Veterans win in bill signings

Several raise benefits

measure on medical decisions also gets OK


Maryland military veterans will get tax breaks worth up to $400 a year under a bill Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed into law yesterday.

The governor also gave his blessing to measures designed to crack down on underage drunken driving and to allow unmarried couples -- including gays -- to make medical decisions for each other.

But the big winners in yesterday's bill signing ceremony were veterans, always a politically popular constituency, who saw more than a half-dozen measures to honor and assist them win final approval in this election year.

Veterans organizations will get an exemption from the state sales tax. A commission will be established to create a monument to Maryland women in military service. Death benefits will be improved for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. New scholarships will be established for veterans. Surviving spouses of veterans will be eligible for property tax exemptions.

"This was the best day for veterans in the state of Maryland in state history," said Veterans Affairs Secretary George Owings III.

Ribbon-bedecked veterans posed for photographs behind Ehrlich while the governor signed the bills yesterday.

The measures had a difficult path to enactment.

Ehrlich made the veterans tax credit a centerpiece of his agenda a year ago, only to see it fail in the Senate. This year, the House and Senate enacted competing versions that included tax breaks for other groups -- and restrictions that veterans groups thought would gut the bill. But in the end, they agreed on a plan that closely mirrored Ehrlich's proposal but was somewhat less generous.

Edward T. Kreiner Sr., legislative chairman of the Maryland branch of the Disabled American Veterans, said the bill approved yesterday is a good start but that veterans groups would be back next year in an effort to make all military retirement income tax-free.

Kreiner said a better benefit would attract young military retirees to Maryland and boost the state's highly skilled work force.

"They need to attract these people," he said. "This bill doesn't do it."

Ehrlich also signed a bill yesterday to create a register of advanced directives in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and to provide for a notation on driver's licenses for people who have them.

The bill is a compromise designed to replace a bill Ehrlich vetoed last year that would have allowed same-sex couples to make medical decisions for each other. Ehrlich said at the time that he supported the goal but worried that the mechanics of that bill would erode the institution of marriage.

Lawrence Jacobs, the immediate past president of the board of Equality Maryland, a gay rights group, said the bill Ehrlich signed yesterday will help unmarried couples but doesn't go nearly far enough.

There are rights married couples take for granted -- such as the right to visit each other in the hospital, ride in the ambulance with a spouse or make burial decisions -- that cannot be guaranteed by any document under Maryland law, said Jacobs, who is an estate lawyer.

The bill Ehrlich vetoed last year would have changed that, but this one does not.

"This does a very small part of what the medical decision-making act was going to do but by no means takes its place," Jacobs said.

Other bills signed yesterday will:

Double the penalties for motorists under age 21 who are caught driving drunk. Minors caught driving drunk will now have their licenses suspended for a year for a first offense and two years for a second offense.

Allow victims of juvenile crime to seek court permission to appeal the denial of their rights. The legislation, introduced by Howard County Del. Neil F. Quinter, was prompted by the case of a Columbia man who was shot in the back and paralyzed by a 16-year-old in 2000.

The victim, Oscar Antonio Lopez-Sanchez, sought restitution but was unaware that prosecutors and defense lawyers had reached an agreement on the teenager's case. Although state law allows victims of violent crime to seek court permission to appeal orders in criminal cases, Lopez-Sanchez was not considered a victim of violent crime, which is committed by an adult.

Sun reporter Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.

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