Here are answers to selected readers' questions about the 2004 session of the Maryland General Assembly, which ended Monday. Sun staffers David Nitkin, Michael Dresser, Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Ivan Penn, Howard Libit, Jon Rockoff and Jon Morgan answered these questions.
Dawn Lewis, Bel Air: State employees have not seen as much as acost-of-living-raise in the last three years. Did state employees get the1.6 percent raise and/or step increases?
Dresser: State employees received a $752-per-person pay raise, equivalentto an average 1.6 percent increase. It was structured this way to benefitlower-paid workers.
Steve Metts, Baltimore: With Senate President Thomas V. Mike Millerstating, "We're facing a fiscal hell next year," and his knowledge that evenif approved, slots wouldn't provide any revenue for the next two fiscalyears, why is he opposed to the proposed sales tax increase that wouldgenerate revenue?
Dresser: Miller is not opposed to raising the sales tax but has said it isfutile for the Senate to pass one when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hasstated he will veto any increase. The Senate president said he could haveconvinced the governor to accept some other increased fees and taxes,including an increase in the vehicle titling fee.
Tom, Baltimore: How does one begin a petition requiring the GeneralAssembly to pass legislation in the year 2005 that authorizes 10,000 slotsmachines under the Maryland Stadium Authority operation to be in onelocation in each county?
Nitkin: Unlike in California and several other states, there is noprovision in Maryland law for voters to petition issues to referendum. Thelaw does allow, however, for voters to gather signatures to petition toreferendum a law approved by the General Assembly, for the purposes ofoverturning it.
Rocco Rotondo Jr., Parkville: Why can't there be a referendum vote forslots? Wouldn't that be a fair way to vote on slots? That way, everyonegets their view in, and whatever area wins, they get the slots in theirjurisdiction. The governor does not want this -- he will surely lose. Mostpeople who want slots are Republicans, but they don't want slots in theirarea.
Libit: Del. Shane Pendergrass of Howard County introduced a bill tohold that kind of slots referendum, and there was talk in the final days ofthe legislature that it could be supported in the House. But the Senatepresident and the governor both opposed it, saying that an election delayedslots too much. The governor also says that his victory in 2002 should beconsidered a referendum on slots.
Howard Gorrell, Westminster: Why didn't The Sun cover any legislative billregarding child support?
Nitkin: About 2,500 bills and resolutions are introduced in the GeneralAssembly each year, and we spend much of our time deciding which issues tocover. Only about 20 percent become law. Typically, we try to focus onissues that impact the largest number of readers. Many issues, as a result,do not get the attention that some readers think they deserve. As a result,we try to direct readers to various resources -- such as thebaltimoresun.com and the General Assembly Web site -- so they can trackissues on their own.
Keith Zumbrun, Glen Arm: Did the motorcycle helmet bill that would notrequire helmets pass?
Wilson: The helmet bill, Senate Bill 611, emerged from the Senate on April6, after the crossover deadline. It was held up in the House RulesCommittee and did not make it out of committee in time for consideration bythe full House of Delegates. So it was not passed by the legislature.
Donna Disbrow, Columbia: Will it cost me extra to flush the toilet everytime I go? What is going on with this state? What's next -- a tax forexpelling human gas, just so we can punish ourselves for contributing tothe Greenhouse Effect? Priorities are askew; tax the corporations anddevelopers for bringing extra noise, pollution and traffic into ourcommunities instead of taxing -- or overtaxing -- the middle class. TheAssembly can do better than this.
Dresser: The so-called "flush tax" is a flat $2.50-a-month surcharge onresidential sewer bills.
Jennifer Dean, Arnold: How will teen-agers be affected by new taxes andfees?
Nitkin: Teen-agers are not specifically singled out, but various motorvehicle fees will certainly impact you. If you are a teen who pays his orher own car registration, or if you lose your driver's license and decideto appeal the decision, you will pay more to state government.
Jim Etchison, Crofton: What was the final resolution on corporations inMaryland that pay no state taxes. Was this large loophole closed ... oreven addressed?
Nitkin: The General Assembly adopted legislation to close the so-calledDelaware holding company loophole, which allows corporations to establishshell corporations in states that do not tax assets derived fromintellectual property such as patents and trademarks. In addition, a billpassed granting amnesty to companies that would owe back taxes, estimatedto total about $80 million. Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaeferopposes the amnesty provision, and Ehrlich will make the finaldecision.
Fred Bealefeld Jr., Pasadena: Do I have to pay the sewage bill? I have aseptic system.
Dresser: Septic system users will be charged an equivalent fee of $30yearly, but the charge will be delayed until October 2005 while the statedetermines how to collect it. The money will be used to upgrade sewersystems and for other measures to protect the Chesapeake Bay from nutrientpollution.
Maude Jacobs, Annapolis: I understand that the bill extending the life ofthe Maryland historic preservation tax program has been approved. Myquestion is: Are there any specific changes to the existing program?
