Friday, February 20–Lawmakers Focus On Bills With Specific Local Impact

BERLIN – With the Maryland General Assembly rolling toward the mid-way point, local legislators in Annapolis are working a wide variety of bills of local import from a proposed ban of a popular over-the-counter hallucinogen that made its presence felt on the Boardwalk in Ocean City last year to another that would change the rules of the road for scooters to a change in the law regarding second-degree assault arrests and a controversial bill regarding gift certificate and gift card sales.

Of course, the economy and the state budget along with slots have consumed state lawmakers for much of the session as hundreds of pieces of legislation regarding the weighty topics have been introduced and debated thus far. However, state lawmakers including local Delegates James Mathias and Norm Conway are also weighing issues near and dear to their constituents in District 38B.

Mathias, who serves on the House Economic Matters Committee, said this week he is keeping a close eye on all proposed legislation concerning small business. With the state’s economic woes trickling down to the local level, several bills related to small business are being debated in the capital.

“I’ve found myself very preoccupied with a large number of bills related to small business, which is the backbone of our community,” he said. “Small business equals people and I’m taking a very cautious approach to anything that could effect that. I’m trying to be responsible and do no harm as the saying goes. There are a significant number of bills being floated that could really have adverse consequences on our small businesses in the best of times, much less the economic troubles we’re all going through right now.”

Beyond the complex economic issues, the local delegation in Annapolis is working on a wide variety of bills with implications specific to Worcester County and Ocean City. Last week, for example, Mathias and Conway introduced a co-sponsored bill seeking a ban on the currently legal, over-the-counter hallucinogen Salvia Divinorum, simply called Salvia or other colorful nicknames, which made its presence felt on the Boardwalk and throughout the resort last summer. Salvia, which reportedly produces a strong, but temporary hallucinogenic reaction in users, is available in many places in the resort such as Boardwalk T-shirt stores, for example.

The bill introduced by Mathias and Conway among others last week is an attempt to ban the sale of the substance, or at least suspend it until more research is made available. It’s introduction comes on the heels of a separate bill introduced earlier in the session.

“We started looking into this last summer when it started to proliferate on the Boardwalk and other places,” said Mathias. “We’re concerned about its distribution, especially in areas where so many young people have access to it. For that reason, we’re looking for an effective date of June 1, whereas the other bill has an effective date of Oct. 1.”

Mathias said he was relying on state Attorney General Doug Gansler to testify on the bill when it came before committee because his staff has done the research on it.

“We’re very committed to this,” he said. “It was brought to our attention by a number of different people. We certainly hope to raise people’s awareness about this potentially dangerous behavior-changing substance.”

Another bill of local importance regarding gift certificate and gift card sales introduced early in the session failed to see the light of day when it was shot down in the House Economic Matters Committee last week. House Bill 126, co-sponsored by over 60 delegates would have forced restaurants and retailers in carefully track the usage of gift cards they sell and return a large amount of the revenue derived from unused balances on the cards and certificates to the state.

In another bill of local importance, Conway last week introduced legislation that would allow motorcycle sales in Worcester County on Sundays. Because of an arcane blue law still on the books, automobile sales are prohibited in all but three counties in Maryland. The bill introduced by Conway last week would allow the sale of motorcycles in Worcester County on Sunday in what appears to be a very site-specific piece of legislation. It does not address Sunday sales for automobiles in the county, however.

Mathias said he is currently working with Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association on a bill that proposes changes in the state’s current second-degree assault law. The bill, which has not been introduced, would attempt to alter the conditions under which an arrest could be made for second-degree assault that do not occur in the presence of the police officer.

“Currently, if you and I have a disagreement and you punch me in the eye, if it doesn’t happen in the presence of a police officer, you can’t be arrested nor can police even ask for your identification,” said Mathias. “If you and eye have the same disagreement and you kick a dent in my car, you can be arrested for malicious destruction of property even if it didn’t happen in front of an officer or even a witness.”