Archive for the ‘Et Cetera’ Category

Conference Committee Starts Finalizing State Budget

Friday, April 1st, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Senate and House budget writers Thursday moved slowly toward reconciling differences between the two chambers’ spending plans.

In the first of several conference committees, a panel of lawmakers largely balked on most of the big-ticket items they need to hammer out before finalizing the state’s fiscal 2012 budget.

Among the decisions shelved: Changes to the state’s pension system and retiree prescription drug plan. Lawmakers also delayed decisions on higher education funding and how to distribute more than $20 million in revenue from a new alcohol tax pending House approval.

The panel, which spent about two hours huddled around a table dotted with bowls of potato chips and chocolates, decided to slash 450 mostly-vacant state positions.  The House had sought to cut 650 positions, while Senate leaders proposed eliminating 347 positions.

Lawmakers agreed to shuffle about $20.1 million from the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund to help plug budget holes.  The panel also settled on funding three chaplains – for a total cost of about $184,000 — at a pair of hospitals outside of Baltimore.

Panel members agreed to make some cuts in the Department of Juvenile Services budget.

A $50,000 out-of-state-travel budget was slashed, a recommendation the House proposed in its budget. The panel also reduced the department’s cell phone budget by $100,000. DJS spent $280,000 on cell phone costs in fiscal 2010.

Panel members ended up delving deeper into the troubled agency for a couple of minutes when they failed to reach an agreement on whether to require DJS to produce a report on how to fully fund the department’s operations in fiscal 2012 and 2013. Legislative analysts estimate DJS was underfunded by $4.8 million in fiscal 2011 and $7.2 million in fiscal 2012.

The House budget required the department to produce a report that addresses “habitual underfunding for employee salaries and overtime expenses,” but the Senate struck the language from its spending plan.

House Appropriations Chairman Norman Conway said the report would serve as a message to DJS to examine its internal operations.

“Somewhere at the top, someone needs to make decisions about what’s being done there,” said Conway,” D-Wicomico. “We need to tell the secretary (of DJS) to take a good look at everything.”

The panel delayed a decision on the DJS report.

The committee will meet again Friday at 3 p.m., and is expected to work Saturday.

By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.

State Senate Bill Would Add Natural Resources Police Officers

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS– A bill that  attempts to increase staffing levels in the Natural Resources Police department is ready for a final vote in the Senate.

Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, is the sponsor of SB937, which would mandate that the state employ at least 435 Natural Resources officers by 2021. The force is currently down to an allocation of 247 officers from 440 in 1990.

This comes in the wake of a nearly-13 ton rockfish poaching discovery by Natural Resources police officers this year, beginning on Feb. 1. The fish were discovered in illegally anchored gill nets on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay near Kent Island.

Officers sometimes worked 18-hour days during that month, hauling in boatloads full of the illegally caught fish. The fish were sold and the money has been saved for future Department of Natural Resources purchases.

Natural Resources officers are responsible for policing 17,000 miles of shoreline, including tributaries, along with patrolling public lands.  They also enforce maritime homeland security.

Officers responded to 20,394 service calls in 2010, up nearly 39 percent from 2001.

The department had 33 officer positions cut from the fiscal 2011 budget.

By Capital News Service’s Kerry Davis.

Senate Passes Budget, Alcohol Tax Conference Looms

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate on Tuesday gave final approval to a $14.6 billion state spending plan that includes $75 million in fee increases and banks on tens of millions more in revenue from a new alcohol tax to help shore up education cuts.

The Senate voted 37-10 to approve the state’s budget for fiscal 2012. Two Republicans, Sen. Richard Colburn and Sen. George Edwards, voted for the spending plan that increases a number of fees for things like vanity plates, car titles and filing land records, and restores about $58 million in education cuts to Prince George’s and Baltimore.

The budget also revamps the state’s pension system, which is straddled with $19 billion in unpaid liabilities, and makes changes to the prescription drug plan for state retirees.

The House passed a similar budget last week but did not include any new taxes in its plan.

The Senate’s proposed alcohol tax will be the biggest single item the two chambers have to reconcile during conference committee. The Senate on Tuesday advanced legislation that would raise the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent over three years. The plan is expected to generate $29 million in the first year, with the bulk of the money raised in fiscal 2012 going toward schools in Prince George’s and Baltimore.

Senate Republicans oppose the idea of funneling money from the alcohol tax to state schools when advocates for the tax originally argued the money would go toward helping the developmentally disabled.

“With this situation it appears we’re taxing the entire state … because they need help with their schools,” said Senate Minority Whip E.J. Pipkin.

The Senate is expected to give the alcohol tax a final OK Wednesday.

The budget now heads to a conference committee where the Senate and House will hammer out difference between the two spending plans.

By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.

Amended Tubman Bill Passes Senate

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS-A heavily amended bill to place a statue of Harriet Tubman in Statuary Hall passed the Senate unanimously Monday night, but advocates of the original bill aren’t happy about it.

