General Assembly Wrap 2012

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – The 2012 General Assembly session closed without an agreement between the House of Delegates and the Senate on an operating budget for the state. Many other bills passed or failed during the 90-day session.

The Budget and Casino Gambling

The General Assembly failed to pass a revenue-raising operating budget during the regular session that ended Monday night, making it likely that a special session will be called for the first time since 1992. A special session would probably include negotiations on a proposed gambling bill to allow the construction of a casino in Prince George’s County, which became a sticking point in the back-and-forth between the House and Senate late Monday night.

Same-Sex Marriage

The General Assembly passed a major piece of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s agenda when a controversial bill legalizing same-sex marriage cleared both chambers in February.
The bill generated heated debate, especially in the House of Delegates, where it passed with just a single vote to spare. It divided lawmakers early in the session along racial, religious and philosophical lines.
O’Malley signed the Civil Marriage Protection Act into law, but it will likely have to be approved in a statewide referendum in November.

Education – Maintenance of Effort
Lawmakers closed loopholes and tweaked what many considered to be a broken maintenance of effort law, which is designed to keep education funding levels stable from year to year. But without an operating budget being approved, counties may have to make significant cuts in education spending.

Education – Teacher Pensions
Lawmakers did not approve a bill to transfer the normal cost of teacher pensions from the state to individual counties over the next four years. But pensions are on the short list of items to be considered in a special session.

Other Education
Students will now be required to stay in school until age 17 in most cases, an increase of one year.
Attempts to combat childhood obesity in schools were not successful. The Student Health and Fitness Act, which would have required 150 minutes of physical activity time weekly, and another bill requiring calorie counts on school menus, both died in the House.
Likewise, the Kristen Marie Mitchell Bill, addressing dating violence as a bullying issue, died in committee.

The Kathleen A. Mathias Chemotherapy Parity Act of 2012 passed unanimously in both chambers, prohibiting insurers from imposing limits or cost sharing on coverage of orally administered chemotherapy that would make it less favorable than other forms of chemotherapy treatment.

Health Disparities
Marylanders in low-income areas could see an increase in affordable health care coverage. The new program championed by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown will create a pilot program for the Health Enterprise Zone program, which is designed to bring affordable health care to specially designated communities through a combination of state incentives and reduced taxes for health care providers.

Arsenic in Poultry Feed
Maryland became the first state to ban commercial poultry feed containing roxarsone, an arsenic-based drug used to treat a digestive parasite in chickens and turkeys. Supporters said the bill was a victory for public health, while Eastern Shore legislators called the ban a hardship for the state’s struggling poultry industry.

Energy and Environment – Wind Turbines
A bill that could have made Maryland the first state to install wind turbines off its coast died in the Senate Finance committee. The legislation would have increased power bills for families in the state by a maximum of $1.50 a month, or 1.5 percent of the bill for commercial and industrial users.
Wind legislation was a priority for O’Malley, who argued the industry would create thousands of local jobs and garner $8.7 million in revenue for the state over a five-year span.
But many lawmakers were hesitant to increase energy bills in a struggling economy. Opponents of the legislation also cited the heavy cost of breaking into the offshore wind industry.

Energy and Environment – Fracking
Legislators passed a bill that would protect property owners leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking. If water on a leased property is contaminated within 2,500 feet of a fracking well, drillers will be required to pay for the clean-up or will have to provide an alternative supply.
Water contamination has been a concern in nearby states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where fracking is already taking place, although whether water pollution there is due to fracking is contested.
But legislation that would have collected funds for fracking-impact research never made it out of the Senate. The Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Study Fee bill proposed a $15-per-acre fee on anyone intending to drill in the Marcellus Shale region in Western Maryland, which contains rich pockets of natural gas. Money from the fee would have paid for research on legal and environmental concerns related to fracking in the state.
Until those studies are completed in 2014, there is an effective moratorium on fracking in Maryland.

Energy and Environment – Flush Tax
A bill that would help efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay passed in the House Monday with Senate amendments.
The bill doubles a fee referred to as the “flush tax,” which raises funds for updates of wastewater treatment plants, as well as septic systems and stormwater management.
Currently, the fee costs residents a total of $30 a year, but the bill could increase the fee to $60 a year for some residents.

Cameras on the sides of school buses could snap photos of drivers who illegally pass, resulting in a fine up to $250.
Smokers will still be allowed to smoke with their children in the car after SB 559 was held up in committee and never reached a vote in the House.
Delegate Sam Arora, D-Montgomery, got clarification from the Attorney General’s office that texting using voice recognition software is allowed in the state, while regular texting is still banned while driving.
It is unclear whether O’Malley’s unpopular gas tax will be addressed in a special session of the legislature. He has also floated the possibility of adding a penny to the state sales tax to address Maryland’s transportation infrastructure needs.

Marijuana De-Minimus
Anyone arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana will likely see a reduced fine. Current law stipulates that a person in possession of marijuana can serve a maximum of one year in prison, but a new law will reduce the penalty for a person in possession of less than seven grams of marijuana to a maximum of 90 days in prison, or a fine of $500.

Phylicia’s Law
In December 2010, North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes disappeared in Baltimore. Her body was found the following April in the Susquehanna River.
The legislature passed a bill, sponsored by Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, requiring state law enforcement to post a list of missing children.
“Phylicia’s Law” also aids in the coordination between volunteer search parties and police, requiring law enforcement to begin searching for a child if they are less than 17 years of age, instead of just 14.

Cross-filed bills which would have increased the penalty for non-fatal strangulation from a second-degree offense to a first-degree offense were blocked in the House Judiciary Committee.
Non-fatal strangulation, seen most commonly in domestic violence cases, received strong support from advocates because of its serious intent and long-term health implications.
House and Senate bills would have made prosecuting these instances easier and would have increased the maximum jail time from 10 to 25 years.

Harriet Tubman
After last year’s failed attempt to replace a statue in the U.S. Capitol of Maryland-born John Hanson with underground-railroad leader and Maryland native Harriet Tubman, legislators came back with several different bills this session.
Though there was significantly less controversy surrounding this year’s bills, only one measure–a House bill that would award a Tubman statue to Congress–passed both chambers.

Social Media
Facebook and Twitter accounts will be more secure, as potential or current employers will not be able to ask for social media or email passwords during a job interview. The legislation, by Sen. Ronald Young, D-Frederick, passed unanimously in the Senate and was signed by O’Malley Tuesday.

Fantasy Sports
The bill would exempt certain fantasy sports competitions from current state gambling regulations, allowing Maryland residents the ability to enter and collect prizes. Currently, some fantasy league organizers, like ESPN and CBS, prohibit Marylanders from participating when cash and prizes are at stake.
Delegate John Olszewski, D-Baltimore County, said the bill was necessary because current state law is ambiguous and thus left Marylanders out of fantasy competitions.
“I thought it was an easy fix,” Olszewski said. “But obviously it has been more difficult than I thought.”
In 2009 and 2010, Olszewski introduced similar bills, neither of which got far enough to be voted on.

The 17th Amendment
In an act for history textbooks, Maryland officially ratified the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which establishes direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote.
The Senate and House joint resolutions at first seemed trivial, but a quick history lesson showed that, despite electing senators by vote since 1913, Maryland was one of the last to ratify the amendment.

By Capital News Service’s Mike Bock, Aaron Carter, Mali Krantz, Lizzy McLellan, Tom McParland, Kelsey Miller, David Nyczepir, Ellen Stodola and Amanda Yeager.