Senate panel OKs ground rent bills

CAPITAL NOTEBOOK

March 17, 2007

A Senate panel approved a half-dozen ground rent proposals yesterday, including bills to create a registry of ground rents and to overhaul the process for ejectments.

Another bill would prevent ground rent holders from selling leases without first giving homeowners a chance to purchase, and it calls for a state study of the need for a program to help low-income people obtain loans to buy out their ground rents.

The bills were approved handily by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and head next to the Senate floor.

The General Assembly has already approved a bill to prohibit the creation of new ground rents. Gov. Martin O'Malley has not yet signed it.

A Sun series published last year revealed that Baltimore City's largest ground-rent owners have used state laws rooted in Colonial practices to seize hundreds of homes and charge homeowners thousands of dollars in fees over delinquent bills as small as $24.

An estimated 80,000 Baltimore City homeowners must pay rent on the ground beneath their homes. Ground rents also exist in parts of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Jennifer Skalka

Slave trade resolution passes

A resolution expressing "profound regret" for Maryland's role in promoting the slave trade passed the state Senate yesterday unanimously and without debate.

The measure, sponsored by Prince George's County Democratic Sen. Nathaniel Exum, was approved, 42-0.

Though it requires the state to express sorrow for its history as a slave state, it does not call for reparations. The resolution notes that slavery was permitted in Maryland until 1864.

The House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee held a hearing on the bill earlier this week, but a vote is still pending.

Jennifer Skalka

Jewish divorce bill defeated

The Maryland Senate narrowly defeated a bill yesterday that would require Jewish men separating from their wives to provide them with a get, the religious decree that ends a marriage, in order to be granted a civil divorce.

The proposal, offered by Baltimore Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, failed on a 22-22 vote after vigorous debate.

Several senators expressed the view that the state should not interfere in the details of a religious union - and that a civil divorce is the only measure by which a state determines a couple's legal status.

"I cannot in good conscience vote for a bill which I think is unconstitutional," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who teaches constitutional law at American University.

Without a get, some Jewish women - predominantly those who are Orthodox - are unable to remarry under religious law. Supporters of the measure, which is modeled on a New York law, argued that the matter is an issue of women's rights and that men sometimes use the get as leverage to negotiate for property and custody rights or money.

"Husbands who are trying to oppress their wives will get out of the way," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who supported the bill.

Frosh, an attorney, said he believes the proposal would have withstood a constitutional challenge.

Jennifer Skalka

Senate passes identity theft bill

The Maryland Senate unanimously passed a bill yesterday that would require businesses to promptly notify state residents when their personal information has been compromised, a measure backed by consumer advocates who say it is needed to protect against identity theft.

The bill applies to businesses with annual incomes of more than $1 million. Legislators acted on the measure, which had failed in previous sessions, after Johns Hopkins announced last month the loss of computer tapes containing personal data on more than 135,000 employees and patients.

Meanwhile, the House Economic Matters Committee yesterday approved a similar security-breach bill as well, which would allow residents to block access to their credit reports.

Laura Smitherman

House approves state budget

The Maryland House of Delegates yesterday voted 134-5 to approve Gov. Martin O'Malley's first state budget, which includes $30 billion in spending.

O'Malley, a Democrat who took office in January, slowed the rate of spending growth this year and proposes to increase continuing expenditures by 7.8 percent, down from 11.1 percent in Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s final budget. However, expenses would still rise faster than state revenue growth.

Several Republicans voiced opposition to the budget, saying more drastic cuts are needed as the state faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall next year.

"We do not have the luxury to delay for a year the work we need to do to address the financial Armageddon headed our way," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican.

Laura Smitherman

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