Tag Archives: Maryland General Assembly

Work remains for Maryland’s 2015 Legislative Session

imagesWork remains for Maryland’s 2015 Legislative Session

Opportunity for new Governor to be rural champion 

With the Maryland General Assembly passing the Rural Maryland Prosperity Investment bill, reauthorizing the Sustainable Communities Tax Credit, and avoiding further cuts to parks and conservation, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy supports much of the work accomplished in the 2014 Legislative Session. The next Governor will have to finish the work started under the O’Malley administration.

On April 1, 2014, the Maryland General Assembly passed Senate Bill 137 – Rural Maryland Prosperity Investment Fund – Revisions and Extension of Termination Date, which helps to address disparities in the state’s rural areas. One-third of appropriated funding is allocated equally to the state’s five regional councils, and the remaining two-thirds is allocated equally as grants among regional infrastructure projects, rural entrepreneurship development, rural community development, and rural health care assistance.

“It was wonderful that the legislature passed this bill, but the challenge is the Governor is not required to include an appropriation in the budget for the Rural Maryland Prosperity Investment Fund (RMPIF),” said ESLC Policy Manager Josh Hastings. In 2006, the General Assembly authorized the RMPIF, but to date it has never been funded.

Another area of major concern to ESLC was the continued cuts to conservation funding. The budget as presented includes a 50 percent cut to Program Open Space, which followed a 43 percent cut to the Rural Legacy Program in 2013. Since the inception of Program Open Space, more than $1 billion have been diverted to other causes, according to the Partners for Open Space, a regional group dedicated to protecting conservation funding.

“Program Open Space funds translate into protecting family farms, hunting grounds, and historic areas as well as supporting parks, trails, bike paths and more,” said ESLC Executive Director Rob Etgen. “We have numerous projects waiting in the pipeline, but need the designated monies now.”

ESLC is pleased the General Assembly passed the reauthorization and update to the Sustainable Communities Tax Credit, which provides incentives for private investment in the repair and restoration of Maryland’s historic resources. The organization was a 2013 award recipient for their efforts to build the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in Easton.

“Passing the RMPIF bill and halting further cuts to conservation is helpful, but we encourage the next Governor to finish the job and fully fund RMPIF and Program Open Space. The next Governor has a real opportunity to be a strong champion for Rural Maryland, and we look forward helping make that opportunity a reality,” Hastings said.

New Law Makes it Harder to Commit Juveniles for Minor Offenses

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill in the recently completed session that prohibits juvenile courts from committing a child to the Department of Juvenile Services for out-of-home placement for minor offenses, including trespass and possession of marijuana.

The aim is to reduce the number of youth sent to long-term, juvenile facilities. Instead, the youth will receive services in their communities.

Examples of out-of-home placement include foster homes, group homes and independent living programs. The bill, HB 916, will go into effect Oct. 1.

Other offenses that will also not be eligible include thefts of less than $1,000; prostitution; malicious destruction of property; disorderly conduct; or if the most serious offense involves inhalants.

The new law does not affect juveniles who commit violent crimes or other more serious offenses.

The bill includes exceptions for juveniles with three or more separate previous offenses, for the protection of the child, and for other cases where the court decides an out-of-home placement is necessary.

“(The bill) will help youth by ensuring that they are in the least restrictive settings to get the services they need and that’s not always in out-of-home placements,” said Angela Johnese, the newly appointed director of the mayor’s office on criminal justice in Baltimore and the former juvenile justice director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

The Department of Legislative Services estimates the bill could save up to $12.5 million if DJS placements are reduced by 20 percent.

“Community services … also cost significantly less than out-of-home placement and result in better outcomes for young people,” Johnese said.

Services for youth depend on what type of help they need, but can include mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment.

Another juvenile justice bill, HB 786, sponsored by Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, established a task force that will study issues within the juvenile court. The group will decide whether or not to eliminate certain offenses that result in automatically charging youth as adults.

“What we’ve found is that over the years we’re overcharging youth as adults, and we saw (this) recently with the decision not to build the $70 million Baltimore detention center for youth … we really don’t have a need for that many bed spaces because we’re overcharging,” Carter said.

Carter, who is chair of the Juvenile Law subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, said 70 percent of youth initially charged as adults are reversed back to the juvenile system, or their cases are dismissed after they’ve been housed in adult facilities.

