Alcohol tax, other bills signed into law

O'Malley OKs more than 200 at final 2011 signing ceremony

May 20, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the first tax increase on alcohol in more than a generation into law Thursday, one of more than 200 bills he approved at a ceremony in Annapolis.

Come July 1, the sales tax on alcohol will rise to 9 percent from 6 percent, a move that legislative analysts say will generate about $85 million per year. Much of the initial revenue is earmarked for education in Baltimore and Prince George's County, school construction across the state and services for Marylanders with developmental disabilities.

"David truly beat Goliath on this one," said Aaron Kaufman, who has cerebral palsy and has lobbied lawmakers for years to increase disabilities services funding. Lawmakers promised $15 million more next year for such services.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney said in a statement that the "nickel-and-diming of Marylanders must stop now."

"Today, Governor O'Malley and Democratic leaders gleefully broke their word to not raise taxes on Marylanders if re-elected," he said.

In opening remarks at the bill-signing ceremony, the Democratic governor briefly referenced the tax legislation, calling it "critical funding for health."

He highlighted other measures, saying, "The theme today is jobs."

O'Malley said a $75 million plan called Invest Maryland is "the largest single shot of venture capital in our state's history." A bill allowing horse track owners to use up to $12 million in slots revenue over the next two years for racing purses helps an industry that employs at least 9,000, he said.

Also receiving the governor's signature was a controversial bill classifying incinerated trash as a renewable energy source on par with wind and solar. O'Malley had struggled with whether to sign a measure that was strongly opposed by environmental groups, but ultimately said the state needs many approaches to developing renewable energy.

Officials of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters said in a statement that they are disappointed in the governor's decision "and the step backward it represents."

Just before the bill-signing ceremony, O'Malley greeted Leo Bretholz of Pikesville, a Holocaust survivor who urged lawmakers to make a Rockville-based railroad company disclose its involvement in transporting deportees to Nazi death camps during World War II.

O'Malley signed the legislation, saying it protects "the dignity of every individual."

Drivers take heed: As of Oct. 1, reading a text message joins writing and sending them while behind the wheel as an illegal activity punishable by $500 fine. The governor also signed a bill expanding the pool of drunken drivers who will be required to use an ignition interlock device.

Other legislation signed into law Thursday included nearly $1 billion in capital bond loans for school construction and various state projects, an electric vehicle equipment tax credit and new rules requiring corporations and unions to provide details when they make independent expenditures in political races.

In a lean year for major environmental legislation, O'Malley signed a bill regulating urban and suburban lawn fertilizer and its use. Intended to help reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, the measure bans phosphorus in fertilizer for established lawns and limits the amount of nitrogen. It also specifies when and where to fertilize, directing that none be applied within 10 feet of water.

Several measures stiffening penalties for illegal poaching of the bay's oysters and fish earned the governor's signature as did bills aimed at boosting private aquaculture in state waters.

Also, as Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown noted, a bill signed into law Thursday means that Maryland now joins 49 other states in outlawing child neglect. The new crime is to be a misdemeanor offense. Another new legal provision: In contested divorces, spouses need live apart for only one year, rather than the two now required.

Most of the new laws take effect July 1 or Oct. 1.

On Wednesday, O'Malley announced that he had vetoed four bills, largely for technical reasons, and is allowing three measures to take effect without his signature.

Among those is an adjustment to how inmates serving life sentences are released; the convict is to be freed if the governor does not actively reject a Parole Commission recommendation for parole within 180 days.

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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