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Foreclosure mediation bill approved on final day

April 13, 2010

ANNAPOLIS (AP) -- Mediation will be required between borrowers facing foreclosure and mortgage lenders if borrowers choose under a bill finalized Monday by lawmakers, who also resolved two high-profile measures cracking down on sex offenders before a midnight adjournment.

The mediation bill has been a priority for Gov. Martin O'Malley in a state where there were about 43,000 foreclosures last year, with the number expected to remain high in coming years.

"I was very elated to see the foreclosure bill go through so that every homeowner will have the ability to bring the mortgage companies to the table before they can be thrown out of their home," O'Malley, a Democrat, said.

Lawmakers in the waning hours of the session also worked out stronger penalties for people who commit more serious sex offenses or rape against a child. The Senate approved a mandatory 15-year prison sentence advocated in the House of Delegates, instead of a 20-year sentence. The 15 years triples the mandatory sentence under current law.

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Relatives of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell, who authorities say was killed by a registered sex offender, urged lawmakers earlier in the day to pass the 20-year mandatory sentence.

"We really need to be advocates for the rest of the children in the state of Maryland and all across the country to make sure that we do protect our children," Jennifer Foxwell, Sarah's mother, said before walking into the statehouse earlier in the day.

Nevertheless, Joan Harris, president of Citizens for Jessica's Law, said it was a big improvement.

"It's less than we wanted, but it's much better than the law is now," Harris said.

Both chambers approved a measure to require lifetime supervision for people who commit the most severe sex crimes.

Lawmakers also agreed on legislation that would bring Maryland into compliance with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which creates minimum standards for sex offender registration. States have been given until July to comply or risk losing federal grants.

The need for changes to Maryland's sex offender laws have been underscored this session after Sarah's death on the Eastern Shore in December. Her body was found Christmas Day after a search that brought out thousands of volunteers. A registered sex offender has been charged with murder in her death.

Delegate Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert, said the sex offender bills were a bright spot in a session he believes failed to address the state's future budget deficits.

"We didn't fix the spending problem," O'Donnell said. "They're going to be coming back for taxes, and we did very little to create jobs or create an environment that allows jobs to be created."

The General Assembly approved a bill that requires Maryland utilities to increase the amount of solar energy they buy and creates fees they would pay for not complying. Lawmakers scaled back an earlier version approved by the Senate that had a higher cost.

The bill, aimed at creating jobs in solar energy while helping to protect the environment, will increase residential electricity bills by an estimated 5 cents per month next year and 66 cents per month for the average commercial ratepayer. The amount goes up each year, resulting in an increase of 77 cents per month for residents and $9.57 for commercial ratepayers in 2016.

The House and Senate also passed the first changes to guidelines used to set child support in more than 20 years.

Lawmakers already had approved the state's $13.2 billion operating budget. The fiscal year 2011 budget relies on a mix of cuts, one-time spending transfers from reserve accounts and federal stimulus money to close a $2 billion gap. The budget, which includes large cuts in funding to local governments for road repairs, will have a balance of $195 million, in addition to $633 million in the state's Rainy Day Fund.

O'Malley has signed into law the main portions of his job creation initiative. It includes a $5,000 tax credit for Maryland employers who hire an unemployed resident that O'Malley included $20 million in the budget to fund. He also has signed legislation to change unemployment insurance laws to enable Maryland to secure about $127 million in federal stimulus money.

The General Assembly also has passed a ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving, which O'Malley has indicated he will sign, and legislation that creates civil penalties for making false Medicaid claims. The state estimates that bill could help recover $20 million in fraudulent claims a year.

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