More than politics in 2006

January 08, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER


Local legislators insist there will be issues on the table other than politics during the upcoming General Assembly session, which begins Wednesday.

"I guarantee you close to 1,500 pieces of legislation will get passed and a lot of work will get done," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington. "There's a great deal of important heavy lifting to be done."

Not that other issues can't turn political in an election year, or even a nonelection year - witness the medical malpractice wrangling last year, in which partisan squabbling during a December special session overshadowed the regular session that began two weeks later.

Nevertheless, county lawmakers expect to see action on several fronts, including pension reform for state workers, eminent domain and tougher restrictions for sex offenders.


Pension reform

On its Web site, the Maryland State Teachers Association declares that "Maryland, the fifth wealthiest state in the country, has a pension system rated dead last," and that pension benefits for school employees amount to 38 percent of their average final taxes - minus state taxes. Retired school employees in Pennsylvania, MSTA says, receive 75 percent of their average final salary and don't pay state taxes on it.

But that's like comparing apples to oranges, said Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick.

"Teachers in Pennsylvania contribute significantly more" to their retirement fund, Weldon said. Maryland teachers contribute 2 percent of their salaries to the pension fund, while Pennsylvania teachers chip in about 7 percent. MSTA has a pension proposal on the table, but it has "structural problems," Weldon said.

"The teachers want retroactivity, and that makes the bill unaffordable," Weldon said.

Nevertheless, local legislators believe some form of pension enhancement will be approved this year. They also believe any bill will require state employees to contribute more.

"A lot of people are coming at it from different angles," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington. "I don't think it's final what MSTA will ask the (legislative) leadership for."

"I think we should be ashamed of our pensions," said Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany. But the problem "can't be fixed overnight without bankrupting the state," he added.

Eminent domain

Most local legislators expect the General Assembly to take action to restrict the use of eminent domain in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year that allows governments to condemn private property in order to use the property for economic development purposes.

"I'm not sure what the legislation will be, or if we'll just confirm what we have," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington. Current law allows local governments to condemn private property for public use.

Myers said there could be a proposal for a constitutional amendment limiting governments' ability to condemn.

Though he acknowledged there was an advantage to local governments being able to condemn private properties that are "causing problems for the community" - a local bill was approved in 2005 allowing the town to step in to improve a property in Boonsboro - he maintained such legislation "should give property owners the ability to be partners in the reconstruction."

Sex offenders

Both Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Attorney General Joseph Curran have announced plans to introduce legislation this year to tighten restrictions on convicted sex offenders. Several individual legislators plan to introduce their own bills as well.

Shank has sought in past sessions to make it more difficult for convicted sex offenders to earn early release from prison, and to classify child abuse as a crime of violence under Maryland law. In 2004, he won approval for a bill to create a task force to study monitoring sex offenders by global positioning system, and he said he expects action on GPS monitoring this year - most likely in the form of a pilot project.

Better tracking of sex offenders is necessary because for now, "some of our most dangerous criminals are roaming the streets with very little supervision," he said.

While cases involving convicted sex offenders in other states have received more national attention, "we're no stranger in Maryland to some of these terrible tragedies," Shank said.

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