Education, prisons, pensions were on local lawmakers' agendas

April 21, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |
  • Local bills and resolutions filed by Washington County delegation members in the 2012 session.
Local bills and resolutions filed by Washington County delegation members in the 2012 session.

Washington County’s state legislators pursued some lofty but unattainable goals this year, along with several more grounded ideas that succeeded.

Sen. George C. Edwards and Del. John P. Donoghue each won a share of the state’s capital budget for local projects.

Sen. Ronald N. Young sponsored successful legislation to protect employees or job applicants from having to hand over their passwords to social media sites.

After four failed tries, Sen. Christopher B. Shank amended his proposal to increase the penalty for fatal child abuse this year and it passed.

Among the measures that were defeated — some without a vote — were Edwards’ attempts to impose a mass-transit tax on Maryland’s urban jurisdictions, Shank’s proposal to cut the state corporate income tax and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr.’s push to let certain Allegany County students finish their school careers in Hancock.

For the second year in a row, Del. Andrew A. Serafini tried unsuccessfully to pass measures to alter the state pension system, which is underfunded compared to its obligations.

Strictly speaking, about a quarter of the bills filed by members of the Washington County delegation passed — including duplicate versions filed in the House and Senate, but not including bills they filed pertaining only to other counties.

But measuring success by the number of bills passed or defeated is misleading. It makes no difference if a bill is voted down in the House if the same version already passed the Senate. Some bills are withdrawn because a compromise achieves the same result.

The Washington County delegation filed six bills. The top item — giving the county government the authority to approve Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association budgets — passed easily.

A change in the payment in lieu of taxes system and a technical change to a 2006 grant for a local Rural Heritage Transportation Museum also passed.

The delegation proposed giving volunteer fire and rescue companies the ability to bill for services, but withdrew the bill when it ran into resistance.

Another bill related to tip jars — changing the definition of an “amusement device” and allowing the cost of a gaming sticker to be deducted from the gross receipts — languished at the end of the session, caught in a logjam behind a controversial Prince George’s casino bill. Serafini said a House committee also might have been leery that the Washington County Board of Commissioners didn’t fully support the bill.

A skeptical House committee voted down a request to expand and continue a Washington County pilot program — using GPS to monitor certain criminal defendants — so it apparently will end this year.

Sen. Ronald N. Young

Young said he was pleased his bill protecting employees and job candidates from handing over passwords was approved — making Maryland apparently the first state in the nation, if Gov. Martin O’Malley signs it into law.

A similar bill extending the same protection to college students on campus passed the Senate, but didn’t advance in the House.

A big disappointment, he said, was that his bill calling for the purchase of American-made goods for public works contracts failed in the House after unanimous support in the Senate.

Young tried again this year to pass an increase in the estate-tax exemption for agricultural land. A version backed by the governor passed instead. Young was added as a sponsor.

For the second straight year, Young tried to pass a measure letting local government bodies save money by posting notices of public meetings and other proceedings on their websites instead of being required to pay for a newspaper ad.

In the middle of a committee vote, the committee chairwoman decided she didn’t care for the bill and tabled the vote indefinitely, Young said. He plans to keep trying.

Another bill of his — on polysomnography, the study of sleep — faltered at the very end. It passed the House and the Senate unanimously, but in different forms. A conference never met to reconcile the differences.

Two other successful Young bills set a state standard for honey and let people take their own wine to certain establishments.

His proposals to create a registry of convicted animal abusers and to grant income-tax credits for retirees, wineries and the AmeriCorps program failed.

With his name on 34 bills as a sponsor, Young had a lengthy agenda this session. In the future, he said, he’ll probably cut back.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr.

A battle over whether students from the Little Orleans area of Allegany County can finish their school careers in Hancock in Washington County was the primary legislative issue for Myers.

After a heated hearing on his first bill, Myers tried a second similar bill. The House Ways and Means Committee didn’t act on either. The Ways and Means education subcommittee chairwoman said it was a matter for local officials to work out.

A judge and the Maryland State Board of Education have upheld the Allegany County school board’s decision to end their arrangement in which Little Orleans students went to school in Hancock because it was closer.

But, “I’m going to continue to fight” for Little Orleans families, Myers said Thursday.

One possibility, he said, is having Washington County help with transportation.

Myers’ only other bill this session was to establish uniformity in plumbing codes. Some Maryland counties accept the International Plumbing Code and some don’t, he said.

The bill was defeated in a Senate committee.

Asked about filing only three bills of his own this session, Myers said it’s just as important to be a watchdog against bad legislation.

Del. John P. Donoghue

For Donoghue, this was a session to make sure Washington County got its share of the state budget, including $800,000 for a new Washington County senior center, he said.

He also focused on preserving University System of Maryland at Hagerstown funding.

“I knew what would happen with the proposed cuts and everything else,” he said. “Washington County would need to be protected.”

Donoghue was successful in his request for $40,000 toward the cost of creating a Korean War veterans monument.

