ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers considered countless pieces of proposed legislation during the 90-day General Assembly session that concluded on Monday from the gravely serious to the somewhat inane.
Weighty issues from the struggling economy to the housing the foreclosure crisis and from the environment to public safety were debated during the session, as were several controversial social issues from a repeal of the death penalty to illegal aliens. The following represents a few of the highlight from the recently completed session:
State Budget: State lawmakers did pass a roughly $14 billion balanced budget, but the spending plan did include some serious casualties. The approved budget does avoid massive layoffs for state employees and protects investments in health care and education, but it also includes about $866 million in total spending reductions.
Most notably, legislators cut around $160 million earmarked for local highway projects and another $140 million for Program Open Space. The approve budget relies heavily on about $1.5 billion in federal economic recovery package money for Maryland, with the caveat the stimulus funds are short-term solutions to long-term problems.
Death Penalty: Legislators wrestled with the death penalty repeal issue throughout the session before reaching a compromise of sorts that traded a total repeal of capital punishment in Maryland for an amended version that would limit the death penalty to murder cases with irrefutable biological evidence such as DNA, videotaped evidence of a murder, or a videotaped confession.
Domestic Violence: State legislators approved a bill that would allow judges to confiscate firearms from individuals with temporary protective orders filed against them. The bill would also authorize the seizure of firearms from those who receive final protective orders.
Septic System Upgrades: In a piece of legislation that could have a serious impact in coastal areas of Worcester County, state lawmakers passed legislation requiring costly nitrogen-removing technology to the hundreds of thousands of existing septic systems or new septic systems in the state critical areas including the coastal bays. The upgrades could cost homeowners as much as $12,000, but state assistance is available in many cases.
Preakness: At the bequest of Governor Martin O’Malley, state lawmakers late in the session approved a bill authorizing the state to purchase or seize through eminent domain the beloved Preakness Stakes and the horseracing tracks owned by Magna Entertainment, which is currently in bankruptcy. Magna was one of six companies to bid on the five proposed slots venues across the state earlier this year, but the validity of its bid is still mired in controversy.
Speed Cameras: Lawmakers late in the session approved a bill that would authorize an expansion of the use of speed cameras across Maryland. Currently, only Montgomery County has a speed camera program in place. When implemented, speed cameras may be installed all over Maryland in highway work zones and within a half a mile of any school, and owners of vehicles recorded going over 12 miles per hour over the speed limit will receive $40 fines in the mail.
Text Message Ban: In another issue related to roadway safety, state lawmakers approved a ban on sending text messages while driving. Texting while driving will be a primary offense, meaning one can be pulled over for texting without another infraction, and the fine could be as high as $500. Opponents voiced concern about the difficulty to enforce the new law. Drivers will still be able to receive and read text messages while driving.