County deems session a success

Assembly passes 7 local bills, 2 others stall in committees

Measures await Ehrlich's signature

Initiatives targeting solicitation, tobacco sales among victories

General Assembly

April 17, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

In Carroll County, it could soon be against the law to solicit donations along state highways or to display tobacco products where customers can reach them in stores.

The solicitation bill would prohibit people from collecting donations while standing on the roadway, median, divider or intersection of any state highway in the county. Carroll would join a growing list of counties, including Frederick, that are cracking down on an activity many consider dangerous and annoying.

The tobacco bill would require retailers to display such products behind counters. Stores that sell only tobacco-related items, such as cigars, and retailers who sell mainly alcoholic beverages would be exempt from the law.

These are two of the seven local initiatives on Carroll's legislative agenda that passed during the General Assembly session that ended last week. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must still sign the bills to make them law, but his signature is largely seen as a formality.

Generally, when a county's delegation has supported a local bill and moved it through the legislative process, the governor signs the bill into law. Several bill-signing ceremonies are expected to be held in the next few months.

"We did excellent with local legislation and funding," said Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of the Carroll delegation. "We basically came out without any major tax increases that would impact Carroll County."

Other Carroll bills that the General Assembly passed included:

A House bill that authorizes the county commissioners to create a property tax credit for senior citizens.

A House bill that allows the county commissioners to levy a 5 percent tax on hotel and motel guests to support tourism.

A House bill that permits the county to hold an annual beer festival at Union Mills Homestead.

A Senate bill that allows the county commissioners to borrow up to $35 million for capital projects including schools, roads, bridges and farmland preservation.

A Senate bill that reduces from six to five the number of days restaurants that carry a certain kind of liquor license must be open.

"These bills were generally very noncontroversial because we had worked with the [Carroll] delegation to make sure of what they would be comfortable supporting," said Frank Johnson, the county's director of legislative services.

"But they are very important for the people they affect."

Johnson said that as many as 300 statewide bills - 24 of them with direct impact - were proposed that could have affected the county.

"We successfully overcame strong pressure," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "Frank's presence probably saved this county about $1 million. He also helped us maintain communication and a good relationship with the delegation."

Johnson agreed that the county had "avoided a lot of additional cost mandates."

He estimated that the county was able to avoid an additional $685,000 in expenses that could have been shifted to localities. He pointed to one bill that would have required counties to provide workers' compensation for volunteer firefighters. He said it could have cost the county $210,000 annually.

The bill passed, but Johnson said that by proposing that the law allow counties to determine how to provide the coverage, Carroll County will be able to control its costs.

Johnson said the revenue from the hotel/motel tax could add more than $300,000 to county coffers.

An effort to drum up support for legislation to grant local school systems more control over the implementation of all-day kindergarten fell flat, Johnson said. No bill was introduced.

"None of the boards of education across the state were willing to support that," he said.

Through its Thornton Commission education reforms, the State Department of Education has ordered that all public school systems provide all-day kindergarten by 2007. In Carroll, where the policy is expected to cost about $18 million as the district renovates buildings to accommodate additional pupils, school officials have been opposing the mandate for about three years.

The school district will receive $6 million in state school construction funding, much of which is earmarked for all-day kindergarten, Johnson said.

"But for Thornton, a lot of it would have been used to address renovations and upgrades at schools," he said.

Two local bills failed to pass, one of which the county had requested and another that the school district had sought.

A Senate bill aimed at reducing the tort liability insurance premiums of the Carroll Area Transit System and the Humane Society of Carroll County would have given the two nonprofit agencies the same limited liability in lawsuits that applies to the local government. It stalled in a House committee.

A House bill that would have reclassified a small group of supervisory school employees to include them in the collective bargaining unit failed to make it out of a Senate committee.

"I was disappointed because we did not get the tort claims bill and will have to pay out more money," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "But overall, it was a good session."

The effective date for most new laws is Oct. 1. Other than emergency bills, which can take effect immediately upon the governor's approval, June 1 is the earliest date bills can become effective.

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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