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Ehrlich bills include slots, malpractice

January 20, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Gov. Robert Ehrlich dusted off a few vintage issues and formally added a major initiative targeting sex offenders to his legislative agenda for this year's General Assembly.

As expected, Ehrlich included - for the fourth year in a row - a bill to legalize slot machine gambling in his legislative package, announced by his office on Thursday.

And he included a promised bill to reform the state's medical malpractice bill.

The package also includes the sex offender monitoring bills he announced earlier.

· Slot machine gambling



Formally titled "Public Education & Bridge to Excellence School Construction Act," this year's bill is similar to the bill Ehrlich pressed last year, but it would allow slots at only six locations rather than the seven allowed in last year's bill. They include Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Laurel Race Course in Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County and a racetrack proposed for Allegany County. The bill also provides for two slots parlors along Interstate 95.

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The bill authorizes up to 15,500 slot machines total, and licenses for operating them would cost $3 million for each 500 machines in a facility.

Proceeds beyond payout to slots players are to be distributed to a new education trust fund to pay for the Thornton Commission's funding requirements and school construction, and some would be used to enhance horse race purses and provide aid to horse breeders. Local governments in jurisdictions with slot machines also would get some of the proceeds.

Alan Friedman, director of legislative relations for the governor, said he expected $400 million per year from slots would be available for school construction and renovation, and projected that license fees would provide $91 million for the education trust fund.

Licensees also would pay $390 per slot machine into a Compulsive Gambling Fund to be administered by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

· Medical malpractice



Ehrlich is proposing one bill with many parts that includes reforms pushed last year by physicians across the state in an effort spearheaded by doctors in Washington County.

It imposes new criteria on expert witnesses in malpractice cases, including one that prohibits witnesses who do not actively practice medicine. It limits expert witnesses to spending up to 20 percent of their professional activities outside care and treatment of patients. It also gives courts more responsibility in deciding whether an expert's testimony should be admissible.

The bill would reduce damages awarded in malpractice cases if the plaintiff is getting compensation from other sources. Awards for lost wages would be reduced by the amount the plaintiff would have had to pay in income taxes if the money had been earned, and future damages for medical, hospital or nursing home bills would be limited to the amount paid by Medicare.

Noneconomic damages, currently capped at $650,000 for pain and suffering and $812,500 for wrongful death, would be capped at $500,000.

The bill also includes a provision that apologies by health-care providers are not admissible as evidence, limits interest rates on judgments and creates a task force to study other issues relating to medical malpractice.

Given the failure of such reforms last year, Friedman conceded the bill could be a tough sell. Once legislation has been considered on an issue, "the legislature has a tendency not to want to revisit it," he said.

And election years present further challenges, he said.

"Medical malpractice is huge," said Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany. "Hopefully, this time we will do a better job of getting it through."

· Sex offender monitoring



Ehrlich's bill to tighten controls on sex offenders requires offenders deemed to be violent predators or child sexual offenders who do not receive life sentences to be supervised for life, and doubles from 10 years to 20 years the time all sexual offenders must remain on the state's registry. Courts would have the option of using electronic monitoring systems to supervise them.

Offenders would have to provide new photographs for the registry every year, and all child sex offenders would report four times a year. All offenders would report in person, and continue under supervision for a minimum of 20 years after release from prison. All offenders would have to provide the state a DNA sample.

The bill also expands trespassing laws to prohibit offenders from entering public or private school property or property used as a child-care facility without permission, and prohibits certain offenders from living near schools.

Friedman said the governor's office is "still trying to weave through the logistical issues" of how the bill would be enforced.

"All states need to do more" to monitor sex offenders, Myers said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, serves on the House Judiciary Committee and already has said he plans to push the governor's malpractice and sex offender bills there - as well as a few of his own.

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