He withdrew two bills after agreements were reached on both. One made sure the John R. Marsh Cancer Center could receive Medicaid reimbursement. Another was related to composition of the State Board of Dental Examiners.

Donoghue also sponsored a resolution urging Congress to seek the withdrawal of recommendations calling for less stringent prostate cancer screening for men. It didn’t pass.

Del. Michael J. Hough

A plan to let people on parole and probation earn credits to reduce their active supervision ran into opposition, but passed both chambers.

Del. Michael J. Hough sponsored the bill in the House; Shank sponsored the Senate version.

Hough called it “a big change.”

Shank noted that he and Hough worked together on another significant policy bill that passed last year, setting a system of quick, fair administrative sanctions for technical parole and probation violations.

Hough had a second bill pass this year — making it easier for a child under the informal custody of an adult to attend school.

Two bills of his passed the House, but failed in a Senate committee. One required the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to prepare an annual report on the effectiveness of its programs. The other established a mediation program for minor criminal offenses.

His attempt to tighten Maryland’s bail requirements — in light of the sex abuse case involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky — failed. Hough said a new Maryland case, in which a man killed a woman after being released on unsecured bond, makes him want to try again next year.

Del. Neil C. Parrott

The two bills of Del. Neil C. Parrott’s that passed this session were cross-filed versions of bills Shank sponsored in the Senate.

Parrott’s bill to make signatures on petitions confidential failed when a Senate version of his bill was defeated.

He proposed two constitutional amendments. One was a change in the congressional redistricting process. The other was an attempt to prohibit bond bills, or requests for capital-budget money for projects, usually in a legislator’s district. No action was taken on either.

A committee voted down Parrott’s attempt to set a formula for distributing Transportation Trust Fund money, returning to levels the municipalities got before state funding was slashed.

Parrott also filed a bill forcing people to pull over for an unmarked police car. He said he withdrew the bill when it looked like it would fail; he expects to improve the bill for next year.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank

Justice’s Law passed this year after Shank agreed to scale back the proposed maximum prison term from life to 40 years. He called it a “major victory.”

Shank said his legislation branched out into different topics this year.

One was a successful bill requiring school systems to have a policy for administering epinephrine to children with potentially fatal allergies.

Another was the creation of a Maryland Advisory Council for Virtual Learning to develop more online educational programs and policies.

Shank tried to expand the conditions under which a protective order may be granted. But the bill ran into trouble because of the difficulty in trying to define an intimate relationship. He plans to try again.

Shank pledged to refile his unsuccessful bill seeking new scrutiny for renewable energy leases, sparked by his dissatisfaction with the terms of a state lease for a solar farm south of Hagerstown.

His bill to let state agencies seek out local vendors if they offer better prices than a cooperative purchasing agreement — aimed at a company called Grainger — narrowly failed in committee. He said he’ll seek a legislative audit of the agreement before deciding whether to push for his bill again.

Two disputes involving the State Highway Administration were worked out without legislation.

A bill letting relatives of slain Smithsburg Police Officer Christopher S. Nicholson obtain his service weapon passed in the form the family wanted: The gun can be operable when they get it.

A bill seeking to cut good-time credits from prisoners caught with cell phones was voted down, but Shank said the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has pledged to take a broad look at the good-time credit system.

Sen. George C. Edwards

One significant way Edwards helped his district this session was through a bill amendment — exempting the part of Garrett County not in the Chesapeake Bay watershed from paying the doubled flush-tax fee.

But he was disappointed the state still hasn’t decided how to fund studies of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation in Western Maryland. Edwards put forward one of the ideas for a severance tax on gas extraction.

Edwards’ two bills to start a mass-transit fund, imposing new taxes in urban jurisdictions that use mass transit, were meant to be conversation starters.

“Some of us thought it’s time start pushing the issue,” he said.

He filed a request for bond-bill money for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park when other Republicans in the delegation wouldn’t. About half of the amount he requested was approved.

Two measures he proposed for more transparency — for gas and oil drilling and for mineral rights — were approved either directly or indirectly.

A bill letting bow hunters carry a gun for personal protection passed the Senate, but was halted in a House committee.

House inaction stopped his bill to give income-tax credits for the Maryland School for the Deaf and the Maryland School for the Blind. Edwards called the failure “ridiculous,” since a similar bill passed for other teachers last year.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini

Like he did last year, Serafini offered multiple ideas to revamp the state’s pension system. None passed.

Two bills didn’t come up for a vote, one was defeated unanimously and one — hiring an outside investment firm — was rejected 18-6.

Serafini said he hopes lawmakers eventually realize that between pensions and debt service, the state is heading toward trouble and needs to take action soon.

Another Serafini bill would have saved people from having to pay income tax on forgiven credit-card debt.

The bill originally was based on income — up to $50,000 for an individual, $80,000 for a joint filing. Through an amendment, the standard was changed to debt — $5,000 for an individual, $8,000 for a joint filing.

After sailing through the House, the bill was halted in the Senate, which Serafini called “really frustrating.”

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