Md. Assembly OKs chemical company tax

Governor to sign bill creating database for hazardous materials

A post-Sept. 11 priority

Lawmakers agree to voting rights for some felons

April 07, 2002|By Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin | Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

THE BILL — Chemical companies and other businesses that store large amounts of hazardous materials in Maryland will pay new fees to create a database of their inventories under legislation approved by the General Assembly yesterday and sent to the governor for his signature.

The bill - a priority of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who considered it part of his environmental agenda - was inspired by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We think it allows the state to do a better job in preparing communities for any emergency that could arise from the chemicals or the pollutants," said Michael Morrill, the governor's spokesman.

Passage of the chemical bill came during a frenetic final Saturday, as legislators sought to finish work before they adjourn for the year tomorrow at midnight. In other action yesterday, the General Assembly also approved:

A map creating new boundaries for the state's eight congressional districts. The measure passed with enough votes to allow it to become effective immediately, avoiding the possibility that opponents could try to gather signatures to overturn it through referendum.

Legislation allowing some convicted felons to regain the right to vote.

A measure increasing the pensions of retired governors by linking their benefits to the salary of the sitting governor, rather than the pay they received when they left office.

A bill authorizing a Sunday deer hunt in seven Maryland counties.

The chemical database bill was one of the most hotly debated of the annual 90-day session, drawing the ire of companies that complained that the fee it imposes amounts to an unwarranted tax.

Proponents of the measure pointed to recent accidents as reason enough for state officials to keep a closer watch on chemical storage. During the CSX train tunnel fire in Baltimore last August, firefighters did not immediately know whether the material in the burning train car was toxic.

The same was true during two chemical fires at Baltimore's JAG Industries, which had not updated its chemical storage inventory with the Fire Department for nine years.

The bill would require companies to submit their inventories to the state Department of the Environment, which is to create a database available to local fire departments and other emergency agencies.

The department would pay for the database by collecting fees of up to $1,000 a company, depending on the hazardous materials stored. Legislative analysts estimate that about 800 companies - representing 3,200 facilities across the state - would pay $800,000 next year. Half of that money would go to local emergency planning committees.

The same companies are supposed to report their chemicals to the federal government, but Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida said only chemicals released into the environment are reported - not what is stored.

"This will also help us track the companies that should be reporting, but aren't reporting," she said.

Added Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland: "I think that with the passage of this legislation, all our communities are going to be far safer, with better information about what chemicals are now being stored near our homes and schools."

In other environmental legislation, the House of Delegates approved a measure designed to protect the state's five coastal bays from future development. The bill now goes back to the Senate for final approval, which is expected.

If enacted into law, the bill would extend to the coastal bays in rapidly growing Worcester County the same legal protections in place along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Worcester County officials would have to develop bay protection plans and submit them to the state Critical Areas Commission for approval.

The congressional maps were designed by the governor to elect more Democrats from Maryland. The state's eight-member House delegation contains four Democrats and four Republicans, a breakdown that Glendening says does not reflect the will of voters. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1 in the state.

To achieve his goal, Glendening split Baltimore County among five districts, and Anne Arundel County among four. Yesterday's action clears the way for the map to be used in this fall's elections - unless lawsuits challenging the districts are successful.

The bill restoring voting rights to some felons passed after a major push by Maryland's black lawmakers, who said too many African-American men were losing a fundamental civil right even after paying their debt to society. Felons twice convicted of violent crimes would be prohibited from voting, but others would regain their access to the ballot box.

The pension legislation means that each of the state's two-term ex-governors will receive $67,500 next year, rising to $75,000 in four years, when the governor's salary increases to $150,000. In the short term, the bill would most benefit former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who collected $32,996 last year. But critics say Glendening stands to collect the most over time.

The Sunday deer hunt was a priority of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., but was opposed by liberal suburban lawmakers and those in more conservative areas who believe the religious nature of Sunday should not be violated. In the end, only seven counties wanted to be part of the bill.

Sun staff writers Tim Craig and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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