Today, Tuesday, March 18th, is “crossover” in the House and Senate when each house takes up the opposite chamber’s bills for consideration. Crossover begins the final three weeks of the General Assembly and for a bill to become law it must pass each chamber in the same form before final adjournment or “sine die” on April 7th. With three weeks to go many issues are still being considered.
Mar 30, 2014 – Assembly Enters Final Week With Tough Issues Pending – Sun
Mar 30, 2014 – Five Things To Watch As The 90 Day Legislative Session Ends – Post
Mar 17, 2014 – House Bills Held Hostage Over A Snit – Rec
Mar 17, 2014 – House Approves Expanding Med Marijuana As Deadline Looms – Post
Assembly’s big issues: still a puzzle
By: Bryan P. Sears, Daily Record March 17, 2014
ANNAPOLIS — Many are called but few are passed.
With roughly three weeks left in the session, legislators spent Monday scurrying to move bills from the House to the Senate and vice versa in an attempt to beat the deadline known as crossover day. Bills that failed to meet the deadline aren’t dead but face the additional hurdle of needing the House or Senate Rules Committees to refer them to a standing committee for hearings.
This year there are 1,553 bills and 11 resolutions in the House and another 1,111 bills and nine resolutions in the Senate. Only a small percentage will pass and ultimately reach Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s desk.
So far, the House and Senate have passed six bills and two joint resolutions, including two that give legislators and the governor a raise in the coming term.
Here’s a look at the status of some of the biggest issues in Annapolis this year.
The State Budget
The one thing legislators absolutely positively have to do every year before punching out of Annapolis is pass a budget.
Sure, there was that time in 2012 when that didn’t happen because a budget compromise was held hostage by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller’s desire to expand gambling to one casino in Prince George’s County and everyone had to come back a month later to do what they should have done in April.
No one expects that the budget will be a problem this year — after all, it’s an election year ,and the General Assembly will adjourn its final meeting of the term with slightly more than two months to go before the primary election.
The Senate version of the spending plan contains no tax increases but does reduce promised pension system payments by an initial $400 million over the next 15 months and phases them back in by 2019.
Originally, Gov. Martin J. O’Malley proposed taking $100 million annually in perpetuity from a promised $300 million in extra payments to the state’s under-funded employee pension plan. The payments are over and above the amount the state is required to invest and was part of a 2011 deal with state employee unions that was meant to increase the system funding to 80 percent.
T. Eloise Foster, state budget secretary, said the money was needed to eliminate future gaps between revenue and spending.
The House continues its work on the budget. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, D-Eastern Shore, said a $238 million write-down in state revenue may require some spending reductions.
Attorneys at bail
Somewhere in that budget, the House and Senate will likely have to find some extra cash to pay for a plan to come into compliance with a Court of Appeals ruling requiring attorneys at bail hearings as a result of its DeWolfe v. Richmond decision.
Earlier this month, the Court of Appeals said it would not reverse its ruling.
Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller called the court decision “nonsensical.”
“No one understands it,” Miller said. “Myself included.”
Understand it or not, the legislature will now have to find a way to change the current system and find the money to pay for those changes.
Hiring enough public defenders to fulfill the court’s requirements would cost $30 million (some say much more) in a year when state finances are tight.
Legislators continue to hammer away at a proposal but appear to be leaning in the direction of an immediate, though temporary fix, that includes District Court judges working weekends and an assessment tool that would require court commissioners to immediately release some low-level defendants while automatically holding others over until they can see a judge for bail.
That plan could cost between $12 million and $15 million, according to some legislators.
Longer term, the legislature is expected to come back next year to work on legislation that would change the court commissioner system significantly and enact a risk assessment program similar to that contained in the recommendations of a legislative task force that was convened to look at how to deal with the DeWolfe v. Richmond decision.
Dog bite liability
The issue of liability in dog-bite cases has been nagging the legislature since the Court of Appeals ruled on the Tracey vs. Solesky case in 2012.
“At this point, the issue is resolved,” said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery. “I can’t imagine that this issue is not resolved.”
The legislature tried twice to deal with issues that include a court ruling that pit bulls are an inherently dangerous breed of dog and that landlords can be held liable if they rent to a tenant who owns a pit bull that bites someone.
In February, the Senate passed Senate Bill 247, that is both breed neutral and eliminates landlord liability. The bill replaces the court’s ruling with a rebuttable presumption that requires the owner to prove that the dog did not have a dangerous or vicious propensity.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian E. Frosh D-Montgomery, was the result of a compromise with Simmons.
