One Year’s Worth of Accomplishment – Part 1
Looking back over the last four years in Annapolis, one can’t help but note the study of contrasts. Political pundits predicted one of the least productive four-year terms in legislative history, chalking it up to the pitfalls of divided government.
A Republican governor pitted against an entrenched Democrat majority seemed to spell disaster for any meaningful and significant legislative accomplishments.
When we closed the book on the General Assembly Journal in April, I skimmed over the big topics that dominated the news media that swarmed over the Capitol during the most recent legislature’s 90-day tenure.
Time and distance provide an opportunity for a more scholarly (and less partisan) review of the ups and downs, the highlights and lowlights. Traveling my district post-session, the most frequent question has been: “How does anything get done in that poisoned atmosphere?”
Truth be told, even with an extremely contentious and partisan political environment, there is room for significant and important legislative work to be accomplished.
What follows is a topic-by topic analysis of some major accomplishments from the last 90-day General Assembly session. There was so much significant legislation, to recap it faithfully two columns had to be devoted to it.
Maryland’s Open Meetings Act does not apply to a public body when it carries out an “executive function.” The General Assembly unanimously passed 2006 legislation that replaces that term with “administrative function,” which includes the administration of a state law, a law of a political subdivision, or a rule, regulation, or bylaw of a public body. If a public body recesses an open session to carry out an administrative function in a meeting that is not open to the public, the minutes for the next meeting must include a statement of the date, time, place, and persons present at the administrative function meeting and a phrase or sentence identifying the subject matter discussed at that meeting. (HB698/SB406) [Okay, I’m a little biased. This was my bill, and something I’m very proud of. An unexpected by-product of a good bill is that it gains statewide coverage, this one definitely did.]
Family Law – Domestic Violence establishes the Address Confidentiality Program. Domestic violence victims may request the use of a substitute address in an agency’s response to requests for public records, and the Secretary of State will accept service of process and mail for the participant. [SB25/HB1056) Senator Alex Mooney was the primary sponsor, and has received a lot of well deserved attention and praise for this bill.]
Agricultural Nuisances: To resolve conflicts between agricultural operations and their neighbors without legal action, and to notify the legal community of the existence in Maryland rural counties of Agricultural Reconciliation Committees; this new law requires that a complaint must first be filed with a local agency and a decision reached. If there is no local agency, the complaint must be referred to the state Agricultural Mediation Program and mediation must be concluded. (HB396)
Identity Theft bill prohibits anyone from knowingly selling, issuing or offering for sale or issue an ID card or document containing an incorrect name or address. Victims may use an “identity theft passport” issued by the Attorney General to verify identity. This new law allows sworn affidavit, rather than a court appearance by the victim, as evidence that a credit card or credit card number was taken without authorization. Violators are subject to imprisonment up to two years and fines up to $2,000. (SB468/HB1217)
Privacy of Social Security Numbers (SSN): In addition to 2005 restrictions on the use of an SSN, 2006 legislation prohibits employers, including governmental, from printing a SSN on paychecks, attachment to a paycheck, direct deposit notice, or notice of credit to a debit card or card account. (HB388)
Privacy of Cellular and Other Telephone Records: To better protect consumers, a person may not knowingly obtain, sell, or receive a telephone record without the customer’s authorization, or by fraudulent, deceptive, or false means. (HB1301)
Assault on Correctional Officers is a felony with maximum penalties of imprisonment for 10 years and a fine of $5,000. (HB214) Our state corrections workers toil in some of the most dangerous and unappealing environments of any state employee. They deserved this additional protection.
Funeral Disruption: This bill prohibits knowingly restricting entry to or exit from a funeral, burial, memorial service or funeral procession, addressing a person attending the event in a manner likely to breach the peace, or picketing attendees within 100 feet of the event. Penalties are imprisonment for a maximum of 90 days and a fine of up to $1,000. (HB850) This tragic circumstance even manifested itself in Frederick County at the funeral of 1st Lieutenant Robert Seidel of Emmitsburg. Freedom of speech is one thing, disrespecting a grieving family is another entirely, at least in my book.
Child Abuse: Persons convicted multiple times of first-degree child abuse are subject to enhanced penalties and ineligibility for parole. (SB509/HB59)
Protection of Animals: Prohibiting the infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering on an animal by any person, not just the animal’s owner or custodian. (HB 11)
Fire Companies - Limited Access to Private Water Sources and authorization to enter private property to obtain water to fight a fire or mitigate an emergency incident if there is no other water source available. (SB 562) This really refers to farm ponds, but could also mean private storm water retention facilities.