Dresser: The commercial projects financed by the historic tax credit havebeen capped at $30 million a year. Baltimore, which had been receivingabout 90 percent of the credits, will be capped at 50 percent. In addition,10 percent of the money for commercial projects will be reserved fornonprofits.
M.R. Stoudt, Germantown: With all the carping about new revenue sources,why was there no consideration of a state automobile inspection? TheGeneral Assembly had no problem increasing the registration fee, but withall the barely road-worthy cars in this state, a $30 annual fee plus repaircost would serve to increase revenues and safety. Pennsylvania has had itfor decades.
Dresser: There was no consideration given to using vehicle inspections as arevenue source. The state has an emissions inspection program, but even itsrelatively modest fees are controversial. A separate inspection program,with fees high enough to raise revenue for projects, would have littleGeneral Assembly support.
Cindy Stacy, Swanton: What are the revisions, or at least the mostsignificant revisions, to the state's nutrient management program foragriculture?
Libit: Within the "flush tax" bill, the Assembly included several bigchanges to the nutrient management program. The "right-of-entry" authorityof the Department of Agriculture was repealed, and the paperwork burden wasreduced for both farmers and the department. The department was also givensome more flexibility in setting standards for farmers, with the hope thatmore of them will try to comply with the law.
David Garmin, Baltimore: Was any legislation passed relative to landlordsand the lead paint problem?
Dresser: Yes, H.B. 1245 provided some new protections for landlords who are unable to inspect a property for lead problems because a tenant denies themaccess. The bill would also require a separate evidentiary hearing andallow legal discovery in a case where a landlord's immunity from liabilityis challenged in court.
Barbara, Prince George's County: What happened to the balloon bill?
Wilson: Known as the "Inky bill," House Bill 1029 would have made the massrelease of balloons a crime, subject to $500 fines. It is named for thepygmy sperm whale that had ingested plastic and a Mylar balloon, wasrescued off the coast of New Jersey and treated at the National Aquarium in Baltimore in 1993. The balloon ban bill was voted down in the HouseJudiciary Committee in March, and therefore did not become law.
Dan Welsh, Forest Hill: Was funding approved for the bill that was passedseveral years ago to license home inspectors?
Dresser: No. The bill creating a licensing program was passed two years ago -- just as the state was running into serious budget problems. For the pasttwo years, Ehrlich has not provided funding for the program in hisbudgets, and the General Assembly can't add money to fund the program,according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, Licensing andRegulation.
Ron Thomas, Timonium: What happened with the three educator retirementbills: retired teachers returning as teachers to same system? Retiredprincipals returning as principals to same system? Retiredteachers/principals going to work in another state agency?
Rockoff: The program allowing retired teachers and principals to return towork for a regular salary and collect their pension will expire becauselegislators failed to reach an agreement on reforming and renewing it. Thatmeans that teachers and principals who retired, say, from the BaltimoreCounty schools can't go back to work full time in the Baltimore Countyschools without losing some of their pensions. They can go to work for adifferent employer, however, and that would include another school system,such as the Howard County schools.
Brenda Howard, Baltimore: How much salary increase did the General Assembly vote for itself and what is the total dollar amount?
Dresser: The General Assembly did not give itself a raise this year -- norcould it. Legislators' salaries are set every four years by an independentcommission and go into effect without a vote unless legislators take actionto decrease it.
Christina Salla, Millers: Is anything being done to help the Chesapeake Bayecosystems?
Dresser: Besides the imposition of the "flush tax," lawmakers passed billsdesigned to increase energy efficiency and encourage the use of renewableenergy sources. They also tightened the laws protecting environmentallysensitive "critical areas" from development.
J.Brown, Windsor Mill: The vehicle tag fee increase bill -- when does thisgo into effect?
Nitkin: The bill takes effect July 1.
Melvin Boteler, Glen Burnie: The "flush tax" legislation appears to bedirected only at home owners. Does it have any effect on commercialenterprises such as office buildings or malls or facilities contributinghigh volumes to the sewage system?
Dresser: The "flush tax" applies to commercial enterprises as well asresidences. Commercial users of sewer systems will pay a fee based on aformula tied to the water usage of a typical home.
PHG, Towson: Did House Bill No. 1 pass?
Dresser: No. The bill, which would have closed a transfer tax loophole usedby many developers when selling property and put the proceeds toward schoolconstruction, passed the House but died in a Senate committee.
George V. Edwards, Essex: I will not take the vehicle fee increase lyingdown. This is robbery -- "give me your money or your vehicle." Is thereany organized opposition to repeal this law or remove the governor likethey did in California?
Dresser: Robin Ficker, a Montgomery County, anti-tax crusader, isapparently trying to mount a challenge to Ehrlich, but otherwise there islittle organized opposition.
