Capital notebook

February 02, 2006

Bill would force UM to get sale approval

Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, said yesterday that she plans to introduce a bill that would require legislative approval before the University System of Maryland can sell historic properties.

James sponsored legislation last year requiring the state Department of Natural Resources to obtain legislative approval before selling surplus land. The bill passed by an overwhelming margin.

The safeguard was put in place in the aftermath an aborted Ehrlich administration proposal to sell a state-owned forest in St. Mary's County to a politically connected construction company owner.

James said she wants to expand the requirement to University System properties because the system is proposing to sell a Georgian-style mansion and 20 acres atop a bluff overlooking the Susquehanna River.

The Donaldson Brown estate has been owned by the University of Maryland, Baltimore and used as a conference center since it was donated by a General Motors executive. But David J. Ramsay, president of the university, said during a legislative hearing yesterday that the building lacks amenities such as air conditioning and is losing about $100,000 a year.

The University System put out a request for proposals from potential buyers -- angering relatives of the mansion's donor -- to get a sense of what the property might be worth, said Joseph Vivona, chief operating officer of the system. Bids are due Saturday.

Several committee members criticized the University System for failing to communicate.

Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and an Eastern Shore Democrat, said the university system was "basically bypassing the legislature" less than six months after it passed a law on land sales.

Tom Pelton

Pipkin wants surplus returned

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s budget is getting a challenge from the right, with Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, saying some of the state's current surplus should be returned to voters through general tax cuts.

Pipkin, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and tried last year to become the minority leader in the state Senate, said he wants a complete repeal of the property tax increase Ehrlich endorsed three years ago, a 10 percent across-the-board state income tax cut, an exemption from the so-called "flush tax" for the owners of septic systems and a discount for senior citizens on car registration fees. He is calling his four bills the "Taxpayers' Relief Act of 2006."

Ehrlich is proposing a cut of 2 cents per $100 in assessed value from the state portion of the property tax, but that would still leave a 2.8-cent increase over the rate when he took office. His initial proposal for the flush tax exempted septic system owners, but he agreed to include them in a compromise with Democrats in the legislature.

He lists that act and the car fee increase -- which pays for road construction and maintenance projects -- as signature initiatives of his administration. The governor has said he will push for more targeted tax cuts but has shied away from changes to the income or sales tax. Instead, he has proposed the highest rate of spending growth on state programs in at least two decades.

Pipkin said state spending must stop growing faster than Marylanders' incomes. "It is unfair of government to overtax the people," Pipkin said in a news release. "That is what has happened. That is why we have a budget surplus. It is only fair that the state return the excess revenue to the people."

Ehrlich's office did not return a call for comment yesterday, but the Democratic Party was ready to weigh in.

"Who will tax-and-spend Bob turn to now that even his conservative Republican friends are running away from him?" said Democratic Party acting executive director Derek Walker. "The base is crumbling under the weight of Ehrlich's fiscal follies."

Andrew A. Green

Bill would restore felons' vote

Convicted felons would have their voting rights restored automatically after serving sentences under legislation introduced yesterday by Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the city House delegation.

Marriott said she hopes her legislation -- which has failed in previous years -- would receive a boost during the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and in the wake of several General Assembly votes to expand access to voting through extended poll hours and easier access to absentee ballots.

"This is expanding democracy," Marriott said. Supporters of the legislation, including the Legislative Black Caucus, Justice Maryland, Progressive Maryland and the Maryland council of Delta Sigma Theta sorority chapters, said Maryland's system for restoring voting rights of felons is complex and unfair.

Of the estimated 140,000 people convicted of crimes who can't vote in Maryland, 85,000 are African-American, supporters say.

David Nitkin

Mooney fined for contribution

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