Cold campaign cash.

About a dozen state senators and delegates stood on Lawyer’s Mall outside the State House disparaging the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent repudiation of campaign finance laws and outlining their own package of reforms. Julie Bykowicz previewed their announcement on the front page of today’s Baltimore Sun.

Here is what some of the legislators said on a chilly January morning.

Sen. David Harrington
(Prince George’s County, Democrat): Wants a disclosure message attached to any campaign ad funded by a corporation. He says “you can’t have free speech without transparency.”

Sen. Jamin Raskin (Montgomery County, Democrat): Worried that corporations might also be able to receive a tax deduction for their campaign contribution.

Del. John Cardin (Baltimore County, Democrat): Says the U.S. Supreme Court “has overturned more than 100 years” of campaign finance reform precedent.

Del. C. William Frick (Montgomery County, Democrat): Says “corporations are not citizens.”

Del. Elizabeth Bobo (Howard County, Democrat): Makes very interesting point that “a large percentage” of businesses in Maryland are Limited Liability Corporations. She says that individuals can easily manipulate current state campaign finance rules by creating multiple LLCs, each with slightly different ownership structures, and use them to funnel an unlimited amount of money to politicians. Those who watched the State Prosecutor’s investigation in Baltimore City Hall spending will recall that Mayor Sheila Dixon’s former boyfriend Ronald H. Lipscomb used a similar technique to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to state lawmakers.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 26, 2010

MD Senate Dems seek ethics, transparency reforms

The state's Democratic senators today announced their legislative priorities for the year. The press conference came a day after Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, laid out his legislative agenda.

The senators' ideas hit a number of hot topics this year:

* Ethics: Sens. Jamie Raskin and Douglas Peters want all local governments to follow state ethics filing procedures. "We all read the newspapers," Raskin said, referring to the recent conviction of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. Her theft case also revealed inconsistent ethics filing practices in the city. Raskin said state lawmakers fill out comprehensive ethics forms, and "citizens have the right to expect uniform high standards." All filings would be due at the same time and centrally warehoused.

* Sex offenders: Sen James DeGrange said he will seek to expand the state's sex offender registry, bringing Maryland into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act. The senator referenced the December killing of an 11-year-old girl on the Eastern Shore. A registered sex offender is a suspect, which has pushed sex offender reforms back into the spotlight this session. The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services also wants the state to revist its sex offender registry requirements. Among the provisions in DeGrange's bill are quarterly registration instead of twice a year for the most dangerous offenders and retroactive registration for offenders convicted before 1995. The state stands to lose $2 million in federal funding if it does not comply with the Adam Walsh Act, DeGrange said.

Health insurance: Sen. Nancy King wants a 45-day cushion for people whose insurance allows them only one wellness checkup every year. Sens. Robert Garagiola and Delores Kelley want insurance companies to directly pay out-of-network health care providers, if the coverage is approved. Now, insurance companies typically mail payments to the patients, who then have to turn them over to doctors, creating "administrative inefficiencies," Garagiola said.

As the press conference concluded this morning, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller addressed a transparency issue that flared up at the start of this session. Republican leaders were among those who requested better public access to votes taken in committee. Such votes decide the life or death of every piece of legislation.

Miller said his chamber has ordered that committee votes be posted online at most 10 days after voting sessions. He hopes the votes become available much more quickly -- within a day or two. On the House of Delegates side, Speaker Michael E. Busch recently ordered that all committee votes be placed online before bills come to the floor for full consideration.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:18 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 25, 2010

Governor lays out legislative wish list

*** UPDATED with Race to the Top information.

Governor Martin O'Malley has just released his 2010 legislative agenda, and there aren't a lot of surprises in it; he and his aides have been touting the big items for weeks. In this election year, the Democratic governor is undoubtedly hopeful that most of these proposals will go over well with the General Assembly.

