Legislature Faces Early Bills

BERLIN – The Maryland General Assembly convenes next week for the 427th time, during which state lawmakers will consider thousands of pieces of legislation from bills whose importance would be felt across the state to pieces of legislation germane to specific jurisdictions including Worcester.

With the state, like the rest of the country, trying to pull out of one of the deepest recessions in memory, fiscal issues and the budget will likely dominate much of the legislature’s time during the 90-day session, but there will also be considerable public safety and security issues debated. Many of the bills introduced and ultimately voted on during the session will be critical for the state’s citizenry, while others will appear silly or inane and will never see the light of day.

Already, 86 bills have been pre-filed in the House with another 95 pre-filed in the Senate a full week before the session even begins. While most have statewide implications, some address regional and local issues. The two delegates and one state senator from District 38B, which includes Worcester County and Ocean City, have only pre-filed one bill between them and its one that has been debated without success during the last two General Assembly sessions.

House Bill 56, introduced by District 38B Delegates James Mathias and Norm Conway, would add Worcester to the list of counties in which non-profit fraternal, religious and veterans organizations can own and operate slot machines in their venues. The bill was introduced the last two years and each year made it through the House before dying in advance of vote by the Senate.

Another pre-filed bill of local importance is House Bill 47, which would create a constitutional amendment requiring district lines be drawn to include at least one delegate from every county in the state “to the greatest extent possible.” It’s important all over the state, but particularly in Worcester, which shares its legislative district with Somerset County and a portion of Wicomico County.

If approved as written, the bill could have an impact on how the local area is represented in Annapolis. Currently, Mathias, an Ocean City resident, and Conway, a Salisbury resident, represent the district in the House and a similar pattern has followed traditionally, but changing the district lines to accommodate the constitutional amendment could change the political landscape in the region.

Among other pre-filed bills of local importance is House Bill 13, which would place stringent restrictions on the sale and distribution of the currently legal narcotic Salvia across the state. Ocean City and Worcester County last summer enacted laws prohibiting the sale or possession of salvia in local jurisdictions and Mathias and Conway have promised to use those models for a statewide ban, but the bill pre-filed by another pair of Eastern Shore delegates would only prohibit possession of the drug by individuals under 21.

Another pre-filed bill of interest that would apply to residents all over the state including Worcester is Senate Bill 19, which, if approved, would ban hand-held cell phone use for drivers in Maryland except under certain emergency situations. Last year, state lawmakers approved legislation making it illegal to send text messages while driving and a complete ban on cell phone use while operating a vehicle could come next.

In yet another pre-filed bill of local interest, Senate Bill 29 would authorize the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to prepare and implement fishery management plans for various species vital in state waters. Currently, the state takes its fishery management direction from federal agencies, but flawed counting systems have put local anglers at odds with federal decision makers with little understanding of the local situation.