Ed Warzel, Anne Arundel: Where and how can an individual get a tally ofeach legislator's vote on each issue in this past session?
Dresser: Such information is on this Web site -- baltimoresun.com/assembly,click on resources, where there is a link to the General Assembly's Website at http://mlis.state.md.us. The problem with this is that you wouldhave to go through each bill and check each roll call vote. It would be adaunting task to compile the record of even one legislator because eachcasts hundreds of votes during the course of a session -- most of them onbills that generate no controversy.
Joe Fields, Pasadena: Could you please give me a roll call on slots vs. taxincreases? Who voted which way and their party affiliation?
Dresser: There was no roll call that posed the question of slots versus taxincreases. No slots bill came to the floor of the House. There was a slotsvote taken in the Senate. The House did take a vote on Speaker Michael E.Busch's tax package as well as on many amendments proposed to that bill.The Sun published the roll call of the Senate slots vote in a story thatran Feb. 28, and the House tax vote, in a story that ran March 26. You mayreview the stories and attached roll calls -- which included partyidentification -- at baltimoresun.com/assembly.
You can also use this site to check votes on other measures one-by-one by clicking on "General Assembly Resources," then "read the text of a bill," and inserting thenumber of a bill for which you want to see the voting results. Votes aretypically recorded at the end of the page. The roll call votes do notinclude party affiliation, but you can cross-reference that against thebiographies on the Web site.
Mike D., Baltimore: What kind of influence do legislative staff andanalysts have on shaping legislative policies during the legislativesession? Aren't they supposed to be nonpartisan?
Dresser: Staffing is provided by the Department of Legislative Services,which is well-respected for its independence and relative nonpartisanship.(Had Republicans controlled the legislature for decades, it might see theworld a different way.) The legislative analysts tend to lay out optionsrather than make recommendations, but when their advice is sought they canbe very influential.
Allan Holtzman, Monkton: Why don't you make a list of the changes in countytaxes per county because of the governor's failure to compromise on salesor corporate tax hikes. A graph of the rise in local taxes would give more"teeth" to the argument that our governor is just passing on the cost ofgovernment rather than dealing with it as he should. Taxes are not as badas lies and ideology!
The other list I'd like to see is the Marylanddelegates and state senators who have accepted contributions from racingand gaming interests. Then, we would have a "scorecard" to give us more ofa "perspective" on why some of "our" delegates and senators are voting. Anddon't forget to list the campaign contributions the governor has taken fromgaming and racing interests.
Morgan: Changes, if any, in county taxes will be made by each jurisdictionin coming months and years, so no list would be available at this point.You can be assured that The Sun will thoroughly cover any proposed taxincreases. As for campaign contributions, baltimoresun.com/assembly has alink to various databases through which you can look up donations toindividual lawmakers. Also, we've written a number of stories on the topicof gambling contributions and those stories can be reviewed from thearchive of General Assembly stories at that site.
You may want to checkspecifically: "Gambling interests gave thousands to lawmakers; donationsgiven to Ehrlich, others supporting slots," which was published Jan. 23;"Gambling interests pour cash into PAC; state Senate president leadsDemocratic group," Feb. 4; "Md. probe of Senate president is ended; stateprosecutor found no violations in Miller's fund-raising practices," Jan.13; "Gambling interests spending millions to influence Md.; lawmakers facescrutiny as slot machine, casino issues are considered," July 10; "GOPfund raising continues in months after Ehrlich's win; companies contributemore than $500,000 since November election," Jan. 17; "Fund-raiser forSteele raises issue of propriety; contractors donate funds; his panel draftstheir rules," which ran Feb. 13.
George Comer, Essex: Did the governor sign the bill making lacrosse thestate team sport?
Morgan: The bill was passed by the legislature but the governor has notindicated whether he will sign it.
Christine, White Hall: Septic system owners are being charged the"flush tax" to help replace waste treatment plants -- why are Marylanders theonly ones paying to clean up the bay when the Susquehanna River dumps intothe bay from Pennsylvania?
Dresser: The money to be raised from septic system users will be put in aspecial fund separate from the sewer upgrade fund. Septic users' paymentswould be used to help owners of failing septics upgrade to cut thepollution from those systems, as well as to fund a "cover crop" programthat would reduce nutrient runoff into the bay. Pennsylvania is a sovereignstate with its own laws. It would be fair to say the bay is a bigger issueto Marylanders than to Pennsylvanians for geographic reasons.
Brian Pace, Manassas, Va.: What's the status of HB 1284, the MedicalDecisions Act?
Dresser: It passed the House overwhelmingly after being amended to include adult couples of any age, whether same-sex or opposite sex. It was defeatedin a Senate committee.
Steve, Crofton: Who do you consider the most ethical and honestlegislators, and who are the worst?
Dresser: Sorry. That question calls for an expression of opinion that goesbeyond the role of a reporter.