First up for consideration, most likely, are proposed changes to the state's unemployment insurance system. The insurance fund stands to gain a huge infusion of federal cash -- $127 million -- if the state increases the period of time that can be considered when someone applies for unemployment benefits. Both the House and Senate are to hold hearings this week.

Notably, the governor's agenda does not specifically address teacher tenure and incentive pay, changes that state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick believes are necessary if Maryland wants to compete for up to $250 million in federal Race to the Top money.

*** UPDATE *** However, those bills appear to be on the way in short order. In a press release about O'Malley's legislative agenda, his office writes, "The Governor also plans on introducing legislation at a later date to better position Maryland for federal Race to the Top funding. The Governor continues to work with stakeholders to craft reforms that will further improve the nation’s number one public school system."

Here's a quick rundown of other O'Malley agenda items:

Sex offenders: Require lifetimes supervision for certain offenders.

Jobs: "Jobs, jobs, jobs," O'Malley has repeatedly said when asked about the three most important issues of this session. He wants to give businesses that hire unemployed Marylanders a $3,000 tax credit and stimulate small-business lending.

Energy: O'Malley isn't pushing for energy reregulation this year. Instead, he has proposed accelerating the state's solar energy use, giving the Public Service Commission the authority over offshore wind facilities and reuathorizing the renewable energy production tax credit.

Foreclosures: As the administration has said over the past few months, O'Malley will push for mandatory mediation before an owner loses his or her home.

The governor is also again pursuing a Medicaid false claims bill, which didn't succeed last year.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:43 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Sex offender laws: What we have, what we need

*** UPDATED (sort of) with response from the Maryland court system.

Today, Gov. Martin O'Malley is set to unveil his legislative agenda for the year. His aides say it will include a proposal requiring lifetime supervision of certain sex offenders. Lawmakers are expecting dozens of sex offender reforms, after an 11-year-old girl was abducted and killed in Salisbury last month. A sex offender is a suspect in the crime.

But what laws do we already have on the books? And how useful are they. My Sunday story examined two get-tough laws that are years old but have barely been used. Some lawmakers who worked on those provisions are livid, but the governor's office says they are simply unworkable, if not illegal.

Here's what we're not using:

"Emergency legislation from 2006 called for extra supervision of certain sex offenders, ranging from three years to a lifetime. Not a single person has been subjected to that extension, despite predictions it would affect at least 475 offenders every year.

That same measure created an advisory board to recommend overhauls of the entire sex offender system and issue its findings at the end of last year. The 13-member board was to include members of the governor's cabinet and citizens appointed by him.

The board has never met, and no report was produced.

Another law, enacted Oct. 1, 2007, requires judges to order mental health evaluations of all child sexual abusers at the time of sentencing as a way to help differentiate one-time offenders from dangerous predators.

Just two such evaluations have occurred, a tiny fraction of the people convicted of sexual abuse of a minor."

One major question that I couldn't answer in the story: Why aren't judges ordering mental health evaluations for child sex offenders, as required by law? Those evaluations were supposed to help put sexual predators away for longer terms.

From the story:

"As for why just two mental health evaluations have been conducted on child sex offenders, despite the 2007 law requiring judges to order them, "We've sort of wondered why, as well," said W. Lawrence Fitch, director of forensic service for the state Mental Hygiene Administration.

Fitch said half a dozen psychologists on contract with the agency are trained to perform the evaluations. The state sentencing commission told Simmons that nearly 300 people have been convicted of sexual abuse of a minor in the past three years.

"We really don't know why we're not being called," Fitch said. "We can speculate ... it's possible the bench and the bar just don't know about the law."

The executive branch has no enforcement authority over state courts.

A spokesman for the Maryland court system did not return phone calls and e-mails requesting information Friday. Several Circuit Court-level judges, who did not want their names used, said they had no idea they were supposed to be ordering mental health evaluations of child sex offenders."

The court system spokespeople still haven't returned my calls. I'll let you know if they do.

*** "UPDATE"

Received this e-mail at 3:30 p.m. today (more than 72 hours after calling with questions):

Good afternoon,

Our comment is as follows:

"We are currently researching the issue."


