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Session ends in Annapolis

April 09, 2001

Session ends in Annapolis



By LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - A powerful state Senate committee chairman killed Washington County's $5 marriage license fee increase, which was supposed to raise money for the local domestic violence shelter.

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It was an unexpected defeat on the last day of a Maryland General Assembly session that otherwise went smoothly for local legislation.

Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Sen. Walter Baker, D-Eastern Shore, said Monday he refused to bring up the marriage license fee issue for a key vote in his committee because he thought $65 was too high.

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Washington County would have tied Frederick County for the most expensive marriage license in the state.

"I'm for marriage instead of living in sin. I think marriage is a fine institution. We're going to tax it out of existence," he said.

Baker said he opposes the idea of such targeted taxes.

"Why should we target two young people who are trying to do the right thing?" he asked.

Members of the Washington County delegation were disappointed and said they'll try again next year to raise money for CASA (Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused).

"It's unfortunate. I know CASA was depending on the money," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

The Washington County Commissioners originally had asked to increase the $60 license fee to $75, but the delegation thought that was too much.

Local lawmakers briefly considered taxing divorces instead of marriages, but were told by lawyers that wasn't a viable option.

The fee increase passed the delegation over the objection of Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington.

Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said he explained the background to Baker at a public hearing last month.

Washington County government needs the legislature's approval to increase most taxes and fees.

The death of the marriage license fee means that the Washington County Commissioners won't get any extra funding through state legislative action this session.

The delegation killed the county's request for a transfer tax in February.

Most of the other local bills were not controversial and easily passed the General Assembly, which generally gives local courtesy to local bills.

But there were a few casualties.

A House committee turned down a delegation request to spend $75,000 for a study establishing a veterans home in Western Maryland.

Two local liquor bills were killed. One, which would have created a caterer's license, was deemed unnecessary by a House committee. The other, to increase liquor board membership from three to five, was killed in the Senate due to the opposition of Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Statewide, an effort to legalize slot machines didn't go anywhere this session. That won't end the debate over the issue, opposed by Washington County lawmakers for fear it will hurt tip jar gambling and the local charities that get the proceeds.

The 2001 session was dominated by talk about the state's $21 billion budget. The last day was no exception.

Republicans raised red umbrellas in front of the State House to symbolize the spending of the state's Rainy Day Fund.

"We think it's unconscionable. We hope next year we don't have a fiscal crisis. If so, we're going to be the first ones to say 'We told you so,'" said Del. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard/Montgomery.

Joining the protest was Bartlett, who voted against the budget, and Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, who voted for it.

"There were too many things in there for my constituents," she said.

Republicans railed against Gov. Parris Glendening for putting $250,000 in the budget at the last minute to lease a new $5 million airplane. The plane will be used to carry prisoners back to the state for trial and occasionally fly Glendening around.

Glendening overspent while ignoring some major health and public safety issues, Republicans said. As a result, legislators said, the General Assembly was forced to raise the two-year car registration fee from $70 to $76 to keep the medevac helicopters flying.

Glendening brushed off the criticism, saying his budget, while progressive, is fiscally responsible.

To ensure the state will have enough money if the economy takes a downturn, Glendening delayed spending $150 million on state projects until January, including funds for the renovation of the Baldwin House complex in Hagerstown for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center.

Nearly all of Glendening's priorities remained intact, even after legislators carved more than $200 million out of the budget.

Most notable for Washington County are several new Smart Growth programs that could be used to improve the area surrounding the University System project on West Washington Street.

Glendening also succeeded in the legislative arena this session, getting the General Assembly to agree to extend civil rights protections to gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

"It's been a dramatic, good session. We got our entire package through because it's the right thing to do," Glendening said.

The General Assembly passed several legislative initiatives of its own.

Poor people will get temporary help paying for prescription drugs under a plan approved Monday.

Individuals making less than $25,800 or couples making less than $34,900 would qualify for the state-subsidized prescription plan.

The plan also continues the Western Maryland Prescription Program, which links people with free drugs offered by pharmaceutical companies, and expands it statewide.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany/Garrett, pushed for and got legislation to require public schools to teach gun safety.

The Washington County Board of Education will decide the scope of the program, but it must be approved by state education officials.

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