If terrorists blew up a building or unleashed a biological attack in Maryland, the governor could suspend some laws and assume control over local police and health care professionals under a proposal in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's security package.
The bill would allow the governor to delegate that sweeping authority to any person he or she chose. Residents who disobeyed orders from the governor or the designee could face up to three years in prison.
"Even if we didn't have [the Sept. 11 attacks], these changes are worth making to clarify the governor's powers," Robert Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who advises the legislature, told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee yesterday.
Package of bills
But some legislators said the proposal would give the governor too much power and does not clearly say how that authority would be used.
"What if the governor had full confidence in his or her treasurer, and you had a biological attack, and the governor appoints the treasurer to take charge?" asked Del. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican.
The committee heard testimony on three of the nine bills in the governor's package, including measures to create a 15-member state security council and to urge cooperation among local jurisdictions during a crisis.
Other bills would make it easier for authorities to tap criminal suspects' telephones and establish stiffer penalties for fraud and identity theft.
The package is backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
But some committee members indicated the bill dealing with the governor's powers needs changes if they are to back it.
The bill includes a provision giving the state health secretary authority to quarantine people and take other action during an outbreak of infectious, contagious or communicable disease.
Some delegates said that would appear to allow the secretary to take drastic measures for an outbreak of the flu.
"I thought HIV was a communicable disease," Brinkley said. "Are we saying this [disease] fits into a health emergency that gives the governor all these new powers?"
Pamela Metz Kasemeyer of the state medical society said the bill needs to be amended so health officials could not use it to restrict the civil liberties of people infected with disease.
Del. Joanne S. Parrott questioned the need for the proposed 15-member security council, which would help the state prepare for a crisis.
The council would hire a director and four staff persons at a cost of $272,000 a year.
"How will the director keep busy for the 12 months out of the year when there is no disaster?" asked Parrott, a Harford County Republican.