Unfinished business in Annapolis
Wednesday, 17 April 2013 12:20

Many bills passed, but HOME act, wage bill fail

by Bill Gates

The just-concluded legislative session appeared more active than usual, due to the number of high-profile bills that were passed.
    In another respect, it was no more productive than any other session; 2,610 bills were introduced and 766 passed both the Senate and the House of Delegates.
    That’s the usual success rate, in which roughly two bills fail for every one that is approved.
    Among those that did not make the cut despite strong support were the “pit bull” bill and the HOME Act.
    “Those were particularly frustrating,” said Del. John Olszewski Jr. (6th District), chairman of the Baltimore County House delegation.
    “The pit bull legislation was probably the most disheartening thing to see, with leaders in the House and the Senate unable to reach a consensus and give dog owners some degree of certainty.”
   

The legislation was intended to address a judge’s ruling last year that pit bulls were “inherently dangerous.”
    Opponents of the ruling say it is forcing families to give up their pit bulls as landlords ban the animals in order to not be held liable if the dog were to attack or injure someone.
    “We passed a bill saying every dog owner is responsible for their own dogs, regardless of breed,” said Joseph “Sonny” Minnick (6th District).
    “The Senate got lawyers and insurance companies involved, wanted a preponderance of evidence and other legal mumbo-jumbo. The bill came back to us with two hours left in the session, and we were never able to vote on the compromise.”
    The HOME Act would have required all landlords to accept all forms of legal income — particularly Section 8 vouchers.
    It was intended, among other reasons, to cut down on the concentration of Section 8 housing in southeast Baltimore County by spreading the use of vouchers around the county.
    “It won’t go away,” Olszewski said. “There are concerns about concentration of housing and poverty, and an over-concentration of vouchers in the southeast area.”
    The bill made it out of a Senate committee, but was sent back to the committee through a procedural maneuver — by one vote — and “that ended the conversation,” Olszew-ski said.
    Minnick said he was “leery of that kind of legislation.
    “There’s theory, the way it’s supposed to work,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work, we still get dumped on.”
    Olszewski also introduced a bill that would have tightened state subsidies for “black liquor,” a fluid produced when making wood pulp, which is often burned as a fuel source at paper mills.
    “We’ve been subsidizing out-of-state paper companies for doing what they’ve been doing for decades,” Olszewski said. “I wanted to make sure it met certain efficiency levels if we were going to subsidize it.
    “But pretty strong out-of-state interests got involved, there was heavy lobbying, and it lost by one vote in my own committee [Economic Matters].”
    Olszewski said his bill would have taken the money being used to subsidize “black liquor” and directed it “toward real clean and renewable energy, creating jobs in-state and not subsidizing what is really a pollutant.”
    [Critics claim that paper producers often use the credit, intended to encourage addition of the biological byproduct of regular fuels, as a means to subsidize their use of diesel fuel, and that the crude wood-pulp derivative is as polluting as more traditional fuels.]
    The legislature also failed to pass a bill raising the state minimum wage, which Minnick opposed and about which Olszew-ski had doubts.
    “I’ve been torn on the issue,” he said. “I recognize the current level is hard for a person to make enough money to live a full and productive life.
    “But the bill was a fairly drastic increase, and it wasn’t tied to any index. Studies also suggested there would be job losses if the minimum wage was increased.”
    Olszewski said he would have preferred to find a middle ground, with a modest minimum wage increase, indexed, without risking the kind of negative effects some feared.
    Minnick saw one of his longtime efforts, to decrease the tax burden on retired veterans, fail to pass.
    “I’ve been working on this for 13 years,” he said.
    Minnick’s bills sought to make a retired veteran’s income exempt from being used to determine his state income tax.
    A few years ago a bill was passed making the first $5,000 of a retired veteran’s income exempt.
    “We hoped to increase it by another $5,000 this session,” Minnick said. “I was promised it would pass, that the governor would add $500,000 to the fund, but at the last minute the governor took $300,000 of that money and gave it to Towson University to save its baseball team.”
    Some of the touted legislation that did pass — an increased gas tax, the repeal of the death penalty, more restrictive gun ownership laws, funds for a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City — was opposed by local legislators.
    “First of all, there’s a difference between accomplishing a lot, and tackling a lot of issues,” Olszewski said. “We certainly took action on a lot of issues. But I wouldn’t say I supported everything that was done. I’ve been talking to people in the district, and a lot of folks aren’t particularly pleased.”
    The 6th District delegation, which also includes Sen. Norman Stone and Del. Michael Weir Jr., opposed repealing the death penalty, increasing the gas tax, and the gun control bills.
    (They were divided on the offshore wind farm.)
    The new gun control laws “will not take one illegal gun off the streets of Baltimore City,” said Minnick, who instead supported increased penalties for those convicted of using a gun in the commission of a felony.
    “And the wind farm is just environmental feel-good legislation. Once everyone sees how much it costs for how much we get back, I predict no one will ever see a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City.”
    On the other hand, the 6th District delegation managed to obtain $500,000 for upgrades to the North Point Battlefield Park and another $450,000 to be used for upgrades to Battle Acre Park and other War of 1812 historical areas in eastern Baltimore County.
    There was also $200,000 secured to renovate the former Graff building on Dundalk Avenue to provide locations for the Baltimore Arts and Music Project and the Dundalk Youth Service Center.

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