General Assembly highlights

April 08, 1997

Here are highlights of the 1997 Maryland General Assembly session, which ended at midnight. Bills approved by the legislature need the governor's signature to become law.

Taxes: Legislators approved a bill that will reduce state income taxes by 10 percent over five years, partly by cutting the 5 percent rate to 4.75 percent and partly by boosting personal exemptions. The governor's plan to increase the tobacco tax died, but he won new tax credits for firms that hire the disabled or create jobs in certain established neighborhoods. A bill to allow cities to impose a local tax on video rentals was killed, but manufacturers won relief from the sales tax on equipment. A "truth in taxation" bill that would have changed the state's system of property tax assessment from a 40 percent to 100 percent basis died in a Senate committee.

Baltimore: After months of bitter infighting, the Assembly passed landmark legislation yesterday to reform management of the city school system and send it $254 million in new state aid over five years. Worried about losing business at the convention center, lawmakers passed a measure to require the city to devote 40 percent of its hotel tax revenue for promotion. A bill designed to keep businessman Willard J. Hackerman's Pulaski Highway incinerator closed for good also was approved.

Overcoming strong opposition from two Baltimore senators, the city delegation won passage of a bill to move most liquor inspectors from a patronage system to a merit system. The city also won the right to continue its needle-exchange program and to allow housing inspectors to issue citations with fines for housing code violations. A bill to permit the creation of up to four more "community benefits districts" was approved last night. The Assembly killed a bill that would have allowed state troopers to make traffic stops in the city.

Campaign finance: Legislators passed a major reform package requiring the computerization of campaign finance records, greatly expanding public access to the information. The legislation puts teeth into election laws by subjecting violators to new civil fines and increasing criminal fines from $1,000 per violation to $25,000. It also bars lobbyists from raising money for candidates for statewide office, expanding a prohibition that already applied to legislative candidates. And it prohibits fund raising during the legislative session for all state elected officials, codifying a current policy that applies to senators and delegates.

Crime: The Assembly passed the governor's bill requiring judges to open most juvenile court proceedings of minors charged with serious offenses. Legislators killed a bill that would have expanded the list of crimes for which police officers could issue citations and make warrantless arrests. A domestic violence bill to make abuse grounds for a speedy divorce was killed in a Senate committee; another to extend the maximum length of protective orders was approved last night. A bill to remove spousal adultery as a mitigating circumstance in homicide cases also was approved.

Environment: The governor won passage of a Smart Growth bill which, though somewhat watered down, environmentalists say should discourage suburban sprawl. The measure will allow hundreds of millions of dollars in state money to be spent only in designated growth areas. The governor also won a Rural Legacy bill to use state funds to preserve land in areas vulnerable to development. But his Right to Farm bill to shield farmers from lawsuits died amid criticism that it would have cleared the way for huge factory farms. Early in the session, the Assembly passed and the governor signed a Brownfields bill aimed at encouraging redevelopment of polluted industrial sites.

Gambling: With the governor promising a veto, the legislature barely took a serious look at legalizing either casinos or slot machines at Maryland horse tracks. Similarly, the legislature did nothing to stop May's scheduled shut-down of the casino nights run by nonprofit groups in Prince George's County. An aid package for the racing industry was approved last night. It calls for $5 million in state funds to boost purses at the racetracks and $3 million in other financial relief.

Health: The governor's proposal to provide health coverage for uninsured mothers and children in low- to moderate-income households died last night after legislators could not agree on how many families to include. Legislation to make it easier for patients to appeal to the state when their HMO refuses to pay for a medical stay or procedure also died. The HMO industry managed to stave off most proposals for new mandated benefits, including a minimum length of stay after mastectomies. A proposal to bring HMO medical directors under the supervision of the same agency that handles disciplinary actions against physicians was defeated.

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