Ground rent bill due final votes

Measure would prohibit creating such levies

Assembly to act tomorrow

February 14, 2007|By Andrew A. Green and Melissa Harris | Andrew A. Green and Melissa Harris,sun reporters

Final votes on a bill that would prohibit the creation of new ground rents, emerging as one of the major issues in this General Assembly session, are scheduled for tomorrow.

Legislators in the Senate and House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to the ground rent bill, the first of what is expected to be a series of measures drafted in response to articles last year in The Sun detailing cases in which homeowners lost their houses over initial debts of as little as $24.

The prohibition on new ground rents has met little resistance in the General Assembly, and lawmakers in both chambers moved it through the legislative process with little discussion yesterday.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, which has handled the bills, said there appear to be no differences between the House and Senate versions of the measure.

"Hopefully, it'll go to the governor's desk for a speedy signature," she said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley sponsored the measure, which would go into effect immediately after he signs it.

McIntosh and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said other ground rent bills could face more resistance, in particular one that would change the penalty for unpaid ground rent. Now, owners can sue for ejectment, meaning they can be granted ownership of a debtor's home.

"I think the landlords will be out opposing the other ones, particularly the one that changes the remedy from ejectment to a lien," Frosh said. "I haven't heard what they're going to say, but that's the one that looks to be the most controversial."

McIntosh said that bill and several others are due for a hearing in her committee next week.

A constitutional amendment that would empower the General Assembly to create multiple days of early voting also appears headed for a vote this week. Democrats have long promoted the idea of opening a limited number of polling places earlier to accommodate working families. Republicans blocked the initiative last year after supporters of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. filed suit. In that case, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that early voting violated the state constitution, which limits elections to one day in November in a voter's home election district -- hence the need to amend the constitution. Yesterday, lawmakers in both chambers held off on voting on the amendment as they worked out complex procedural issues arising from the court's decision.

During the debate, Republicans continued to raise objections about the cost and necessity of early voting. "Remember a few years ago, we passed absentee balloting without any reason. Before, you had to have a reason that you couldn't be at the polls on Election Day," said David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican and Senate minority leader. "So in essence, we've already accommodated that desire" for convenience.

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