Read today's eNewspaper

Hogan vetoes bill allowing felons to vote sooner

Hogan vetoes bill that would have allowed felons on probation to vote.

Gov. Larry Hogan took out his veto pen Friday, rejecting a bill that would allow felons to vote as soon as they leave prison rather than waiting to finish parole or probation.

The veto, one of several announced by the governor's office, quickly drew a pledge from the legislation's sponsor to find the votes to override.

"I just think Maryland should be more progressive," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat. She said she needs to line up only a handful of additional votes in each chamber to override Hogan's veto when the General Assembly returns in January.

In a letter to legislative leaders, Hogan said current law that makes felons wait to vote until completing all aspects of their sentence "achieves the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights."

The Republican governor was not available for interviews Friday, aides said.

Maryland is one of 39 states allowing ex-convicts to vote after they have completed their sentences — including any probation and parole. There are about 40,000 former felons in Maryland who are out of prison but unable to vote because they are still on parole or probation.

The bill was approved during the Assembly session largely along party lines.

Hogan had been pressured by advocates on both sides of the issue. The website, founded by Del. Neil Parrott, a Western Maryland Republican, facilitated an online letter-writing campaign to urge Hogan to veto the measure. Meanwhile, a group of ex-offenders rallied in Baltimore last week as part of a campaign aimed at persuading the governor to sign the bill.

Communities United, a group that promoted the voting rights bill, issued a statement criticizing Hogan's veto.

"Governor Hogan has learned nothing from the uprising in Baltimore and what the city and state residents need. Freddie Gray's West Baltimore neighborhood has the highest rate of disenfranchisement in the state," the group said. "Former felons need a voice and the ability to influence what happens in their communities and lives."

The bill's opponents have argued that ex-offenders who haven't completed parole and probation haven't fully repaid their debts to society.

"They haven't earned back the right to vote yet," said Parrott.

Conway noted that Maryland's voter registration system can't distinguish between a felon who is on parole or probation and a felon who is not, potentially leading to felons registering to vote when they are not eligible. She said it makes sense to strip the prohibition.

Hogan also rejected a measure that would result in online hotel booking services paying more state taxes. A sponsor of that bill also vowed an override.

Led by the Bethesda-based Marriott chain, hotel industry officials had sought to close what they consider a loophole in Maryland law allowing online travel companies to pay less in sales tax for booking rooms than the hotels themselves must charge.

But online travel firms, and many Maryland travel agencies, complained the legislature was trying to impose a new tax on fees they charge for serving travelers. They warned it would hurt the state's tourism industry.

Hogan took neither side, saying that since the Maryland comptroller's office is in litigation with online company Travelocity over its tax liability, that issue ought to be left to the court to decide first.

Philip Minardi of the Travel Technology Association, a trade group that opposed the bill, welcomed the governor's veto.

"This decision just re-emphasizes the point that you cannot tax your way to prosperity," he said.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, who sponsored the hotel tax bill, said he was "shocked" by Hogan's veto but that the bill passed with enough votes for an override.

"It's mind-boggling," said Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It demonstrates what we're in for over the next few years, and that is an allegiance to an ideology over the best interests of our state, including our in-state business community."

Madaleno said his bill would have netted the state $3 million to $5 million more in taxes each year that the online companies are collecting from customers but not remitting to the state with their "creative misinterpretation of the state sales tax law."

Hogan vetoed a similar hotel tax bill that applied only to Howard County.

Another measure vetoed by Hogan would make smoking marijuana in a public place a civil violation punishable only by a fine and eliminate criminal penalties for possession of marijuana-related paraphernalia. The bill was passed by lawmakers on the heels of a 2014 bill that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In his letter to legislative leaders, Hogan acknowledged that the new legislation cured issues created by last year's measure — a person could face criminal charges for possessing a marijuana pipe but not the small amount of marijuana it held. But the bill also created "legal uncertainties," he said, including leaving police officers no authority to pull over drivers who are smoking marijuana while behind the wheel.

The Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland said it hopes lawmakers will override the veto, given that the bill was "widely supported, common-sense legislation."

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said it's important for public safety for officers to be able to pull over drivers who are using marijuana. Shellenberger and the Maryland State's Attorneys Association unsuccessfully tried to have prohibitions on using marijuana while driving and using marijuana in public added to the bill.

"People should do it in the privacy of their own home," said Shellenberger, a Democrat who is a vice president of the association.

The governor also vetoed a bill that would put more restrictions on when police officers can seize cash and property during criminal investigations. Hogan said in his veto letter that he'll create a work group to review the rules on asset forfeiture, which he said can be a valuable tool in drug investigations.

The governor's office said Hogan would allow several other bills to become law without his signature, including bills banning hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," for natural gas for two years; requiring insurance companies to cover fertility treatments for lesbian couples; and allowing transgender people to permanently change the name and gender on their birth certificate without it being marked as amended.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller declined Friday through a spokesman to comment on the governor's decisions. House Speaker Michael E. Busch could not be reached for comment.

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad