Capital Notebook

CAPITAL NOTEBOOK

March 29, 2007

Senate panel OKs criminal-records bill

A Senate committee voted yesterday in favor of legislation that would automatically expunge criminal records when people are arrested but not charged with a crime.

In giving its approval, the Judicial Proceedings Committee rejected an amendment that would have required those who were arrested to sign a waiver promising not to sue the police department.

Several senators had asked about the provision -- a prerequisite for expungement under current law. People seeking to have their records expunged must also pay a fee under current law and apply to have the records erased -- a process that typically requires the assistance of a lawyer.

The measure, which had passed the House of Delegates, would apply statewide but would have the most impact in Baltimore. Of the 21,000 cases in which people were arrested and released without charges last year, more than 16,000 were in Baltimore.

Advocates say records of the arrests can hinder job searches and applications for mortgages, financial aid and other assistance.

Andrew A. Green

Bay's grasses declined in '06

Underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay declined by 25 percent last year, perhaps hurt by storm water runoff pollution and unusually hot weather, scientists said yesterday.

Aquatic vegetation -- which provides critical habitat for fish and crabs -- covered 59,090 acres of the bay's bottom last year, down from 78,263 acres in 2005, according to the federally funded Chesapeake Bay Program.

The setback came after a decade when grasses in the upper bay had been slowly expanding, said Mike Naylor, director of aquatic vegetation programs at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In the southern bay, the plant life has been dying for years.

"We have had systematic losses throughout the Chesapeke Bay last year," said Naylor. "The grasses don't have enough light to grow in the bay," because silt and fertilizer cloud the waters, he said.

The grasses may bounce back in the northern part of the bay this summer, Naylor said.

But the southern part of the bay is a different story, especially in the Tangier Sound area near Crisfield. A species of underwater vegetation that is highly sensitive to heat fluctuations -- called eel grass -- has been steadily retreating as climate change has driven temperatures higher.

Why the aquatic vegetation in the northern bay declined last year is a mystery. Last spring was extremely dry; this raised the salinity of the northern bay, which could have hurt the plants, scientists said. Then in June, a rainstorm flushed huge amounts of dirt and fertilizer pollution into the bay.

Tom Pelton

Md. bill targets Electoral College

The Maryland Senate approved a bill yesterday that would award the state's electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote, boosting a national, grass-roots effort toward the direct election of the president.

The House of Delegates is scheduled to take up the measure today, and a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said that if it passes there, he would sign it.

"The governor believes every voter counts and every vote should count equally," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

If enacted, Maryland would become the first state to sign on to the idea, the brainchild of a Stanford University computer scientist. And if adopted by enough states and approved by the U.S. Congress, the bill would make the Electoral College, the body that actually chooses the president weeks after voters go the polls, irrelevant.

It also would prevent a repeat of the 2000 election, in which Republican George W. Bush won enough key "swing states" to win the Electoral College despite earning fewer votes nationwide than his opponent, Democrat Al Gore.

"Maryland has taken an important step in reclaiming presidential elections for all of the American people," said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill's sponsor. "I hope it kicks off a chain reaction around the country."

Melissa Harris

O'Malley addresses the DLC

WASHINGTON --Gov. Martin O'Malley made a foray onto the national stage yesterday with a speech before the Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate political group that helped launch Bill Clinton's run for the presidency.

Though O'Malley was greeted as a rising star, he was invited to the group's Washington luncheon yesterday to introduce another Democratic up-and-comer, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who was making his first major address as DLC chairman.

O'Malley has variously described himself as a progressive or a liberal, but his focus on improving government efficiency and helping the middle class dovetailed with Ford's plan for the organization that has become home for conservative Democrats.

"For more than 20 years, the Democratic Leadership Council has challenged all of us ... to lead with ideas and make government work with new policies," O'Malley said. "Government should stand up for the interests of a stronger and growing middle class, and should stand up for working families."

Andrew A. Green

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