House bill to cover lead paint Paint tax, rental levy, victims' fund pushed


ANNAPOLIS -- After a decade of fighting with landlords over lead paint poisoning of children, two legislators yesterday said they may have finally concocted a solution to the problem.

All they have to do is persuade the General Assembly to tax the sale of paint, levy a $5 annual fee on every rental unit in the state and agree to protect landlords from being sued by tenants.

The novel legislation, to be introduced next week by Dels. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, and Virginia M. Thomas, D-Howard, would use proceeds from the proposed paint tax and rental fees to finance a Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention and Compensation Fund.

They said they hoped the fund could accrue $15 million to $20 million by the time the program took effect.

Landlords who voluntarily participated in the program would have their properties inspected by the state for the presence of flaking, chipping or peeling paint -- a direct source of lead that affects 4 million children nationwide each year.

Tenants in properties certified as free of loose paint would be asked to sign an agreement barring them from suing the landlords, even if they come to believe that children living in the property have been subsequently poisoned.

Their only recourse would be compensation from a nine-member commission overseeing the lead paint fund. The fund would provide immediate grants allowing the tenants to move quickly to safer housing. It could also make awards to poisoning victims, with amounts determined by the commission on a sliding scale based on the seriousness of the medical problem.

The breakthrough, sponsors and property owners agree, is that landlords would be protected from the unpredictability of lawsuits and court judgments. Many landlords cannot obtain or afford liability insurance against such suits, said Stewart Levitas, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.

Because they fear being sued, landlords often refuse to warn their tenants of possible lead paint hazards, or of precautions they might take to protect their children. "Today, landlords are afraid to even admit there is a problem," Mr. Levitas said.

"Now, if the landlord attempts to educate his tenants, he or she has bought himself or herself a lawsuit," said Ira C. Cooke, lobbyist for the property owners group. If a tenant later becomes poisoned, he said, "They'll say, 'You knew it was there. Why didn't you remove it?' "

Lead poisoning can dull intellectual ability, stunt growth and impair hearing, Delegate Rosenberg said. Untreated, it can result in lifelong problems such as anemia and seizures.

If the legislation were enacted, landlords would be required to inform tenants of their rights and to distribute educational materials that describe how to prevent lead paint poisoning.

While the landlords and advocates for children seem pleased with the compromise bill, paint manufacturers predictably are not.

"Our basic position would be to object to any kind of tax that would single out paint as being the source of lead that could HTC lead to childhood lead poisoning," said David W. Lloyd, director of state affairs for the National Paint and Coatings Association, a trade group representing national paint manufacturers.

"There are so many other sources," he added. "The more information comes to light, the more research is done, the evidence is pointing to other sources."

For example, he said the use of leaded gasoline could contaminate soil along busy highways, and children playing in the dirt and dust could be poisoned that way.

If a special tax is levied on paint sales, he added, it will only be passed on to consumers through higher prices.

Delegate Rosenberg and Mr. Levitas agreed that without the estimated $10 million a year raised through the paint tax, the lead paint fund would not have enough money to operate.

More than two-thirds of Maryland's 612,000 rental may have lead paint, which was once commonly used in residential units. About 85 percent of the housing in Baltimore is believed to contain lead paint, although Mr. Cooke said lead paint in older homes is a problem statewide.

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