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Local state lawmakers have broad agenda

January 07, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Lawmakers will direct their attention to issues broad and narrow when the 2007 Maryland General Assembly session begins Wednesday.

The state budget is high on the list for some members of Washington County's delegation.

Individually, some said they will pursue new legislation to protect whistle-blowers, give legal standing to caregivers and make school construction costs more uniform statewide.

"The first order of business is everybody needs to get acclimated," Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said, referring to turnover in the House and Senate and to a new governor from the opposing party.

Democrat Martin O'Malley defeated Republican Robert Ehrlich in the November gubernatorial election.

Finding funds

Once business begins, the biggest local challenge will be education funding, said Shank, the delegation chairman. Washington County's commissioners and school board probably will seek much more money for school capital projects than the county received last year.

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Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, is anticipating an attempt to pursue a fire tax to help local volunteers.

The Washington County Commissioners must request the tax before the delegation will consider it, Shank said.

City and county officials already have asked the delegation to try for state funding for a new central booking facility for police, the expansion of Washington County Free Library's downtown branch, the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, the Holly Place senior citizens' group home and Community Free Clinic.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he will concentrate on conditions for uninsured Marylanders and small businesses struggling to provide insurance for employees.

He wants to make sure there's sufficient funding for Community Free Clinic, Walnut Street Community Health Center and Medbank of Maryland, all of which care for low-income residents.

Donoghue said he also will talk more about prison staffing and the state's prisoner release practice.

Republican George Edwards named two major issues for the coming session - the budget and health care.

Edwards, a longtime delegate from Garrett County, will take over this year as the state senator in District 1, which includes a piece of Washington County.

Similarly, Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said his focus will be the state budget and a possible structural deficit.

"The future is not looking too bright," he said.

Slots, health care and other issues

Local lawmakers are watching for a renewed discussion of legalizing slot machines, a measure Ehrlich unsuccessfully pushed for throughout his administration.

Munson said he has voted in favor of slots at the state's racetracks the last three years, but won't support a plan to tie slots to a tax increase.

McKee agreed that health care and slots will be big issues this year. He predicted that there will be attempts to change election laws on early voting and electronic voting machines.

Delegation members have a variety of issues they would like to address in legislation.

Shank plans to push for better whistle-blower protection for state employees, particularly those in the prison system. He also cited medical-malpractice reform and new restrictions on sex offenders as priorities.

McKee said he's considering a bill to increase the requirement for skateboarders to wear helmets.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, has a few bills in mind.

One year after lawmakers fought over how to control Baltimore Gas & Electric rates, Myers wants to work on a bill addressing electric costs for Western Maryland. On Friday, Allegheny Power announced a plan to raise home electric bills about 15 percent per year for the next four years.

Myers wants to look more at association health plans, letting small businesses jointly provide insurance coverage.

Another bill would propose a school construction funding formula that gives larger districts more incentive to keep building costs down.

Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., R-Frederick/Washington, the new chairman of the Frederick County delegation, said he was crafting 14 bills, and expected to have two or three more in time for the session.

One bill would give legal standing to kinship caregivers, who are taking care of relatives.

Another would remove a "do not call" exemption for recorded campaign phone calls, a bill that Weldon acknowledged might be a long shot.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he will submit a bill that would prevent motorcyclists from being forced to wear helmets.

A second bill would add the homeless to the classes of people protected in hate crimes laws.

Both bills have failed before.

"I'm willing to keep trying," Mooney said.

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