Courthouse dog program signed into law

Amanda Yeager
Contact Reporterayeager@capgaznews.com

Among the sea of faces in Gov. Larry Hogan's reception room Tuesday morning was a yellow, furry one, with droopy ears and gentle brown eyes.

Kilo the therapy dog posed for pictures with Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, at the governor's fourth bill signing of the year.

The yellow Labrador was there with his owner, Harford County Detective Carey Gerres, to celebrate a new law creating a pilot program in Anne Arundel and Harford counties that will study bringing dogs into the courthouse to work with child witnesses. The measure was sponsored by Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Pasadena, and had support from both the Anne Arundel and Harford county delegations.

The pilot will launch in October and last for three years. State lawmakers can then use the findings to consider crafting legislation that would permit courthouse dogs statewide.

Gerres and Kilo went through training with Cecil County-based nonprofit PAWS for People several years ago. She planned to volunteer with him in her free time, but soon discovered Kilo was a reassuring presence to the children she works with in her own job at the Harford County Child Advocacy Center.

Gerres said she's seen child witnesses open up about abuse and other difficult topics with Kilo's help.

"The dogs don't judge," PAWS for People Executive Director Lynne Robinson said. "Just having their presence there is a calming effect. (Children) are able to say what they need to say."

The pilot program will task court administrators with creating guidelines for a therapy dog program, including minimum training standards for the dogs and how they would be used. Simonaire has said enacting consistent standards could alleviate concerns from prosecutors that allowing dogs in a courtroom might create an opportunity for appeals.

The measure was one of 196 bills signed into law at Tuesday's event, which included several other local bills and legislation with local impacts. Among them: a $37.5 million tax credit for aerospace and defense technology contractor Northrop Grumman, which has a regional office in Linthicum and is one of the county's biggest employers.

And County Executive Steve Schuh posed for a picture as Hogan signed legislation that allows Anne Arundel County to establish special taxing districts to help rural communities on wells and septic systems pay to hook up to county public water and sewer services.

Schuh called the bill "a no-brainer" that will help improve county waterways.

Hogan highlighted new laws that lowered costs on residents and businesses.

"When I ran for governor, I said that Marylanders were overtaxed from cradle to grave, and that we were the only state to tax the rain. As of today, we are reducing two of those, and we have already repealed the other," he said before the bill signing.

Bills signed include:

•Senate Bill 8/House Bill 37 (sponsored by Simonaire and the Anne Arundel County delegation): Expands an Anne Arundel County program that allows seniors below a certain income level to defer increases in property tax payments, so that homeowners who exceed the income limit in a particular year will not have to pay their back taxes immediately.

•Senate Bill 46/House Bill 321 (sponsored by Sen. Ed Reilly, R-Crofton and the Anne Arundel County delegation): Reduces the safety zone required for archery hunting on private property from 150 yards to 100 yards.

•Senate Bill 649 (sponsored by Sen. John Astle, D-Annapolis): Allowing the City of Annapolis to issue permits for refillable containers of draft beer to bar owners or operators with a Class E license.

Hogan also signed bills from local legislators that have statewide effect, including:

•Senate Bill 17/House Bill 984 (sponsored by Reilly and Del. Sid Saab, R-Crownsville): Requires public bodies to keep a copy of open session meeting minutes for five years after the meeting (previously, they had been required to keep them for a year).

•Senate Bill 425 (sponsored by Reilly): Allows counties to withhold income tax refunds from individuals with outstanding warrants.

•Senate Bill 600 (sponsored by Reilly): Requires the secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene to establish standards for the use of ultrasound imaging in free standing birthing centers, which are facilities that offer midwife services for low-risk births.

•Senate Bill 775 (sponsored by Simonaire): Creates a program, run by the Department of Natural Resources, through which people can donate recreational hunting and fishing licenses to disabled veterans and permanently disabled people who use wheelchairs.

•House Bill 501 (sponsored by Del. Mark Chang, D-Glen Burnie): Prohibiting auto insurance companies from canceling policies used by volunteer drivers.

•House Bill 555 (sponsored by House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, R-Pasadena): Increases the time frame during which perpetual care trust fund reports must be submitted to the state's Office of Cemetery Oversight.

•House 567 (sponsored by Kipke): Requires mobile barbershops and beauty salons to obtain permits for their business.

•House Bill 922 (sponsored by Del. Pam Beidle, D-Linthicum): Expands the state's definition of "travel trailers" to include park model recreational vehicles.

•Senate Bill 162 (sponsored by Astle): Expands the time frame during which the Public Service Commission is required to take final action on an approved infrastructure replacement project from 120 to 150 days after a gas company submits an amendment to the plan.

•Senate Bill 226 (sponsored by Simonaire): Requires professional engineers to sign, seal and date engineering documents they prepared at the state's request.

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