Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a package of security bills into law yesterday, using his first appearance after the conclusion of the General Assembly session to train attention on terrorism threats that have emerged since Sept. 11.
Glendening signed legislation creating a 15-member security council to develop emergency management plans. Other bills limit access to some public records and grant new powers to the governor, health secretary and agriculture secretary to respond to attacks and outbreaks.
"We all hope we never have to use any of these powers," said Glendening. "I can't necessarily say that Maryland will be safer, but if an unexpected event occurs, we'll be better prepared."
The administration made the security package one of its top priorities of the session, which ended Monday at midnight.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, lawmakers and staff worked through the fall to prepare bills for the Assembly to consider when it convened in January.
The proposals fueled intense debate in Annapolis over how far the state should go in curbing rights and civil liberties in the name of public protection.
In particular, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland worked diligently in the background to alter the initial versions of several of the bills.
"We had a voice, we were heard, and changes were made," said David Rocah, an ACLU staff attorney.
Rocah said an early version of the public-records bill would have gutted the state's open-records law and made most documents off-limits.
The new law restricts access to a limited number of documents that could be used by terrorists, such as schematic drawings of airports and bridges, and emergency evacuation plans.
"The revised bill drew no objections," Rocah said. "It is much more specific and much more narrow."
Also revised was a bill granting new powers to the governor to declare a catastrophic health emergency.
It was changed to protect the privacy rights of those who are sick.
Another measure gives the state's agriculture secretary the power to obtain search warrants to investigate health threats spread through crops or livestock.
"This is something that we were considering even before September 11th," said Patrick McMillan, an assistant to the agriculture secretary.
"There's been quite a lot of attention to people being able to introduce animal diseases, and they can have devastating impact," McMillan said.
1 security bill unsigned
Still to be signed is the Maryland Security Protection Act of 2002, introduced as a wide-ranging measure that includes restrictions on driver's licenses for immigrants and makes terrorism a crime in the state.
As amended, the bill grants police new wire-tapping authority, an extension of power that Rocah said never received the necessary debate because it was masked by the bill's security-related title.
Five of the six security bills signed yesterday were passed as emergency legislation, meaning they take effect immediately. In all, Glendening, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller signed 95 laws, including a measure that lowers the age for blood donors to 16.
Glendening thanked Taylor and Miller for their work during the session, saying their jobs were more difficult than the public realizes.
"The [General Assembly] chambers are a roomful of prima donnas in many ways," the governor said.