Additionally, the Senate added language making the owner of a roaming dog liable for attacks, subject to a limited set of exceptions. The exceptions include victims who were trespassing or committing other criminal acts, or who teased, tormented, abused or otherwise provoked the animal.
The House followed last week by passing House Bill 73, sponsored by Simmons, which was amended to be identical to the Senate bill.
All that’s left now is for the House or the Senate to pass the other chamber’s bill in the next 20 days, without amending it again, and send it to the governor for his signature.
Raising the minimum wage
Questions remain about a proposed increase in the minimum wage in the state.
Will it be $10.10 as originally proposed? Will it be $8.25? Somewhere in between? Will the Senate restore a provision indexing the wage to inflation in much the same way it did with the gas tax in 2012?
Delegates passed House Bill 295 earlier this month, phasing in increases that would take it from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017.
That bill eliminated the inflation indexing and froze tipped wages at $3.63 per hour but required employers to make up the difference if tips do not take the employee to the minimum hourly wage.
The Senate appears to prefer a minimum wage increase that is smaller than $10.10 and increasing the earned income tax credit.
The three flavors of marijuana bills in the General Assembly breakdown into three convenient categories: Best chance, less than 50-50 and dead on arrival.
Reforms to the 2012 law that created Maryland’s medical marijuana law appear to have the best chance at passing this year.
The House voted 123-13 Monday afternoon to approve House Bill 881, which expands the medical marijuana law. If it becomes law, physicians could be certified by the state medical marijuana commission and write prescriptions for the drug for their patients.
Give Senate Bill 364 the effort to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot a less than 50-50 shot.
“I give it 30-70 to the bad,” said Del. Curtis S. “Curt” Anderson, D-Baltimore, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Those looking for the recreational use of marijuana to be legal in Maryland this year will have to wait.
The bill appears to be dead this year as Frosh, the Senate Judicial Proceedings chairman, earlier this month declared the bill dead in his committee.
That was only the latest final nail in the coffin since it was not expected to get out of Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr.’s committee in the House. Vallario, D-Calvert and Prince George’s, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Prior to that, the effort was essentially considered dead on arrival as Gov. Martin J. O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch had both separately said at the beginning of the session that they would not support laws similar to Colorado and Washington.
There’s little chance of a decrease in sales or income taxes, but legislators hold out some hope for lowering the tax bills of some residents.
The legislature is considering an increase in the earned income tax credit given to low-income residents.
The House has already passed House Bill 198, sponsored by Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., D-Baltimore, that would increase the credit from 25 to 28 percent for low-income earners. A cross-filed bill in the Senate would increase the credit to 30 percent.
The Senate Finance Committee is considering the credit as part of a package related to minimum wage and may increase the credit while keeping the minimum wage below $10 per hour.
The legislature has moved a step closer to approving a recoupling of the state’s estate tax to the federal government rate.
Currently, estates valued at $1 million are subject to the state tax. Under House Bill 739 and Senate Bill 602, the state would phase in an increase to $5.34 million — the same as the federal government—by 2017.
The House passed its bill on March 7 and both the House speaker and Senate president have expressed a desire to recouple with the federal rate.
Forbes Magazine in 2013 included Maryland in a story about the tax called “Where not to die.”
Opponents, including nonprofits, argue that the tax will cost the state too much money. An analysis by the state Department of Legislative Services found that revenue decreases by nearly $28 million in fiscal 2015 and nearly $138 million by fiscal 2019.
That bill passed the Senate last week.
The production company that films “House of Cards,” the largest recipient of the credit over the last few years, sent a letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch that it would not film in Maryland unless the credit was increased.
The ‘rain tax’
Thirteen bills dealing with the stormwater management fee, also called the rain tax by some opponents, were introduced in the House and Senate respectively.
Among those were bills to help nonprofits, delay implementation of the fee or repeal it completely.
Of those, 11 are officially dead. Another is stuck almost hopelessly in the Senate Rules Committee, making it unlikely to get referred to a standing committee for a hearing.
The last one, House Bill 1139, sponsored by Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., D-Baltimore County, received a hearing in the House Environmental Matters Committee but appears stuck there.
Despite an expected delay of a final report by the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, the General Assembly will not likely pass a permanent or temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing.
The technique for mining natural gas in Marcellus shale deposits, sometimes called fracking, has been a target of environmentalists over the last few years in Maryland.
Bills seeking to permanently or temporarily ban the process have already been killed in committee.
“It’s disappointing,” said Tommy Landers, public policy director for Chesapeake Climate Action Committee. “This was the last year they could act.”
Two other bills, House Bill 865 sponsored by Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery, and House bill 1030 sponsored by Morhaim, the Baltimore County Democrat, remain in committee since their respective hearings in late February.