Restitution for Drug Cleanup: The costs to clean up facilities used for the illegal manufacture of a controlled dangerous substance such as methamphetamine, which is extremely hazardous to produce. If a minor is convicted, the minor, the minor’s parent, or both can be ordered to pay restitution. (HB474)
Minimum Wage Increase requires private sector employers to pay the greater of the federal minimum wage or a wage that equals a rate of $6.15 per hour and to pay employees who receive tips a wage rate that equals $3.08 per hour. (HB391/ HB55) No, I didn’t vote for it, and still think it’s the wrong way to solve the problem of the wage gap for lower wage earners. Regardless, it’s now the law of Maryland, hence the inclusion here.
Rural Broadband Coordination Board provides funds to expand high-speed Internet access to rural and underserved areas of the state. (SB753/ HB1156)
Maryland’s Wineries retain their ability to sell directly to restaurants, retailers, and permit holders. (SB812) Without this law, wineries would have been required to use a wholesaler that charges 25 to 33 percent to distribute wine.
Partially Consumed Bottle of Wine: A customer may take a partially consumed bottle of wine purchased for consumption with a meal from a licensed premise, provided that the licensee or its employee inserts a cork or places a cap on the bottle. The bottle must be stored in a locked glove compartment, trunk, the area behind the rearmost upright seat, or other area that is not normally occupied by the driver or a passenger. (SB280/ HB517)
Special Vehicle Dealer Registration Plates: Exempting from certificate of title requirements new vehicles owned by a manufacturer or dealer and held for sale even though used for specified other purposes; allowing a licensed dealer to lend a vehicle to an educational institution providing specified driver's education instruction under a manufacturer-sponsored loan program approved by the administration; etc. (SB 456)
Mandatory state aid programs are fully funded and public school construction projects receive a large influx of new state funds in record support of issues important to all of us.
* Frederick County receives $205.2 million, an increase of $21.2 million.
Bridge to Excellence in Public School Programs is funded by a record increase for the third consecutive year.
* Public schools receive over $4 billion, an increase of $466 million or 11.6%
* This increase follows those of $380 million in 2006 and $323 million in 2005.
* Education aid increases by $1.6 billion from 2002 to 2007, reflecting an average annual growth rate of 9.2%.
* An increase of approximately $500 million is projected for 2008, the final year of the Bridge to Excellence phase-in.
* State funding for public schools increases by $56.8 million
* Public schools receive: $168.0 million for operations $17.9 million for construction Frederick County library system receives $1 million.
* State funding for public schools increases by $45.3 million
*Public schools receive: $111.6 million for operations $4.5 million for construction Washington County library system receives $1 million
Teacher Pension Enhancement:
* The enhancement, retroactive to 1998, increases the benefit multiplier used to calculate a retiree’s annual payment from 1.4% to 1.8% per year of service
*Teacher contribution will increase from 2.2% to 5% of their annual compensation phased in over three years *For example: a new teacher’s first year pension after teaching 30 years will increase from 42% of average final salary to 54%. (SB1019/HB1737)
Supporting new teachers and enhancing professional development:
* Training programs and long-term support for new teachers in hard-to-staff schools.
* Train teachers to integrate technology into curricula and to introduce elementary age students to computer technology.
*$2 million to train student teacher interns in specially designed schools that assist in improving the quality of the workforce and teacher retention.
Maryland Alternative Teaching Opportunity Program: A four-to eight-week paid internship for candidates enrolled in a program with the intention of becoming a science, mathematics or special education teacher and who make a commitment to teach in the school for at least three years. (HB794)
Residential Boarding School: In 2009, disadvantaged and at-risk fifth and sixth grade students have the opportunity to attend a new school modeled after one in Washington, D.C., that reported a 100% college acceptance rate for its graduates for the last two years.
Colleges and Universities receive an increase of $130 million, or an 11.2% increase
Higher Education – Tuition Affordability Act of 2006 – Tuition freeze for University of Maryland and Morgan State University resident undergraduate tuition for 2006-2007. These rates increased 10% to 12% each year from 2002 to 2005. Fall 2006 resident tuition increases at St. Mary’s College are limited to 4.8%. (SB959/HB1381)
Tomorrow in Part 2 we’ll cover issues like the environment, agriculture, tax issues, and health care. Hopefully, the point is coming across that our “citizen legislature” succeeds because (or in spite) of the people who serve as our elected representatives. Divided government or not, the General Assembly accomplishes important policy outcomes for Maryland.