Conference Committee Starts Finalizing State Budget

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.

UMD panel: U.S. Safe from Fukushima Fallout

March 30th, 2011

A panel of University of Maryland nuclear experts said the United States is safe from radiation leaking out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, but disagreed on what the disaster would mean to the environment surrounding the facility.

Jeff Stehr, an atmospheric and oceanic sciences researcher, has helped form projections of the path of the plume of radioactive particles coming from the plant, which was damaged by a 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami on March 11. He said Alaska’s Aleutian Islands might see slightly higher levels of radiation than normal, but in the continental U.S. even the West Coast was at very little risk.

“We’re not really looking at a big deal for us,” Stehr said. “We’re very, very far away.”

The discussion came on the heels of news of high levels of radiation in the seawater around the damaged Fukushima plant. Mohamad Al-Sheikhly, an engineering professor, said that was not cause for panic because the vastness of the Pacific Ocean would dilute radiation and the Japanese have method for retrieving uranium from water.

But Donald Milton, a professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, warned of “bio-concentration.” He said some radioactive elements, like Cesium, tend to concentrate in water and move up the food chain rather than dissipating.

“What’s going to be really important is the monitoring of fish and mollusks,” Milton said.

The panel was moderated by Carol Rogers, professor of journalism, and also included Bill Dorland, professor of physics, Nate Hultman, professor of public policy, and John Steinbruner, professor of public policy.

The panel agreed that the U.S. nuclear community could learn from the Fukushima crisis.

Dorland said that Tepco, which operated the Fukushima plant, was warned years earlier that the area around the plant had a history of tsunamis. He said the plant had been built to withstand a tsunami of 6.5 meters but the one that took out its backup power March 11 reached 14 meters.

Maryland’s only nuclear power plant, Calvert Cliffs, is likely safe from earthquakes and tsunamis. The U.S. Geological survey reports that there has never been an earthquake centered in Washington, D.C., in recorded history.

But more mundane weather conditions have caused problems at Calvert Cliffs. Last year, the plant’s general manager, Thomas Trepanier, warned employees about declining maintenance after melting snow leaked through the roof and shorted out one of the reactor’s electrical distribution boxes. One of the plant’s five backup generators then failed, causing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue a rare “white” finding.

Dorland said he was unfamiliar with the incident, but that any reactor should be built so that both the primary and secondary power  sources for cooling could not be knocked out by the same event.

“If snow is an issue there, and both the primary and secondary power are vulnerable to snow, then that’s a design flaw,” he said.

Hultman said the incident in Japan would likely affect U.S. nuclear policy and regulation and noted that Germany had shut down several of its older nuclear plants in light of the crisis.

Steinbruner said that all nuclear plants could be made safer than they are now by sacrificing some efficiency, but it would require an “entirely different configuration of the industry.”

New, safer reactor designs are on the way, Al-Sheikhly said, including a Westinghouse AP 1000 model with a passive safety system that eliminates the possibility of a meltdown due to operator error. He also touted advanced gas-cooled reactors that are smaller and safer, relying on liquid helium for cooling, rather than water.

But Dorland noted that many of the problems at Fukushima came not from the reactors themselves, but from spent nuclear fuel sitting outside the containment units in cooling ponds. That led Milton to note that the U.S. had not found any viable solutions for storing nuclear waste in the long term, despite setting aside $24 billion to build a permanent facility.

“Even if we come up with reactors that are inherently safe, can we deal with the waste they produce?” Milton asked.

By Capital News Service’s Andy Marso

State Senate Bill Would Add Natural Resources Police Officers

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

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

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.

Hope Still Alive for O’Malley’s Offshore Wind Legislation

March 25th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Despite concerns that momentum behind the governor’s offshore wind energy bill is fading, Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s, said Friday that the bill has more than a fighting chance to pass this session.

The governor’s signature energy initiative has faced opposition from legislators concerned about the project’s costs to the state and consumers.

Davis, who is continuing to have meetings with Gov. Martin O’Malley and his staff, said he plans to turn the full attention of the House Economic Matters Committee to the bill next week. Davis chairs the committee.

That leaves less than two weeks before the end of the legislative session to get the bill out of committees and passed in the House and Senate.

The bill would contractually obligate utility companies to purchase some energy from offshore wind production companies for 25 years, once the wind turbines have been built. The turbines would be located about 12 miles offshore of Ocean City.

O’Malley announced Wednesday that he was introducing amendments to the bill that would cap rate increases at $2 per month, which Davis said could help get the bill out of committee.

“Any cap helps,” Davis said. “What folks want is a certain amount of cost certainty. That can’t do anything but help so that was certainly a good move on the governor’s part.”

Some of the bill’s opponents believe it is too cumbersome to pass this session, with some Senate Finance Committee members saying it should be recommended for a study over the summer.

Steelworkers unions and environmentalists are united in seeing the bill pass in the hopes that building the turbines would bring jobs to Maryland and help the state reach a goal of generating 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2022.

– By Capital News Service’s Kerry Davis.

Budget Debate Starts in House

March 23rd, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates today begins debate on a state budget proposal that reforms pensions for state employees, restores a large chunk of cuts to K-12 education funding and raises several fees to generate tens of millions in new revenue to help shore up a dedicated transportation fund.

The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a series of budget cuts and fee increases to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal.

Lawmakers will debate a series of amendments to the budget today before giving the bill preliminary approval. A final vote on the budget is expected Friday.

The budget approved by the Appropriations Committee would increase several fees to generate more than $60 million in new revenue. The bulk –about $50 million — will come from a proposed increase to the titling fee for vehicle purchases, which would double from $50 to $100. Another $2 million to $3 million in new revenue would come from doubling the fee for vanity license plates from $25 to $50.