Carter said the bills that passed are a piece-by-piece approach to reform the juvenile justice system.

“We need to treat youth as youth,” she said. “Of course there are going to be exceptions, but we need to deal with those on an individual basis.”

Other juvenile law bills were unsuccessful this session.

SB 454/HB 848 would have allowed a child to remain detained in a juvenile facility even after the juvenile court determined that the youth could be tried for a crime in adult court.

The goal was to keep young people out of the adult system to make sure they have the services they need.

DJS opposed the bill because it would have resulted in a significant increase in the population in the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

Johnese said she expects the legislature will reintroduce the bill in the future because it would keep youth safe from the physical and mental harm they might encounter in the adult system.

Another bill, SB 788/HB 966, would have established a task force to study law enforcement programs diverting children away from juvenile services, but it received an unfavorable report from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Monique Dixon, the director of the criminal and juvenile justice program of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, said that DJS has already taken steps to reduce the number of young people in the juvenile justice system. These steps include supervising juveniles charged with minor offenses and allowing them to return home with their parents.

In the 2012 fiscal year (July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012), 61.7 percent of newly committed youth were committed for misdemeanors, while 20 percent were committed for violent crimes, according to the most recent DJS data.

“Unlike adults, young people are amenable to treatment and would be more likely to receive that treatment in the juvenile justice system than in the adult system,” she said.




Governor O’Malley, Legislature Close 2013 Session with Progressive Victories

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.



Senate Moves Maryland One Step Closer to Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Senate Friday voted to approve medical marijuana use, putting Maryland one step closer to becoming the 19th state, along with the District of Columbia, to do so. The bill already passed the House 108-28.

A final Senate vote on the bill is expected by Monday when the General Assembly’s 2013 session comes to an end. Friday’s action came via voice vote and without any debate.

The bill, introduced by Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, would establish the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission within the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The Commission would be granted the ability to designate academic medical centers, such as the University System of Maryland or Johns Hopkins, to distribute marijuana to patients who have received a recommendation from their physician.

“I think the public opinion has changed on this across the political spectrum. People understand that if somebody’s sick, they deserve medication,” Morhaim said.

Morhaim said Sinai Hospital in Baltimore has expressed interest in participating in the program. While the University System of Maryland and Johns Hopkins have not, Morhaim is optimistic they will come around.

“Once they see how the road map is, then I think they will analyze it and see if they want to pursue it or not,” Morhaim said.

Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, a bill co-sponsor, initially had her own medical marijuana legislation, but it was withdrawn. The medical marijuana commission established by Morhaim’s bill is named after Glenn’s late mother who died from kidney cancer.

“This is the first time for Maryland to establish a program of any kind for medical marijuana,” Glenn said. “It’s opened the door. I’m really excited and supportive.”

The state currently has an affirmative legal defense for individuals suffering from debilitating chronic illnesses.

The Senate passed a House measure Wednesday that would expand the affirmative legal defense to caregivers who provide marijuana to individuals too sick to seek out their own treatment. The Senate version of the bill was passed in the House on Monday, 95-37.

The General Assembly will leave behind two other marijuana measures this session. One, introduced by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, would have decriminalized marijuana possession for less than 10 grams. The measure passed in the Senate 30-16, but has not received a vote from the House Judiciary Committee.

“It’s the right thing to do. If it doesn’t pass this year I will bring it back next year and every year until we do it,” Zirkin said. “I don’t believe people should be incarcerated for having small amounts of marijuana. I think the tide of this issue is clearly on our side. Sooner or later it will happen.”

Another bill by Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, that would have legalized recreational marijuana use, has not yet received a vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill would have enacted a 50 percent excise tax on marijuana sold wholesale and permitted individuals to grow limited quantities of pot with the purchase of a state issued identification for $100 per year and per plant.

During the November election, constituents in Colorado and Washington approved ballot measures that legalized recreational marijuana usage.

Since then, 27 states, including Maryland, have introduced legislation to implement a medical marijuana law, decriminalize possession, or tax and regulate marijuana usage, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group based in the district.


Gun Control Gets Final Approval in Maryland House of Delegates

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – After two very long days of debate on the House floor, delegates approved a slightly modified version of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gun control bill 78 to 61 Wednesday.

