Bill Signings In Annapolis

Activists praise bay fee approval

New laws also require removal of lead paint, test for impaired drivers

Some vetoes `we will override'

May 27, 2004|By David Nitkin and Michael Dresser | David Nitkin and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Environmentalists cheered as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed bills yesterday aimed at cleaning the Chesapeake Bay and protecting land on its fringes from development.

The governor also signed bills requiring landlords to remove lead paint from apartments before taking legal action against tenants, and compelling Maryland energy companies to use renewable fuels such as solar and wind power.

"It's been a great year for the environment," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who watched as Ehrlich approved the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, which includes the so-called $2.50-a-month "flush tax" on public sewage system customers and households with septic tanks that will be used to fund upgrades to 66 aging sewage treatment plants.

In all, Ehrlich signed 127 pieces of legislation into law yesterday during the last of four such ceremonies since the end of the General Assembly session. The bills included a budget-balancing measure that includes millions of dollars in taxes and fees, and a new tax on people who earn money in Maryland but live in states without income taxes.

A day earlier, the governor vetoed 16 bills, including a proposal to raise corporate income taxes and give the money to the University System of Maryland, which would limit tuition increases at 5 percent a year for the next three years. He also vetoed a bill that would have allowed any citizens to sue when they believe government meetings are improperly conducted behind closed doors.

Legislative leaders vowed to try to restore both measures through overrides when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. "There will be several bills that he vetoed that we will override, I think," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller .

There was none of that rancor yesterday morning, however, as the governor signed the sewage bill during a splashy photo-op in Annapolis aboard the Pride of Baltimore II, the early 19th-century clipper ship replica that is normally berthed at the Inner Harbor.

Moving inside the State House, the governor also endorsed laws that stiffen penalties and clarify enforcement of the critical areas laws governing construction near the bay, reversing the effects of a recent court decision that weakened the laws.

Another new law backed by environmentalists will create renewable energy standards for companies selling retail electricity in the state.

Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said surrounding states are looking at the Maryland law as a model.

Lead legislation

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said legislation preventing landlords from taking legal action against tenants until they've removed lead paint from their apartments was the most significant action in her 11 years of advocacy.

Hilde Carter, a waitress and nursing student from Port Deposit, dabbed tears from her eyes after Ehrlich signed a bill requiring either blood or breath tests -- or both-- after fatal or near-fatal vehicle accidents.

In January 2001, the youngest of Carter's four children was killed when a car struck him as he walked. The breath test for alcohol was botched, Carter and her lawyer said. The driver admitted he had taken the prescription drug Percocet, said attorney Keith Franz, but police did not take a blood test.

Under existing law, a motorist involved in a fatal or life-threatening accident that police suspect involves drugs or alcohol "shall" submit to tests, but the tests are not mandatory. Legislative analysts said Maryland was one of 14 states and the District of Columbia that did not require such tests, although they are usually administered, according to police.

Ehrlich's veto of the open meetings bill was widely criticized yesterday by representatives from various groups, including the Open Meetings Compliance Board and the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association.

The bill would have allowed "any person" to sue for violations of the state sunshine law, which allows only those "affected adversely" to do so. In his veto message, Ehrlich said the legislation "could result in an increase in litigation" that public bodies cannot afford during this "time of limited resources."

`Desire to override'

"We're very disappointed," said Jim Donahue, who coordinated legislative matters for the press association during this year's session. "It really seems like a misinterpretation."

The bills were created to counter a Howard County Circuit Court ruling, now under appeal, that interpreted the "affected adversely" provision in state law to mean people can only sue if they've suffered financially.

"I've talked to some key people today, and the read I get is there's going to be a strong desire to override this veto," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the vetoed bill.

Ehrlich said yesterday he believes the university system will receive more money next year from the state, despite his veto of the tuition limit.

Ehrlich said he has had several productive conversations with system Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan and "as a result, we believe that Brit is going to receive an uptick in dollars in the [2006] fiscal year's budget."

Kirwan said that he believes the governor is committed to the state's universities.

But some regents said the governor was favoring big business over education. "Ehrlich decided he'd rather have students help out the state budget rather than corporations," said James C. Rosapepe, a system regent.

Sun staff writers Jason Song and Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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