The money generated from those two fees will go toward the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which O’Malley is planning to tap to the tune of $100 million this session to plug budget holes.

“This is designed to provide some help and relief for transportation instead of doing some sort of gasoline tax,” said Delegate John Bohanan, a St. Mary’s Democrat and key member of the Appropriations Committee. “We’ve got to come up with some funds for transportation.”

The budget approved by the committee also increases a fee Marylanders pay to file property tax records from $20 to $40. That change is estimated to raise about $10 million, Bohanan said.

House Republicans fired back at the House spending plan Wednesday, saying the budget does little to address long-term debt and spending. The proposed fees, said House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell, amount to the government “taking money out of the private sector.”

“We don’t have a revenue problem. These are revenue mechanisms,” said O’Donnell, R-Calvert. “We have a spending problem and this budget doesn’t address our over-spending.”

House Republicans are readying amendments to present today. O’Donnell did not elaborate on specifics but said the amendments will “highlight greater opportunities to reduce spending in Maryland.”

House GOP leaders presented a proposal earlier this month that outlined $621 million in additional spending cuts on top of the nearly $1 billion in reductions O’Malley proposed in his budget.

O’Malley’s budget proposal would cut the state’s structural deficit, which is estimated between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion, by $730 million. The House budget goes a bit further and seeks to slash the structural deficit by $803 million.

That’s not enough, Republicans say, and the GOP proposal presented last month would eliminate about two-thirds of the deficit in fiscal 2012 and the rest by fiscal 2013.

“The Democrat plan is silent with regard to when the structural deficit will be completely fixed,” O’Donnell said. This budget “doesn’t solve our problem and it kicks the can down the road.”

Bohanan, the chair of the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, said Democrats refused to cut deeper because any further reductions could “decimate” education funding. The committee voted last week to restore about $58 million of the $94 million O’Malley cut in funding for K-12.

“That’s the one priority we continue to hold and maintain,” Bohanan said.

The House gets the first shot at the budget this year. Bohanan said the Senate is “in sync” with the majority of the House plan, but the two chambers will likely have to reconcile differences on pension reform.

The House is proposing to change O’Malley’s pension reform plan by requiring state employees to pay 7 percent of their salaries instead of 5 percent into their pension plans. O’Malley’s proposal would have given state employees the option to choose between 7 percent and 5 percent contributions.

The Senate on the other hand could move toward a shift to have local governments help pay for pensions. The House last year rejected a “wholesale shift,” Bohanan said.

“The main thing is going to be pensions,” he said. “We’ll be in sync on education funding, but pension reform will be different.”

By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.

Freshman Hopes to Energize Md. Women’s Team in NCAA Tournament

March 18th, 2011
Alyssa Thomas dribbles the ball up the court against Duke Feb. 17.  Thomas led the Terps to a 24-win season and an NCAA Tournament berth. (Courtesy Maryland Athletics)

Alyssa Thomas dribbles the ball up the court against Duke Feb. 17. Thomas led the Terps to a 24-win season and an NCAA Tournament berth. (Courtesy Maryland Athletics)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Magic. It’s what some fans and a former coach see when Alyssa Thomas, a freshman forward on the University of Maryland women’s basketball team, takes the court.

When Thomas rips down a rebound, dribbles the length of the court and scores an easy layup, some are reminded of another basketball player.

“She’s very similar to [former Los Angeles Lakers star] Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson,” said her high school coach, Bill Wolf. “We played her at every position in high school.”

Thomas is the leading scorer and reigning Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year, who will join her No. 4-seeded Terps team Sunday for its first game of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Pretty good for a girl who initially didn’t even want to play basketball.

“My mom signed me up for basketball because I was kind of a shy kid,” said Thomas, 18. “I actually liked soccer a lot better, but once I got older, I started leaning more toward basketball.”

By the time she was a high school upperclassman, she had become a leader on her team, Central Dauphin, in Harrisburg, Pa.

The confidence she gained in high school allowed her to step into a leadership role at Maryland, some of her teammates say.

“I think I’m more of an energy-type leader than a vocal leader,” Thomas said. “I go out and play hard.”

After missing the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2003, the Terps’ women’s basketball team added the second-best recruiting class in the country, led by the fifth-ranked recruit in the country—Thomas.

This season, her energy helped Maryland improve its record to 23-7, finishing No. 16 in the final Associated Press poll.

The NCAA selection committee placed Maryland in the Philadelphia region, to the delight of Thomas and fellow freshman Natasha Cloud, another Pennsylvania native.

“It’s really exciting to be in the Philadelphia region, where we’re home in front of our fans and family,” Cloud said.

In order to make it to Philadelphia, Maryland must first win two games in College Park.

Sunday, when Thomas and the Terrapins take on the St. Francis Red Haze at the Comcast Center in College Park, she won’t be thinking beyond that game.

To prepare, she will chew the same brand of gum she has chewed since the eighth grade.

She will put her right ankle brace on first, followed by her right shoe, then her left ankle brace, and her left shoe.

And freshman walk-on Sequoia Austin will put CVS-brand lotion on Thomas’ left leg, like she does before every home game.

And then, for 40 minutes, Thomas will try to make basketball magic happen again.

“We’re going to get a national championship one of these years,” she said. “We have the team.”

–By Maryland Newsline’s Collin Berglund

Compromises in the Works for Tubman Statue Bill

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.

Senate Gets In St. Patrick’s Day Spirit

March 17th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate kicked off St. Patrick’s Day in style with bagpipes, a string quartet and a ballad from a former lawmaker.

Two bagpipers and the quartet provided the backdrop for former Sen. Tim Ferguson’s rendition of “Danny Boy.” Ferguson, who croons to the Senate annually on St. Patrick’s Day, received a standing ovation for his performance.

Click below to listen to today’s Senate serenade.

By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.