The bill, which keeps intact all of the major provisions of the version passed by the Senate in February, would ban assault rifles, limit access to firearms by the mentally ill, reduce the maximum ammunition capacity of magazines from 20 to 10 and require safety training and digital fingerprinting of handgun purchasers.

The Firearm Safety Act of 2013 survived multiple attempts by Republicans and conservative Democrats to water down the bill with amendments that would, amongst other things, narrow the definition of an assault rifle, eliminate the fingerprinting requirement and delay the effective date of the bill.

Tempers in the chamber flared briefly during a debate over an amendment that would restrict members of the military under the age of 21 from purchasing regulated firearms.

“Do we want these (military) guys to say I am more free in Iraq or Afghanistan than I am in Maryland?” said Delegate Michael McDermott, R-Wicomico.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert, said the House was engaged in a “jihad” against the constitutional rights of members of the military.

The verbal dust-up occurred immediately after members of the House Judiciary and Health and Government Operations committees were pulled from the chamber floor into a brief closed door session in which several amendments approved during Friday’s session were removed from the bill.

By removing these amendments – which included a provision that would exempt members of an obscure military support organization called the Maryland Defense Force – the bill more closely resembles the legislation approved by the Senate in February.

Because the legislation still differs slightly from the bill passed by the Senate, the Senate must first approve the changes before the final bill lands on O’Malley’s desk.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the House version will likely go before the Senate in the next 24 to 48 hours.

Opponents of the bill are looking to the Senate to put a last-minute stop to the bill.

“It’s not quite a done deal yet,” O’Donnell said.

Shannon Alford, state liaison for the National Rifle Association, echoed O’Donnell’s sentiments, saying she hopes the Senate rejects the bill.

While many delegates said the legislation is far from perfect, House Democrats, by and large, said they were pleased with the final version of the bill.

“Gun control works,” said Delegate Benjamin Barnes, D- Prince George’s. “This bill will save lives.”

Delegate Ariana Kelly, D-Montgomery, said she “loved” the bill, particularly the requirement that regulated firearm purchasers undergo at least eight hours of safety training.

“I used to pierce ears at the mall with a gun and I needed more than four hours of training,” Kelly said.

But not all Democrats shared Kelly’s opinion.

Delegate C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, who voted against the bill, said he doesn’t believe it will do anything to keep guns off the street.

Delegates on both sides of the aisle mentioned the demographic divide between the urban and rural areas of Maryland. McDermott called it the “tale of two states.”

With several notable exceptions, urban and suburban delegates supported O’Malley’s bill, while lawmakers from rural areas in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore opposed it.

“We don’t have a need for assault rifles in the city of Baltimore,” said Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore.

O’Malley introduced his gun legislation, SB 281, and its companion bill HB 294, in the wake of December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Restricting access to firearms has become a hot-button issue nationally in recent months.

President Barack Obama, frustrated with what he perceived as Congress’ waning interest in gun-control, addressed the issue in a press conference last week.

“The notion that two months or three months after something as horrific as what happened in Newtown happens and we’ve moved on to other things?” Obama said last week. “That’s not who we are.”

CNS 04-03-13


Business Owners Say They’ll Suffer with Higher Gas Taxes

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – Charlie Kidwell, who has owned FreeState Auto and Truck Service in Capitol Heights for nearly 25 years, said his business will be hurt by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gas tax hike, which passed the Senate Friday.

The Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, which passed the House of Delegates March 22, will raise the cost of doing business for Kidwell, who owns one tow truck and receives two to four calls a day from people needing towing within a 20 mile radius. The company also provides vehicle service and repairs, but has been hurting during the recession.

Kidwell has scaled back his company from 10 to five employees, and even changed his location in an attempt to get more business.

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this for,” Kidwell said. “It’s stressful and it’s not profitable.”

Various small businesses and fuel industry lobbyists are opposed to the gas tax because they say it will negatively affect their businesses.

O’Malley’s legislation increases revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund by indexing the motor fuel tax rate to inflation and by imposing a 1 percent sales and use tax July 1. That rate would increase incrementally until it reaches 5 percent in fiscal year 2017 unless federal legislation is enacted on Internet sales taxes, in which case it would top out at 3 percent.

In just over five years, the new tax could increase prices at the pump by 14 cents to 21 cents per gallon, according to the state’s legislative analysis.