Darrell S. Pressley
Deputy Director
Office of Communications and Public Affairs
Maryland Judiciary

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:54 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 21, 2010

Proposal ties lawmaker pay to state unemployment figures

The General Assembly Compensation Commission report landed on Senate desks this morning with a resounding thud.

Their proposal says lawmakers salaries should be frozen for two years unless the economy improves and gives each lawmaker a $150 bump for in-district travel allowances. The 188 state lawmakers earn at least $43,000 a year, and those in leadership earn more.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the prospects were dim that lawmakers would support anything resembling a pay raise for in an election year as they furlough state workers.

“I’m confident they’ll reject it,” Miller told reporters this morning.

The proposal gives lawmakers a $2,000 pay bump Jan. 1, 2013 only if the number of people on the state unemployment figure drops to five percent or less. If that doesn’t happen their salaries remain frozen, but they have another chance for a raise in 2014 - again only unemployment gets to five percent.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Maryland with an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent as of Nov. 2009.

The Sun’s Laura Smitherman has written about a separate commission that recommended a $10,000 pay raise for Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:31 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 19, 2010

Maryland not in Race to the Top for education money

*** UPDATED

This will come as no surprise to education and politics insiders, but Maryland was not among the 40 states (plus D.C.) that submitted applications today for federal Race to the Top funds.

Maryland stands to gain about $150 million in reward money if it can show it is progressive in a number of areas, including charter school laws and teacher performance evaluation. State officials have said they will apply in Round Two this summer.

"I would have preferred to see us in the first round," Gov. Martin O’Malley said this afternoon. The governor had previously noted that Maryland -- which has been named the country's best school system two years in a row by Education Week magazine -- is in an excellent position to win the money.

The state's failure to submit a Round One application came after a serious disagreement between O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick about what exactly the state needed to do to be competitive for the money.

In November, The Sun's Liz Bowie wrote about how Maryland was notably quiet in preparing its application, compared with others states that had raced to change laws and renegotiate with teacher unions.

Soon after, O'Malley said the state was definitely working on an application.

Grasmick told The Sun's editorial board that the state was in a strong position to qualify for the money, but by Dec. 10 was saying the state had decided not to apply.

Her change of heart clearly irritated O'Malley.

"I find it very unusual that in the area where we're recognized as the best in the nation, that this is the one department that's not applying as aggressively as every other department has for these things," O'Malley said in an interview days later.

The Sun's editorial board has opined several times on Maryland's failure to Race to the Top. Here's more recent editorial.

And here is the list of states that did not apply, courtesy of Education Week's Politics K-12 blog: Alaska, Maryland, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington.

O'Malley said he is expecting "an open and transparent" process when Maryland does apply, saying the state is probably going to put its submission online for all to see.

This session, Maryland lawmakers are likely going to consider a number of bills that Grasmick said the state needs to pass in order to be progressive enough for Race to the Top.

Liz Bowie will have more details for us in tomorrow's Baltimore Sun.

Update: Liz writes that one education scholar views Maryland as "miles behind."

"Maryland could still catch up, but Grasmick believes the state will need to make some significant changes. Whether O'Malley is willing to push for legislation and ask the teachers union to make concessions is still a question," said Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. O'Malley, for instance, has said he is not sure a change is needed in the charter-school law. Last week, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said the state had the nation's weakest charter-school law.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:07 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Baltimore Crime Beat: Cell phones behind bars to become felony?

The crime blog's Peter Hermann examines a bill to increase the penalties of having a cell phone in prison.

"Gary D. Maynard, the secretary of Maryland's Public Safety and Correctional Services, is testifying in Annapolis today on a bill to turn having a cell phone in a prison into a felony worth up to five years more behind bars. At the moment, it's only a misdemeanor.