The amended bill calls for Congress to make an exception so that Maryland can add Tubman as a third statue rather than replacing a statue of Revolution-era Maryland lawmaker John Hanson. Under the original bill the Hanson statue would have been removed from the Capitol and placed in Annapolis.

The bill’s sponsor in the House, Montgomery County Democrat Susan Lee, is unsure of the bill’s fate. She said she’s working with the chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, Baltimore Democrat Peter Hammen, to decide how to pass a bill that is still meaningful, but said they may have to come back to it next year.

There was opposition to removing Hanson in high places in the Senate. Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. said he would like to honor Tubman without removing the statue of Hanson, who Miller considers a central figure in the beginning of the nation.

In a press release, Equal Visibility Everywhere,  a group working to honor more women with statues and other symbols, and a major supporter of the Tubman legislation, said the amendment “effectively guts” the original bill.

“There is absolutely no reason to expect that Congress will make a special exception for Maryland and allow them to have three statues,” said Suzanne Scoggins, Equal Visibility Everywhere’s director of women’s history. “The supporters of the amendment are calling it a ‘compromise,’ but it’s not a compromise. Maryland isn’t going to be allowed to have three statues, and they know it. The effect of the amendment is to kill the Harriet Tubman statue.”

-By Capital News Service’s Holly Nunn.

Compromises in the Works for Tubman Statue Bill

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS –  A bill to place a statue of Harriet Tubman in the U.S. Capitol will likely look a little different when it comes up for a vote in committee.

Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, said Thursday that she is working with the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee to offer amendments to the bill “that will not divide the House or Senate, but I don’t know what that will look like.”

The bill, which is opposed by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., would move a statue of colonial Maryland statesman John Hanson out of its place in National Statuary Hall in Washington to Annapolis, putting a statue of Tubman, the Civil War-era former slave and abolitionist, in its place.

Hanson was the first president of the Continental Congress after the Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1781, leading some to consider him the first president of the new nation’s first government. Tubman, who many know as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, was also a scout and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War.

One amendment being considered would put the statues on a rotation, swapping one for another every few years, though the time period is not yet specified. Another option is asking for an exception to each state’s allowance of two statues in the collection.

The bill to permanently switch the statues has support from Gov. Martin O’Malley and groups like the National Organization for Women and the NAACP, as well as the Legislative Black Caucus and the women’s caucus, but has been opposed staunchly by Miller and others who feel Tubman should be honored without moving Hanson.

Pugh said she expects the bill to come up for a committee vote in the next week, as the General Assembly has less than a month left in the 2011 session.

Delegate Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said she had hoped it would be a conflict-free, feel-good piece of legislation for the General Assembly to pass this session.

“We want this to be a unified body behind this legislation,” Lee said.

The creation of the Tubman statue and the transportation of both statues would be funded by private donations.

– By Capital News Service’s Holly Nunn.

UPDATE: Same-Sex Marriage Bill Likely Dead this Session

Friday, March 11th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates balked Friday on a proposal that would legalize same-sex marriage, sending it back to the Judiciary Committee after more than two hours of debate, and likely killing it for 2011.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario made the motion to recommit the bill to committee. The motion passed on a voice vote.

Friday’s action caps a week of uncertainty over the bill in the House. The full House preliminarily approved the measure Wednesday after supporters successfully beat back four amendments.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, one of the General Assembly’s openly gay lawmakers, said supporters were not sure they had enough votes to pass the measure. Same-sex marriage is likely dead until 2012.

The Senate passed the measure two weeks ago by a 25-21 vote with relatively little conflict, setting up what many around the State House felt would be a smooth ride through the House – traditionally the more liberal of the two chambers. But lobbying by religious organizations, especially African-American churches, may have turned the tide.

“The black churches are asking us not to call it marriage, pass civil unions,” said Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, as she argued against the bill on the floor of the House.

Others said they were willing to pay the consequences of voting for the bill.

“If this costs me my election, I’m proud to have supported this piece of legislation,” said Delegate Justin Ross, D-Prince George’s.

– By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf and Maggie Clark.

Backgrounder: Same-Sex Marriage in Maryland

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates this week is considering legislation that would redefine marriage in Maryland from “between a man and a woman” to “between two individuals,” and permits churches to refuse to perform same-sex unions if the practice violates their beliefs. The legislation has already passed the Senate and has the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley. Here is some background on the subject in Maryland, starting a year ago when Washington, D.C., first started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

– By Capital News Service staff

House Committee Passes Same-Sex Marriage

Friday, March 4th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland House Judiciary Committee voted 12-10 Friday to forward a same-sex marriage bill to the full House of Delegates.

The bill passed after three days of uncertainty. Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario called a special voting session on the bill Tuesday, but two members and co-sponsors of the bill, Delegates Tiffany Alston, D-Prince George’s, and Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, did not show up that day.