The Transportation Trust Fund, which is used to maintain roads and infrastructure, as well as pay for new projects, is projected to receive 18 percent of its funding from the motor fuel tax in fiscal year 2014.

The bill has been determined to have “a meaningful impact on small business” because it will increase the cost to own and operate vehicles, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Kirk McCauley, director of member relations and government affairs for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said the tax will have dire consequences for some of the stations it represents, especially around the border, because people will drive to Virginia for gas.

“Some of them will be out of business,” McCauley said.

McCauley would have liked to see a more broadly based sales tax instead of a fuel tax rate indexed to inflation. He doesn’t like that it won’t go below a certain point.

“It’s a forever tax,” said McCauley.

Kimberly Burns, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, an organization which educates business owners about policies under consideration by state government, worries about the ripple effect the tax will have throughout Maryland’s economy.

“I think the effect of this will be felt everywhere from the pumps to the pizza parlor, but most of all in the pocket books of the Maryland citizens,” Burns said.

Pete Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Dealers Association, actively lobbied against the tax. His association represents petroleum marketers who supply about 1,500 of Maryland’s gas stations.

“We don’t like it. I don’t know how to be any more plain. It’s a terrible bill. It’s going to put our service stations and businesses in jeopardy,” Horrigan said.

He said the petroleum industry would be affected by the tax because service stations would lose money.

“They’re our customers and that’s how we make our money,” Horrigan said.

Supporters of the tax say it will create better highways, more jobs and less traffic congestion.

At least one business owner with a fleet of vehicles supports O’Malley’s plan.

Twenty-two years ago, Mark Thistel began Freedom Car, a livery service based in Baltimore with cars that he describes as nicer than a taxi, but not as nice as a stretch limo. It’s a $2 million business with 38 employees.

Thistel said for every penny increase in gas, his company spends an additional $550 annually.

“It’s not a casual thing for me to say, ‘sure, I’ll pay 7 cents extra’. It’s really a net loss,” he said.

Thistel supports the gas tax because bad roads mean he pays more maintenance on his cars.

“Time is money. Breakdowns are money,” Thistel said.

Thistel described the tax increase as the cost of doing business.

“I’m happy to pay taxes. I’m a citizen,” Thistel said. “I don’t know why more people don’t feel this way.”

The Greater Washington Board of Trade, which represents larger businesses in the metropolitan area, also supports O’Malley’s transportation plan.

Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Board of Trade, said his organization isn’t fond of taxes, but the bill will increase transportation funding for roads and mass transit.

“Transportation for the most part is to get people to work, to get them home, to get the goods and services to market. It’s all about the economy,” he said.

Dinegar said the Washington area has some of the greatest traffic congestion in the nation, which would be eased by the implementation of the bill.

“It’s a necessary increase,” Dinegar said.

Maryland’s transportation system is in bad enough shape that a gas tax is worth the extra cost, said Carl Davis, a senior analyst at the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, a think tank.

“There are definite tangible benefits,” Davis said.

Maryland and 34 other states have flat gas tax rates, which get eaten away by inflation over time, Davis said.

Davis said Florida has the most effective gas tax structure because they tie their tax to general inflation.

If the new tax becomes law, Maryland would join a fairly short list of states that have taken a long term perspective on this tax, Davis said.


House Votes to Repeal Death Penalty, Governor’s Signature Next

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland is just one signature away from ending all state executions after the House of Delegates voted 82-56 in favor of repealing the death penalty Friday.

The Senate voted to repeal the death penalty last week.

“This is a historic decision today in Maryland,” said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Today, Maryland joins 17 other states and every other country in the Western World,” in abolishing the death penalty, Jealous said.

Jealous said the NAACP is working to end capital punishment in Colorado and Delaware next. Connecticut was the most recent state to repeal the death penalty.

“There’s no such thing as a spare American,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley, at a press conference after the vote. “Every life is important.”

Friday’s vote gave the governor his second victory on a high-profile piece of legislation this month. Last week, the governor’s offshore wind energy bill passed the Senate and is headed to his desk for a signature.

The death penalty repeal law encourages the governor to commute or change the sentences of the five inmates currently on death row to sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

Proponents of the repeal argue for life without parole because it would save money by removing years of appeals.

“Life without the possibility of parole is a very severe punishment,” said Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, who shepherded the bill through the House.

