Salvia, Local Interest Bills Approved

BERLIN- The Maryland General Assembly wrapped its 2010 session at midnight on Monday with hundreds of pieces of legislation passed by state lawmakers and hundreds more left on the table, but, by and large, the local delegation was successful in pushing through several bills important to the local area.

Some battles were won and others were lost in the 90-day session during which the budget and the ongoing recession dominated the proceedings, but there were weighty social issues introduced and acted upon by state lawmakers. Throughout the session, hundreds of bills of local importance were introduced with dozens passing and others not seeing the light of day. The following is a brief look at some of legislation germane to the county and its residents.

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House Bill 1145: This bill places strict restrictions on the distribution of the currently legal narcotic Salvia across the state by prohibiting its sale to individuals under the age of 21 anywhere in Maryland. Last summer, both Ocean City and Worcester County enacted laws prohibiting the sale or possession of the dangerous hallucinogenic after its proliferation in the resort areas, particularly on the Boardwalk.

Delegates James Mathias and Norman Conway co-sponsored the legislation based largely on the model provided by Ocean City and Worcester County. Similar legislation introduced in the General Assembly last year died on the last day of the session, but it passed this year. While the bill is not as stringent as the local laws passed last summer, it does make Salvia illegal for persons under the age of 21 across the state.

“We’re very thankful to Ocean City and Worcester County,” said Mathias this week. “It just missed last year, but this year we took the time to get it right. This is a very dangerous hallucinogenic substance that needed to be regulated.”

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House Bill 1431: This bill sponsored by Mathias and Conway would allow for the establishment of pub breweries and microbreweries in Worcester County under certain conditions. It was submitted by the local delegation at the request of the town of Berlin, which is hoping to explore the creation and expansion of the industries in the name of economic development.

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 House Bill 1309: This bill, introduced on the House side by Mathias and Conway and cross-filed in the Senate by Senator Lowell Stoltzfus, applies Maryland public ethics laws to Worcester County’s Liquor Control Board (LCB). The bill includes the county’s LCB in the definition of an “executive unit,” thereby making it subject to the same ethics laws applied to other state and local agencies and departments in the county. In Worcester, examples of executive units include the health department, the sheriff’s office and the state’s attorney’s office, and the legislation passed this session adds the LCB to that list.

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Cell Phone Ban: Following action taken last year to ban text messaging while driving, state lawmakers this year passed a bill banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Maryland drivers wishing to talk on their cell phones while driving will have to use hands-free devices. Drivers violating the law could be fined $40 for a first offense, but the new law is not a primary offense. Drivers ticketed for talking on their cell phones would have to be pulled over for another reason first.

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Tax Hike on Liquor: A bill that would have increased the tax on alcohol in Maryland by as much as a “dime a drink” failed to make it out of committee and died as the session ended.

With the support of a coalition of advocacy groups, along with a report on the effects of a tax increase on public health in Maryland, a handful of state legislators proposed the substantial hike in the alcohol excise tax, which was expected to reduce consumption, thereby reducing alcohol dependence, drinking and driving and a wealth of other alcohol-related health issues, but the underlying reason is purely financial.

With the state facing a $2 billion deficit, state lawmakers were exploring any and all means to increase revenue, and adding a dime a drink tax on alcohol purchases is expected to raise roughly $200 million for state coffers. According to the bill’s sponsors, the money raised would pay for programs to prevent and treat substance abuse and fill funding gaps for health-related services connected to alcohol consumption.

Advocates pointed out there appeared to be room to grow in the state’s alcohol excise tax structure. The tax on distilled spirits in Maryland has not been increased since 1955, while the tax rate on beer and wine was last raised in 1972.

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 Homestead Tax Extension to Second Residences: This bill would allow homeowners in the state to claim the Homestead Tax Credit on their second home provided the second property is at least 90 miles away from the primary residence. It would have serious implications in terms of property tax revenue in Worcester County where roughly 78 percent of all residential real estate is made up of second homes or vacation homes. The bill introduced by a pair of Western Maryland Senators never made it out of committee.

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