By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun
8:37 PM EDT, April 7, 2013
With most of the heavy lifting behind them, Maryland legislators will convene Monday for a final frenzy of lawmaking before the 2013 General Assembly session adjourns at midnight.
Bills that could affect every dog owner and every driver who talks on a cell phone still await approval, as does legislation that would craft tighter rules on speed cameras, legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes and put new restrictions on government speed camera programs.
Most lawmakers said these remaining issues and scores more will likely find resolution by the end of the day.
"We're in pretty good shape," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said as his chamber adjourned Saturday afternoon.
In the past 89 days, lawmakers have passed nearly 500 of the more than 2,600 bills introduced this year, including high-profile, controversial bills to repeal the death penalty, enact strict gun laws, raise the gas tax and finance $1 billion in borrowing to build new Baltimore City schools.
The House of Delegates decided not to convene until noon, a sign of confidence that all the necessary work will be done. Sen. President Mike V. Miller told reporters last week his chamber might adjourn before midnight, a pointed contrast to last year's session that ended in a budget crisis and led to two special sessions.
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve predicted "the polar opposite of last year, which was a colossal mess."
Liability for dog bites
The most controversy, lawmakers said, comes from a bill whose failure could lead to evictions for pit bull owners and whose passage would affect every dog owner in Maryland.
The bill attempts to undo a 2012 Court of Appeals ruling that declared pit bulls "inherently dangerous," holding both their owners and landlords where the dogs lived responsible if a dog bites.
Animal activists found the pit bull ruling unfair for singling out one breed. Landlords objected to the high liability it created, and some began evicting pit bull owners who wouldn't give away their pets.
Lawmakers responded by attempting to establish a legal standard for dog bite cases that favors victims, regardless of the dog's breed, and to leave landlords without so much responsibility.
But each chamber took a different approach to balancing victims' rights to restitution with how much burden should be placed on dog owners to prove they couldn't have known their pets would bite someone. For more than a month, key decision-makers have been at impasse.
A committee of lawmakers is expected to meet again Monday in hopes of reaching a compromise, which is considered likely despite the extended public acrimony among negotiators.
"The will is there to get it resolved," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat on the committee.
Drivers on cell phones
Lawmakers also appear poised to allow police to pull over and ticket drivers for talking on hand-held cell phones. Currently motorists can be ticketed for talking on the phone, but they cannot be stopped unless they are breaking another traffic law.
The House and Senate haven't formally agreed on several matters, including whether motorists could chat at a stoplight and whether a judge could issue a fine greater than $75 for a first offense.
Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat whose committee oversaw the cell phone bill, said she expects the House to accept the Senate's version of the bill on Monday. That bill would bar all hand-held phone chats when a vehicle is "traveling in a roadway" and not specify a fine.
The two chambers also have disagreed on how to revamp the state's speed camera law in the wake of a Baltimore Sun investigation that revealed problems with enforcement and administration of Baltimore's system.
Tickets have been issued in error and motorists have sometimes struggled to challenge them in court. And the city and some other jurisdictions have been paying vendors per ticket issued — a so-called "bounty system" the state tried to make illegal when it approved speed cameras in 2009.
The House and the Senate have passed different versions of legislation intended to prevent issuance of bogus tickets, make it easier for motorists to challenge them and more explicitly prohibit contracts that pay by the ticket, which critics say create an incentive for companies to issue them.
Some key senators think the House's version illegally calls for jurisdictions to exit current bounty-system contracts, while some delegates find the Senate version doesn't go far enough to address problems.
A committee is expected to meet Monday morning to seek a compromise. Some lawmakers said whatever passes will send a message that jurisdictions need to be careful.
"We'll be watching everything that happens between now and the next legislative session," said Del. James E. Malone, Jr. a Baltimore County Democrat who introduced the House version. "What I wanted to do is bring some credibility back into the speed camera program, and I think I did that."
Meanwhile, a campaign finance reform bill aimed at closing loopholes for corporate donations hit a snag Saturday.
Delegates objected to changes by senators that would require people seeking public office to declare their candidacy three months earlier than currently required — pushing the deadline from after the annual General Assembly session adjourns in April to before its January start. The House wants campaign contribution limits, which haven't changed in two decades, to be indexed to inflation. The Senate disagrees.
Another committee is expected to meet and work out a deal.
The Senate is expected to give final approval to a bill to make Maryland the 19th state to create a medical marijuana program. That bill is among hundreds that have yet to reach the finish line and still await final passage, including whether to ban using transportation trust fund money for other purposes, whether it should be a crime to drunkenly pilot a sailboat and whether it should be more difficult to petition laws to referendum.
In the absence of a huge unsettled issue, like a tax increase, to suck the political energy out of the State House, lawmakers said most of the day will be dedicated to people scrambling to get bills they're passionate about passed before the clock runs out.
Baltimore Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, for example, hopes to catapult one of his bills that has languished in the Senate all the way to final passage.
The House on Thursday approved his proposal to suspend the driver's license of anyone caught illegally driving dirt bikes on public streets, a particular problem in the Druid Hill area he represents.
The Senate hasn't even held a hearing on the legislation, but Tarrant is optimistic.
On the final day, he said, anything is possible.
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