After the House adjourned, Rosenberg said that many in Annapolis had predicted an 82-59 vote, but that three delegates — Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, and LeRoy Myers Jr., R-Washington — were absent Friday.

All three were expected to vote against the repeal.

House Republican Michael McDermott of Wicomico County, one of the most vocal opponents of the repeal, said the bill was “wrong spirited” and will not solve problems in the future.

“It’s a shame we will not allow future generations the option to put to death the worst of the worst,” said McDermott.

During the debates, about 50 to 60 delegates regularly supported the amendments to keep the death penalty in certain aggravating cases, but were overpowered by a bloc of about 80 who consistently supported the repeal.

The aggravating cases included mass murders, acts of terror and killing police officers in the line of duty. All of the amendments failed.

The death penalty has not been applied in Maryland since 2005, when Wesley Eugene Baker was executed for robbing and fatally shooting Jane Tyson in a Catonsville mall parking lot in June 1991.

The General Assembly passed the state’s current law in 2009. The law restricts the death penalty to cases where DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or video evidence of the crime are available.

The strict law was designed to reduce the chance of executing an innocent person, which is one of the reasons many delegates cited for voting for the repeal.

Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, voted in favor of the bill, but said he is not completely opposed to the death penalty. He said he was comfortable with it only if the state ensured those put to death were truly the criminals guilty of the most egregious crimes, but acknowledged that the system is not error-proof.

“What I am opposed to and can no longer live with,” Simmons said, “is using the death penalty to accidentally put to death an innocent man or woman.”

Many senators and delegates who supported the repeal said the system was flawed, and used the case of Kirk Bloodsworth as an example.

Bloodsworth was falsely accused and sentenced to death for brutally murdering a 9-year-old girl in 1984. He was later found innocent thanks to DNA evidence.

“Whether it’s DNA, or false confessions, you can find out later far into the process that someone who has been sentenced to death did not commit the crime,” Rosenberg said, during a heated debate Wednesday night.

Bloodsworth was regularly present for the debates on the repeal. Also in the gallery Friday were Maryland residents Vicki and Sylvester Schieber — parents of 23-year-old Shannon Schieber, who was raped and murdered in Pennsylvania in 1998 — and Bonnita Spikes, whose husband, Michael Spikes, was murdered in 1994.

“I’m very happy and I know my husband would have been happy,” said Spikes, after the votes were tallied.

“I’m very proud to be a Marylander today,” Spikes said.

Once signed, the bill will go into effect Oct. 1.

Capital News Service’s Lucas High contributed to this report.

CNS 01-24-13

Some Rural Democrats Joining Republicans in Opposition to Gas Tax Plan

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – It’s not just anti-tax Republicans who are opposed to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s recently unveiled gas tax plan. The governor also faces opposition from some rural Democrats who say their constituents would pay more and not get many benefits.

The gas tax is the largest source of revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund, which is used for transportation infrastructure projects. The fund does not have enough money to continue supporting existing infrastructure, let alone new roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

O’Malley proposed the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, which would decrease the gas tax on consumers by 5 cents to 18.5 cents per gallon July 1. In its place, O’Malley’s plan would tack on a wholesale gas tax of 4 percent to be phased in over the next two years.

The plan is expected to bring in an additional $3.4 billion of revenue over the next five years.

But Democrats like Delegate John Wood Jr., of St. Mary’s, say their constituents have to drive more than those in more urban areas.

“Sometimes your next door neighbor is five miles down the road. We have to get in our trucks and drive,” Wood said.

He wants the state to wait until next year to do anything about transportation, and instead to put money back into the Transportation Trust Fund. Over the years, money from the fund has been used to plug holes in the state’s budget.

“If the state would put back what they owe, we could probably squeak by,” Wood said.

Wood said O’Malley’s plan would hurt rather than help Maryland generate more transportation funding because Marylanders would likely buy their gas and do most of their spending in Virginia or another border state.

“We come up suffering,” Wood said.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, is also against O’Malley’s plan.

Dyson’s district has been especially hard hit by the federal sequester because of budget cuts at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and military employees facing furloughs.

To hit them with a gas tax now would be a “double whammy,” Dyson said. “It doesn’t serve my constituents at all.”

Other rural Democrats said this was not an equitable solution to the transportation funding problem because their constituents tend to commute long distances for work, and the price of their goods would go up because of the rise in gas prices.