The issue has been a priority especially since the Carl Lackl case which a man behind prison walls was able to put a successful hit on a witness while using a pilfered cell phone. Since then, authorities have stepped up their fight against smuggled phones and there are attempts to change the law to allow police to block cell phone signals at prisons."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:55 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

B'More Green: O'Malley looking to boost Bay fund?

We'll know more about the budget later this afternoon, but check out what B'More Green's Tim Wheeler has to say about the Chesapeake Bay restoration fund:

"While cutting and juggling to close a massive $2 billion budget gap, could Gov. Martin O'Malley be planning to ask the General Assembly to increase funding for a signature Chesapeake Bay restoration fund?

The Washington Post, citing an unnamed administration source, reports that O'Malley will ask for $20 million for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund in the state spending plan he's to present to lawmakers in Annapolis today.

That's more than double the fund's current level, but still well short of what it was supposed to be when lawmakers created it more than two years ago."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:54 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 14, 2010

Miller to push slots in Prince George's County this session

*** UPDATED with reaction from the governor and speaker of the House of Delegates. ***

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he wants to expand Maryland’s fledgling slots program to Prince George’s County. And he'd like it done this year.

Miller, a Democrat, represents that part of that county and Calvert County, said he’s in discussions with Prince George’s officials and with Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Democrat, about how bring gambling to the county as a way to help save Rosecroft Raceway, in Muse’s district. Miller proposed having slots at one of three locations: Rosecroft, the National Harbor or an equestrian center in Upper Marlboro.

Muse, a reverend, said he has a “social opposition” to slots but added that he is “open to looking at all possible options” to save Rosecroft. Muse said he’d prefer to see high-stakes card games at Rosecroft, something Miller said he could also endorse.

It’s likely that either slots or card games would need to be approved by voters. In fall 2008, Maryland residents overwhelmingly voted to legalize slots at five specific sites. The state slots commission has since granted three of those licenses; two sites, on the Eastern Shore and in Cecil County, could open within the year.

Muse said gambling in Prince George would fall right in line with Gov. Martin O’Malley’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” agenda for this legislative session. The two senators said they have yet to craft a bill or discuss any plans with the House of Delegates, which is led by Speaker Michael E. Busch, a longtime slots opponent.

*** UPDATE ***

Busch and O'Malley, both Democrats, reacted to Miller's plan in interviews this afternoon. Both said they were taken aback by a new push for slots in Prince George's but reserved judgment until they hear from county leaders and see a specific plan.

"No one from Prince George's County stepped up to the plate" to ask for slots during the session in which lawmakers approved a plan to present to voters, Busch said. "In fact, that county was adamantly opposed at the time."

The governor also noted that the "extensive debate" on slots in 2007 did not include Prince George's County because elected leaders there opposed slots in their communities. Asked about Miller's comments this morning, O'Malley said, "This is the first I've heard of it."

He said he is "not looking to go backward" this legislative session to discuss issues that have already been settled.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:24 AM | | Comments (19)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 13, 2010

O'Malley selects Jenkins. NAACP (kind of) annoyed.

Over the (initial) objections of the Frederick County NAACP, Gov. Martin O’Malley Wednesday selected Frederick County Republican Charles Jenkins to fill the House seat vacated when Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr. left work for the city of Frederick.

Jenkins was sworn in this morning and said he was “humbled” and “honored” by the appointment. He was also a little overwhelmed.

“The day has been a whirlwind,” he said. He said he was informed of O’Malley’s decision at 7 a.m. and immediately submitted a letter of resignation from his slot on the Frederick County Commission.

The local branch of the NAACP has battled Jenkins over issues including his effort to declare English the county’s official language and his desire to count all of the illegal immigrants enrolled in the county school system.

“We’ve been fighting for some time,” said Guy Djoken, the President of the Frederick NAACP. “Hispanic people feel like they are second class citizens as result of some of the policies that Jenkins has put forward.”

Continue reading "O'Malley selects Jenkins. NAACP (kind of) annoyed. " »

Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:01 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

Making cuts.

