Bail bill favored by industry clears critical hurdle in Maryland House

A hotly contested bill backed by the state's bail bond industry cleared a critical hurdle in the House of Delegates Tuesday, but opponents still vowed to block it from reaching the floor of that chamber.

The House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee voted 19-1 in favor of releasing the bail legislation as part of a package of 66 Senate bills that came over past the deadline for automatic referral to the standing committees that decide whether bills receive a floor vote. The bill was sent too the House Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing on the Senate-passed bill Wednesday.

Opponents, including the Legislative Black Caucus, had hoped to head off the bill at the Rules Committee, but members deferred to a House tradition that allows committee chairs to decide whether to consider bills passed by the Senate. Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who is regarded as sympathetic to the bail bondsmen, asked that the bill be released, lawmakers said.

Vallario said he would hold a full hearing on the bill but would not predict whether legislation would emerge from his committee before the General Assembly adjourns for the year Monday night.

The legislation would rewrite a key section of a rule adopted by the Court of Appeals in February de-emphasizing cash bail as a factor in whether defendants are released pending trial. The rule, which followed an opinion by Attorney General Brian E. Frosh questioning whether the way bail has been administered would pass constitutional muster, provides that courts should not set bail in amounts higher than a defendant can afford.

One provision of the rule creates a hierarchy of prerelease conditions, with financial terms at the bottom. The bill, which passed the Senate, 29-18, on March 22, seeks to restore cash bail to an equal footing with the other conditions.

Opponents regard the bill as a step back and have vowed to fight it in the Judiciary Committee.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, vice chairman of the committee and an outspoken opponent of the Senate bill, said the decision to send the bill to Judiciary was more a matter of respect for House precedent than a judgment on its merits. She said the vote count in the Judiciary panel is close.

"It is tight and our side is working 24-7 and I'm sure the other side is working 24-7," she said. "I think we'll be able to kill it just based on the level of opposition."

Dumais said that if the bill were to reach the full House, there would be an "ugly" floor fight.

"I don't think anybody's looking forward to seeing this on the floor," she said.

A critical factor in the fate of the bill could be the position of House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Bringing the bill to the floor could divide his Democratic caucus between allies of the bail bond industry and African-American delegates who make up about 40 percent of his party in the House.

Nicholas Wachinski, chief executive of Lexington National Insurance Co. and a spokesman for the bail bond industry, declined to comment on the bill's prospects.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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