Republicans don’t like the Transportation Act, either.

Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, described the plan as a Trojan horse that raises and perpetuates the gas tax without protecting the funds. He is worried because gas tax rates would never go down even if inflation decreased, which means the tax rate would only go up over time.

The tax would be indexed to inflation. If inflation increased, the tax would increase, but if inflation decreased or stayed the same, the tax rate would remain static.

“Indexing to inflation will cause hyperinflation,” McMillan said. “We won’t ever be voting on it again.”

Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Talbot, finds a gas tax increase absolutely unnecessary and said “to introduce it on the 55th day (of the legislative session) is unbelievable.”

Though some rural legislators are against O’Malley’s plan, some rural Democrats are willing to consider it, such as Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, who describes her district as an area transitioning from rural to suburban.

“We do need new revenue. I think we’re going to take a good look at it and give it a chance and see what’s best for the state,” James said.

Delegate Galen R. Clagett, D-Frederick, has some issues with the gas tax, but is willing to give it a chance.

He doesn’t like that the proposed gas tax is regressive, which means everyone pays the same.

Regressive taxes always end up hurting the little guy, Clagett said.

Clagett has his own ideas for funding transportation, which he thinks would be easier to pass than a gas tax increase.

One of his ideas is to make the Transportation Trust Fund into an infrastructure bank. This would be a non-lapsing revolving fund, in which private businesses and the state would share the responsibility of paying for infrastructure through loans and investments.

“It’s going to be hard as blazes to get a gas tax through,” Clagett said.

Democratic legislators from urban areas have more reason to support O’Malley’s transportation plan because in addition to roads, it would help pay for mass transit projects such as the Purple Line, a proposed light rail which would connect Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

“I support it,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery. “It’s long overdue.”

In spite of some concerns legislators have about his bill, O’Malley is confident his Transportation Act will pass because both Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch support his plan.

“I think that the will is there,” O’Malley said.

The House version of the bill will be heard at 1 p.m. Friday by the Ways and Means Committee.


House Rejects Amendments, on Verge of Death Penalty Repeal

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland House of Delegates rejected a number of emotionally charged amendments to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s death penalty repeal bill Wednesday, leaving it likely to pass later in the week.

If approved without additional amendments, the bill’s next stop would be the governor’s desk, where it would be signed into law.

“I think there was no real surprise, I think (proponents of the repeal) had the votes before they even came out, but I was hoping to change some of their minds,” said Delegate C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, the only Democrat to propose an amendment on the floor.

Despite the strong support for the bill in the House, opponents tried to keep the death penalty available in certain cases, including for those who kill more than 1,000 people, those who commit acts of terror and anyone who kills firefighters in the line of duty.

The amendments typically received between 50 and 60 votes, while a bloc of about 80 consistently supported repeal.

The Senate voted last week in favor of the repeal bill.

Delegate Patrick Hogan, R-Frederick, proposed an amendment that had not previously been introduced in the death penalty debates in the Senate, and one that assumed the death penalty would be repealed.

Hogan’s amendment would have stripped inmates serving sentences of life without parole of the rights to visitors, education, and Internet and TV access.

“The victims’ families no longer get to see their loved ones. Neither should their murderers,” Hogan said.

Other opponents of the repeal argued that if the bill were to pass, convicted murderers should be subject to less than desirable living conditions.

“Make them suffer, that’s justice,” said Delegate Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County.

Maryland is poised to join 17 other states that have abolished capital punishment. The law would allow the governor to commute or change a sentence of death to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for the five inmates currently on death row.

“We just can’t make the system work, regardless of who the victim may be,” said Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, the House floor leader for the governor’s bill, after opponents offered amendments that would punish killers of law enforcement officers, correctional facility guards, children in schools and groups of 100 and 1,000 people.

The death penalty has not been applied in Maryland since 2005, when Wesley Eugene Baker was executed for robbing and fatally shooting Jane Tyson in a Catonsville mall parking lot in June 1991.

The General Assembly passed the state’s current law in 2009. The law restricts the death penalty to cases where DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or video evidence of the crime are available.

Watching the debate from the House chamber gallery was Kirk Bloodsworth, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending two years on Maryland’s death row, and even more in prison.

Bloodsworth said his mantra has always been that if Maryland does not have the death penalty, the state would never be able to execute an innocent person.