An audience member at Marc Steiner’s annual Annapolis Summit this morning asked Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch a question that got everyone’s attention: Should repeat pedaphiles in Maryland be “neutered”? (Apparently the more traditional term for such a remedy is “chemical castration.”)

Miller supports the idea saying such a punishment, in his opinion “would be extremely light.” He added: “I would want them neutered even in prison.”

Busch was more circumspect, stressing his faith in the criminal justice system. “I’m against neutering, let me just say that,” the speaker said. “I don’t think neutering is the answer.”

*******

Miller’s full quote is transcribed below – and you can listen here (hour 2, 30:53).

"I don't oppose neutering -- I can tell you that right now -- for repeat sex offenders. I've got 13 grandchildren. And I think that would be extremely light. And I'd want them neutered so they can't do any more damage in prison while they are in prison for life."

Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:34 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 12, 2010

$2.10 for a Miller Lite?

With Gov. Martin O’Malley about a week away from unveiling $2 billion of cuts to the state budget, public health advocates are fretting that their programs will be among the snips. This morning, they rallied behind a new source of funding: A ten cent per drink hike to the alcohol tax.

Del. Bill Bronrott and Sen. Rich Madaleno will introduce the bill and they estimate it will net $200 million for the state. The money would pay for programs to treat and prevent substance abuse and fill other funding gaps in health-related services. A coalition of health advocates supporting the tax predict what they call an extra benefit: More expensive booze will reduce drinking.

A similar bill advocating a five cent increase didn’t go anywhere last year and supporters acknowledged they’ve got an uphill battle. “You’ve been hearing there is no way an alcohol tax can pass,” said Vincent DeMarco, the President of the Maryland Citizen’s Health Initiative at this morning’s news conference. But he compared the effort with a previous successful campaign to increase the tax on cigarettes. “Just as the tobacco industry fell, the alcohol industry will fall,” he predicted.

Industry reps are not so sure. They say the tax will siphon off jobs as fewer people drink. But, nobody’s called us back to talk on the record yet, so we’ll update this when they do/ Jack Milani, legislative co-chair of Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, says bars and restaurants are already hurting. “It would be another blow,” he said. Also, he predicted the tax would caused Marylanders who live on the DC board would travel to the nation’s capital to buy their beer.

The bill would essentially add a ten cent tax per eight ounces of alcohol – that would add 60 cents to a six pack of beer, and about 55 cents to a bottle of wine, said Bronrott. Currently consumers pay about a penny in taxes per drink, advocates for the change said. The beer and wine tax rate hasn't been touched since 1972. And spirits haven't had a tax increase since 1955.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:53 PM | | Comments (22)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        

January 11, 2010

Roundup: Maryland General Assembly 2010

Under the shadow of the looming fall election, state lawmakers return to Annapolis on Wednesday. They'll try to close a $2 billion by retaining last year's deep cuts and slashing even more. Can they do it without isolating voters?

Here are the top policy issues that have emerged so far:

Energy re-regulation: Repeal the state's 1999 decision to get out of the business of regulating energy.

Education: Increase the number of years it takes for teachers to achieve tenure and require unions to bargain over alternative pay.

Unemployment insurance: Require employers to use "alternative base period" in determining eligibility for unemployment insurance.

Death penalty: Add fingerprints and still photographs to the list of evidence acceptable in capital cases.

Gangs: Standardize reporting requirements between schools and law enforcement about gang activity.

Sex-offender registry: Review how major sex offenders from other states who move to Maryland are classified on the state sex offender registry.

Jobs: Give $3,000 tax credit to businesses for every unemployed Marylander they hire and put $10 million toward state guarantees of bank loans made to small businesses.

The Sun's editorial board promises a session with more headlines than a typical election year.

Other media weigh in with General Assembly predictions:
Associated Press
The Capital
The Gazette
Washington Post
The Daily Record (subscribers)
MarylandReporter.com (a roundup of roundups)

We'd like to hear from you. What do you think will -- or should -- be front and center for Maryland lawmakers this year?

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:05 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010
        
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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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