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Some local bills go down to the wire

April 11, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

In the words of House Minority Leader George Edwards, it was a "taketh away from the governor year" in the Maryland General Assembly, and it ended just as it started - with the Democrat-led legislature voting to override a succession of vetoes by Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

It was a session in which the leadership on both sides, posturing for the coming election, fought bitterly over the governor's powers, from appointments to election reform to an ongoing probe into the administration's personnel hiring.

"The next bill will be to do away with the governor since he doesn't have anything left to do," said Edwards, a candidate for Washington County's westernmost Senate seat.

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For other local legislators, the session that ended at midnight Monday was a bit of a mixed bag.

Though it wasn't the nail-biter of last year, a bill to revise the county's excise tax got final approval mid-afternoon Monday. A series of amendments stalled the bill - which gives the county authority to waive the excise tax for certain new businesses - until the last day. Last year, a bill to revise the excise tax remained in limbo until the last few minutes of the session.

As approved, this year's bill requires the county to grant waivers for the first 50,000 square feet of an expansion by existing businesses. The exemptions would not be available for another five years after the first exemption.

Most other local bills had been approved by last week, with the exception of a bill to permit the appointment of more fire police per fire company.

But a bill to create a committee to study the election of Washington County Board of Education members failed in the House Ways and Means Committee following objections from current board members.

Results on other issues important locally were mixed as well. Although more than a dozen bills dealing with medical malpractice statutes were proposed, nearly all failed.

Correctional officers fared better. Though they did not get the full retroactive salary increases Ehrlich had asked for in January, the General Assembly agreed to give an increase of more than 6 percent effective April 15. Further, the legislature approved 160 new correctional officer positions statewide, 23 of which are slated for the three-prison complex south of Hagerstown.

And on the General Assembly's final day, the Senate gave final approval to a bill sponsored by Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, that permits prisons to rehire retired correctional officers to fill staffing gaps.

Myers and other county lawmakers who co-sponsored the bill worried about its fate when it seemed bottlenecked first in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee last week and then as it awaited a vote Monday by the full Senate. Myers credited Senate Minority Leader Lowell Stoltzfus with pushing the bill through the Senate with just hours to go in the session.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington and a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he was pleased Myers' bill won approval.

"I hope and expect it will help us resolve getting some correctional officers," he said. "It's a good bill; I certainly wanted it to pass."

A bill to expand the state's open meetings law to require a public body that adjourns an open meeting for an "executive function" to report those functions in its minutes for its next meeting was approved to the surprise of its sponsor, Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick.

"I didn't think it was gonna pass," Weldon said, "but magically Thursday, it got on a fast track."

Weldon credited House Health and Government Operations Committee Chairman Peter Hammen with getting the bill approved.

"It's a good little bill," Weldon said. "Next year, we need to go further."

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