By CNS STAFF
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – If the longstanding rumors are true and Gov. Martin O’Malley really does have his sights set on a presidential nomination, the 2013 legislative session could go a long way toward solidifying his liberal qualifications for a Democratic primary electorate.
The list of legislation from the 2013 session reads like a progressive’s wish list: pass some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, repeal the death penalty, legalize medical marijuana, increase taxes on gasoline and subsidize offshore wind power.
Much to the chagrin of conservative lawmakers, O’Malley and the Democratically controlled legislature, accomplished all of these initiatives.
“The governor and the liberal left have hijacked the state of Maryland,” said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore.
But Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. called 2013 the “most successful legislative session of my lifetime.”
With the passage of the Firearm Safety Act of 2013, Maryland will ban the purchase of assault rifles, reduce firearm access for the mentally ill, require safety training and the submission of fingerprints before the purchase of a handgun, and increase penalties for violent crimes committed with “cop killer bullets.”
“This bill will save lives,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery.
The bill was drafted by the O’Malley administration in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December that left 27 people dead.
The bill received widespread support from urban and suburban Democrats in the House and Senate, however, many lawmakers from rural areas in the eastern and western parts of the state criticized the bill for overreaching and infringing upon Second Amendment rights.
Throughout the session, as the bill moved through various committees in Annapolis, thousands of gun rights advocates flooded into town to protest.
Maryland became the 18th state to abolish state-sanctioned executions this session after passing a controversial bill that replaces the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
The last execution in Maryland took place in 2005 and five inmates remain on death row.
O’Malley has been supportive of the repeal since taking office in 2007, but there were not enough votes in the Senate to get it passed until this session, said Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore.
Critics argued that Maryland already had one of the most restrictive death penalty statutes before the repeal, since the reforms made to the law in 2009 restricted the death penalty to cases in which DNA evidence, a videotaped confession, or video evidence of the crime are available.
Opponents’ proposed amendments, including keeping the death penalty for mass murders and the killing of a police officer or prison guard, all failed.
The legislature passed a gas tax increase in order to raise funds for future transportation projects, but some lawmakers were concerned about how the increase would hurt everyday citizens.
This summer motorists will see prices rise about 4 cents per gallon due to the tax.
“It hurts the poor, working class the most,” Pipkin said.
On July 1, the gas tax rate will be indexed to inflation and there will be a new 1 percent sales tax on gasoline. The sales tax will increase incrementally until it reaches 5 percent in fiscal year 2017, unless federal legislation is enacted on Internet sales taxes, in which case it will top out at 3 percent.
The money generated from the tax will be used to replenish the dwindling Transportation Trust Fund, which is used to maintain existing infrastructure and to build new projects.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the legislature had been talking about a gas tax increase for years.
“We were all aware that in 2018 there wouldn’t be enough money,” Busch said.
Busch said when Virginia passed its gas tax increase it became important for Maryland to do something as well, because both states are vying for the new FBI headquarters, which could be in Greenbelt or Springfield, Va.
More funding for transportation should ease congestion, expand mass transit and keep Maryland competitive with Virginia for the new site.
“It put extra pressure on us,” Busch said. “We had to make a tough decision.”
O’Malley’s offshore wind energy bill will funnel $1.7 billion of ratepayer subsidies over a 20-year period toward the construction of a wind power farm 10 to 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City as early as 2017.
“It’s about a better Maryland for tomorrow,” Sen. James Mathias Jr., D-Worcester, the former mayor of Ocean City, told the Senate before the final vote on March 8.
O’Malley’s previous two attempts to push the legislation — the first more ambitious — never made it to the Senate floor largely because of concerns about the cost to Marylanders.
But a change in the makeup of the Senate Finance Committee, which held up the bill in years past, brought an important vote in favor of offshore wind, said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, D-Charles, chair of the committee.
Senate President Miller removed wind bill opponent Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, from the committee, and replaced him with Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, a supporter.
