New state laws take effect July 1

Mandatory foreclosure mediation, prohibition of BPA chemical in baby bottles among them

June 30, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Homeowners in danger of foreclosure now have a right to mediation, schools and police can communicate more freely about gang activity, and civil court filing fees increase — all part of the package of more than 150 new state laws that take effect today.

Marylanders are unlikely to be affected by most of the changes, which include local liquor board tweaks and a slew of legislative study panels and reports. The new legislation likely to have the broadest impact, the ban on handling cell phones will driving, doesn't take effect until Oct. 1. That's the date when the majority of the laws passed by the General Assembly this year take effect.

Here's a look at some of today's new laws:

Foreclosure mediation: Gov. Martin O'Malley pressed for and won added protection for homeowners in financial trouble. The new law helps homeowners at several stages in the foreclosure process.

When a lender notifies a homeowner about a possible foreclosure, it must also provide information about modification programs, including the federal Home Affordable Modification Program and local nonprofit assistance.

Before a foreclosure can occur, a lender must file an affidavit in court attesting that it has evaluated the homeowner's eligibility for loss mitigation programs and state the basis for any denial, according to the governor's spokesman. If the homeowner disagrees with the lender's conclusion, he or she can pay a $50 fee and take part in a court-supervised mediation program with the lender. (Lenders pay a much larger mediation fee: $300.)

Gangs in schools: House Speaker Michael E. Busch championed this law after the gang-related killing last year of Christopher Jones, a teen in Anne Arundel County. The law clarifies that juvenile courts and police officers can communicate certain information about a suspected gang member to authorities at the child's school, and vice versa. Such information, while it can now be shared, is not to be included in a student's permanent record.

"What we really tried to do was clear the barriers that existed in the laws, to have the juvenile system and the courts be able to communicate with the school boards and the school system when they observe problems with youngsters in gang-related activities," Busch said. "We believe that if they can share information, they can intervene in lot of cases and prevent further incidents, like Christopher Jones."

Civil fees rise: The surcharge on civil cases filed in Circuit Court rises by $30. Fees in District Court cases go up by $3, and by $5 in summary ejectment cases. That additional money is earmarked for the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal assistance to the poor in non-criminal cases. Legal services revenue has been battered by the down economy, just at a time when officials say people need legal help more than ever. Under the new law, legal services must submit its budget to the General Assembly for review.

BPA ban: Another law that takes effect today gives manufacturers of baby bottles and other children's products until 2012 to stop using the chemical bisphenol-A. Maryland is the fourth state to ban the chemical commonly known as BPA, which has been linked to developmental problems in young children, reproductive troubles in women and other medical issues.

Tuition predictability: O'Malley successfully froze college tuition at the state's public higher education institutions from his first year in office until this year, when the University System of Maryland approved a 3 percent increase. But a new law creates an account within the existing state higher education fund that "is dedicated to stabilization," said O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec. He said it should help avoid the massive peaks and valleys in tuition brought by volatile economic times or poor budget choices.

Also: A law enabling voters to choose this fall whether they want to convene a convention to rip up and redo the state Constitution also takes effect today, as does a law that supporters say will encourage a focus on preventive care by providing financial incentives to doctors.

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