Opponents of the bill booed following the debate Wednesday night, but are determined to keep fighting when the House meets for the final vote.

“We’ll stand up and make the same arguments, put those issues out there,” said Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil. “People were upset by my frankness, but we’re voting about life and death. That is a very serious issue and the most serious issue we’re going to deal with here.”



Maryland Undocumented Immigrants May Soon Be Eligible for Driver’s Licenses

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS — Andrea Gonzales is the only licensed driver in her family of three, so for her, a weekday morning means waking up at 5:30 to shuttle her husband to work with their 5-year-old daughter in tow.

The new Maryland Highway Safety Act may change her family’s routine by allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Gonzales’s husband, Jaime, an undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua, can’t legally drive to pick up their daughter, Ana, from school at 3 p.m. Instead, the couple hired a babysitter to transport and care for Ana on most afternoons.

“My husband, we are working on getting him legalized, but until then I still need him to help me with the responsibilities,” Gonzales, of Silver Spring, said. “Our family needs him to be able to depend on himself, not to depend on me for everything.”

If Jaime had a driver’s license, Gonzales said, he could spend afternoons with his daughter, help her with homework, and get her ready for bed.

Set for a Wednesday hearing in Annapolis, the Maryland House bill and its companion bill in the Senate would repeal a provision of a 2009 law that prohibits people without Social Security numbers or lawful presence documents from renewing or obtaining driver’s licenses.

Licenses for undocumented drivers would carry a label, “Not for federal use,” preventing license holders from boarding planes or entering federal buildings.

The bill would also prevent all such licenses issued before 2009 from expiring in 2015 as state law now mandates.

Gonzalez, who testified at the Feb. 20 Senate hearing on the bill, plans to testify at Wednesday’s House hearing as well.

“Most surprising was all the support from the non-immigrant community,” Shola Ajayi, elections and advocacy specialist at Casa de Maryland, said of last month’s hearing.

He added that the bill would not only apply to illegal immigrants, but also to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who lack the documents necessary to obtain a license.

Members of Help Save Maryland, an anti-immigrant organization, also plan to testify at the House hearing.

“We will be coming out in force against this bill,” said Help Save Maryland director Brad Botwin, who contends that the legislation will make Maryland a magnet for illegal immigrants and put additional stress on Maryland’s social services.

In 2009, several states including Maryland put in place federal Real ID Act regulations requiring the Motor Vehicle Administration to verify the identity and legal status of all license applicants. The new Maryland legislation would repeal those MVA limitations.

Washington, New Mexico and Illinois are among the states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Maryland Democratic Delegate Jolene Ivey of Prince George’s County said policy in these other states helped inform her decision to push for the change.

For many people without proper documentation, driving without a license may be the only option, so it is practical to require those drivers to meet basic driving standards, said Ivey, lead bill sponsor.

“A lot of people simply are in a position where they can’t get around without a car. Not everybody has public transportation available. Legally they’re not supposed to drive, but we know that with the way their current situation is set up, it’s really hard to avoid,” she said.

Undocumented drivers seeking licenses will be required to meet the same MVA standards required of all drivers: a written test and an on-road driving skills test.

Botwin called Ivey “one of the worst delegates in Annapolis” whose bill was a “continued effort of her pandering to CASA of Maryland and the illegal immigrants in Prince George’s County.”

He has charged that road safety is compromised by the fact that Maryland’s written driving test can be taken in Spanish, yet street signs across the state are labeled in English.

But the Maryland Department of Transportation shares Ivey’s views that the enactment of the bill will have a positive impact on highway safety in part by ensuring that more vehicle operators can have on-file driving records.

“Licensing these individuals allows the Motor Vehicle Administration to track their driving histories and to address safety problems or concerns through administrative action taken against the driver’s license,” the Department of Transportation said in statement.

“People who think it’s some kind of danger to Maryland, I think that’s ridiculous,” Ivey said of the bill’s implications.

But Botwin argues that the danger lies in setting a precedent for the future.

“It empowers the illegal alien community to keep pushing for more and more,” he said.

Gonzales, though, said that reducing the chance of her family’s separation is a worthwhile cause.

“I think the biggest risk is my husband driving without a license. My fear is that something could happen to him. He could get arrested, and we don’t want our family separated,” she said. “We have a 5 year old that we are raising together, and we want to continue to do that.”