The bill did not pass without debate and attempted amendments.
“This is the dumbest idea ever,” said Pipkin, during the final Senate debate.
Last year, the General Assembly failed to push a medical marijuana program through the Senate after passing it in the House. This year, both chambers passed a measure that would allow academic medical centers to distribute medical marijuana to patients who suffer from debilitating chronic illnesses.
“I think the public opinion has changed on this across the political spectrum. People understand that if somebody’s sick, they deserve medication,” said Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, the bill’s sponsor.
Morhaim said Sinai Hospital in Baltimore has already expressed interest in the program. The General Assembly also passed a measure that would expand the affirmative legal defense to caregivers.
Despite their success passing medical marijuana, the General Assembly struggled to push legalization measures.
A bill that would have decriminalized marijuana possession for less than 10 grams passed in the Senate, but never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. Similarly, another that would have taxed marijuana sales like alcohol never left the House Judiciary Committee.
The General Assembly passed a food allergy awareness bill that will require Maryland restaurants to designate a “person in charge,” who will watch an approved video educating them on food allergies.
Restaurants will also be required to put a sign in the kitchen that explains the dangers of cross-contamination. Even if the food does not contain cheese, for example, the chef might have touched cheese before making it, and the patron might still experience an allergic reaction.
An effort to make the soft-shell crab sandwich Maryland’s state sandwich passed in the Senate, but failed to make it to a vote in the House. Delegate Rudolph Cane, D-Wicomico, introduced the House bill and Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, introduced the Senate bill in an effort to help Maryland watermen.
Colburn said watermen are an endangered species and this designation would help them.
“The Maryland waterman is on the state seal,” he said. “And that’s a dying breed.”
A ban on the distribution, possession, sale and trade of shark fins in Maryland also passed through the General Assembly. The ban is an attempt to curtail shark fin supply and demand, which has contributed to the collapse of shark populations worldwide.
Maryland joins five other states in banning their distribution.
It is already illegal in the U.S. to remove a shark’s fin and discard the rest of the fish to die in the water, a practice that has been driven by high demand for shark fin soup.
There are 15 watermen who fish for sharks in Maryland waters, and about 10 restaurants that serve shark fin soup, according to a fiscal note accompanying the bill. An amendment was added to the law that exempts smooth-hounds and spiny dogfish sharks, the largest shark harvest in Maryland, in order to soften the impact on commercial fisherman.
The General Assembly also passed a bill that gives a $1 tax credit for each bushel of oyster shells recycled during the year. The oyster shells are returned to the water and act as a hard surface on which to grow new oysters.
Delegate Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, sponsored a bill known as “Grace’s Law,” named after a Maryland teenager, Grace McComas, who took her own life after being the target of online harassment and threats. The bill passed and will make publicly posted cyberbullying a crime in Maryland, thus closing the loophole that exempts harmful material transmitted via social media websites like Twitter and Facebook.
Legislation that would have overturned the 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals decision that labeled pit bull dogs “inherently dangerous” and held landlords legally responsible for pit bull attacks on their property failed on the last day of the session. The House and Senate passed separate bills earlier in the session, but at the last minute, they were unable to agree on a compromise.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee rejected a bill presented by Delegate Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, that would have increased the fine for stealing a shopping cart from $25 to $100.
A bill in the House that would have regulated the practice of shackling pregnant inmates while they are in transit and in labor passed in the House, then in the Senate, but the two chambers failed to agree on proposed amendments, and the bill died in conference committee.
Delegates Cardin and Dana Stein, also a Democrat from Baltimore County, introduced a bill this session that would have required the use of headgear in youth girls’ lacrosse in Maryland. The bill received strong resistance from coaches and leaders of the lacrosse community and was withdrawn early in the session.
This story reported by Lucas High, Hannah Anderson, Amber Larkins, Julia Maldonado, Ethan Rosenberg and Jessica Wilde.