City election judges get a raise

Pay boost, tougher teen drunken-driving rules among new laws taking effect tomorrow

September 30, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Baltimore election judges will get a boost in pay for the general election this year, a move backers say they hope will cut down on the widespread tardiness and absenteeism that added chaos to this month's primary.

A bill increasing city election judge pay by $25 a day and $50 for chief judges - passed long before the primary problems - goes into effect tomorrow, along with dozens of other measures, including stiffer penalties for teenage drunken drivers.

City election officials say recruiting enough qualified election judges in the city - especially enough Republicans - is a chronic problem exacerbated by the long hours workers must put in at the polls and the low pay.

Now, city election judges will make $150 and chief election judges $200 for a workday that can stretch beyond 14 hours. Judges will also receive at least $20 for attending a mandatory training session.

"It can't do anything but help," said City Election Board Chairman Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. "It's a long day for that $125 or $150."

The city election board is in the midst of a major recruiting effort to make up for scores of judges who showed up late or not at all for the primary election. Jones said the low pay makes it difficult to recruit qualified candidates and that he will push for more pay in the future.

"If you get it up to around a professional salary, a couple hundred or $250, it'll attract more qualified people," he said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has been outspoken in his criticism of problems during the primary, allowed the bill to become law without his signature. His spokesman, Henry Fawell, would not say whether the governor would have signed the bill if he had known at the time about the problems with city election judges.

However, Fawell said, Ehrlich is committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure a smooth election in November, as evidenced by a letter he sent recently to more than 70,000 state employees urging them to volunteer as election judges.

"The governor has pledged whatever resources are necessary to fix the problems of primary day," Fawell said.

The cost of the increased pay will be borne by the city, not the state. Fiscal analysts in the legislature estimated the costs will rise by about $80,000 per election.

The new drunken-driving law is the product of a two-year effort by the Ehrlich administration to increase restrictions on teenage drivers. The new law doubles penalties for teens caught driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They will face a mandatory 1-year suspension of their driver's licenses for the first offense and a 2-year suspension for the second offense.

Ehrlich policy director Alan Friedman said tougher restrictions on teen drivers have been a major priority of the governor and first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich, who are parents to two young boys.

Motor vehicle accidents are the top killer of teenagers in Maryland, and 19 percent of all fatalities from drunken-driving accidents involve teens, Friedman said.

"Someone under 21 should not have alcohol at all, and the idea that someone under 21 not only has alcohol but is driving is not acceptable," Friedman said. "We've got kids dying on the road because of it."

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring a longer provisional license period for teen drivers, but it initially rejected an administration proposal for a "zero tolerance" law on drunk driving that would have stripped first-time offenders of their licenses for three years or until they turned 21, whichever came first.

The law that goes into effect tomorrow is a compromise proposal, but Friedman said that the governor will likely push for stricter penalties if he is re-elected.

"Teens understand losing their license," Friedman said. "It's a simple message that we can get across: If you're underage and drink and drive, you lose your license, automatically, no questions asked."

Kurt Erickson, the head of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said he would have liked to see the three-year penalties Ehrlich originally proposed, but he said the new law is unmistakable progress.

He said state government statistics show that a quarter of high school seniors have driven with as much as four drinks in their system, posing a real danger to themselves and others.

"This is great news," Erickson said. "The issue of drunk teen driving had been virtually ignored."

Another law takes effect tomorrow banning funeral protests likely to incite a disturbance. It was passed in reaction to a protest by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., outside the Westminster funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.

Members of the church believe American soldiers are dying because of the nation's tolerance of gays, and they have appeared at military funerals around the nation brandishing signs with slogans such as, "Thank God For Dead Soldiers."

The law, which passed despite qualms from civil libertarians about its restrictions on free speech, says a protester may not say something "likely to incite or produce an imminent breach of the peace" within 300 feet of a funeral or a funeral procession. Violators may be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 or as much as 90 days in jail.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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