The Civil Marriage Protection Act, which passed in the Senate last week, would redefine marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two individuals,” and protect churches from performing same-sex unions if the practice violates their beliefs.

The full House of the Delegates could take up same-sex marriage as early as next week. Gov. Martin O’Malley supports the legislation.

Both Carter and Alston raised concerns about the way the bill moved through the committee and Alston ultimately shifted her vote against same-sex marriage, “for my constituents,” she said. Alston said she has been getting thousands of calls and emails this week, which ultimately influenced her decision to cast her vote against marriage equality.

As a compromise, Alston proposed a civil union amendment to the bill, despite what she felt was pressure from the leadership. Republican opponents of same-sex marriage praised Alston, a freshman, for standing up to leadership. Delegate Susan McComas, R-Harford, called her a “profile in courage.”

Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for Speaker Michael Busch, responded in an email: “The Speaker has made it clear to all members of the House that this is a vote of conscience. He did not pressure any individual members to offer or not to offer amendments – either in Committee or on the floor of the House.”

Delegate Keiffer Mitchell Jr., D-Baltimore, and a supporter of the bill, said civil unions are equivalent to the “separate but equal” ideas from the 1960s. Mitchell was seen hugging and congratulating supporters following the vote.

The committee voted 11-10 against the civil union amendment, with Vallario casting the swing vote to save the bill in its current state. Carter abstained from voting on the amendment because she said she ultimately supported the full same-sex marriage bill.

The bill’s passage was met with sighs of relief from supporters. Delegate Luke H. Clippinger, D-Baltimore, an openly gay freshman delegate, said passage sends a huge message to gay and lesbian Marylanders.

“It means that we’re that much closer to true equality,” Clippinger said.

When asked how he felt after the vote, Darrell Carrington, a board member of Equality Maryland, pumped his fists and said, “Yes, yes, yes!”

“We are excited for next week. The bill will be on the floor maybe next Tuesday. I think we’re right there,” Carrington said.

If passed, Maryland would join five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage.

Opponents have vowed to take the issue to voters in a referendum. They believe same-sex marriage would be defeated in a Maryland referendum, just as it has been in California, Maine and other states.

– By Capital News Service’s Maggie Clark.

Natural Resources Police Serve Warrants Relating to the Rockfish Poaching Bust

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Several Natural Resources Police officers searched a home on Tilghman Island Friday, where they served search warrants related to the 10-ton rockfish poaching bust last week.

That poaching find resulted in fisheries agencies closing gill net fishing early and offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of the fishermen responsible.

Natural Resources Police Sgt. Art Windemuth said that officers served the warrants but that the warrants were subsequently sealed by court order and he could not talk about them any further.

Police were seen going back and forth from a garage and a home on Tilghman Island, carrying boxes and an open laptop computer.

People watching from the street said the officers had been there for several hours by Friday afternoon.

Natural Resources Police found poaching sites of rockfish, or striped bass, in anchored gill nets on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay three days in a row last week. The nets were all discovered near each other off of Bloody Point on Kent Island.

Anchoring gill nets with weights has been illegal since 1985.

Natural Resources Police have not made any arrests in the case.

– By Capital News Service’s Kerry Davis

K-12 Funding, $100 Million VC Fund Questioned By Lawmakers

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – Senate leaders, hoping to prevent a “log jam” at the end of the session, are planning to talk with House Speaker Michael E. Busch about getting fiscal committees that deal with the state budget to start meeting “sooner rather than later.”

That’s from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who briefed reporters Tuesday on discussions lawmakers are having about O’Malley’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget. Lawmakers recently met with O’Malley to talk about his budget, which includes cuts to pensions, hospitals and local governments.

Changes to the spending plan will be proposed and debated in the coming weeks. Miller gave reporters a preview of early grievances lawmakers voiced with the budget.

Among them: The governor’s plan to keep K-12 education funding level at $5.7 billion.

“Not everyone is happy in terms of where the cuts came in terms of education. The governor was very generous to education in the sense he said he was going to take a 5 percent cut, and he didn’t take a 5 percent cut,” Miller said. “Level funding it in the manner in which he did it (disproportionately affected) Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, so there’s some questions about possible changes in that area.”

Miller said another problem some lawmakers have with the budget pertains to O’Malley’s plan to invest $100 million over five years in a new venture capital fund that promotes high-tech startups. The plan is called “Invest Maryland” and is one of O’Malley’s key initiatives this session, one he said will help spur new jobs.

As part of the program, “the state would invest in small businesses and start-up companies — partially through the dormant Maryland Venture Fund — and would reap both the risks and rewards,” according to this Baltimore Sun article. But some legislators are concerned that a future governor may have to deal with problems or losses if the program is unsuccessful.

“We’re levying against the future for some future governor so that we can move forward today. Members asked the governor if he thought that was quite fair,” Miller said.

– By Capital News Service’s David Rauf.