Lawmakers OK several bills on Harford agenda


The General Assembly smiled on Harford County during its 90-day session ended Monday.

"We fared better this year than any of the previous seven years that I've been in Annapolis," said Barry Glassman, chairman of the county's legislative delegation.

"We got a 10.9 percent increase in state aid, an increase of $21 million," he said. "That put us in the top tier of counties in terms of the increase. The average for all counties was 9.2 percent."

He added: "We got all of our school priorities. It was the first time that I can remember that we got everything we asked for, and that's due primarily to an improving state economy."

Lawmakers approved a hodge-podge of bills affecting county residents, including funding for a private school for children with learning disabilities; the serving of alcoholic beverages at bed and breakfasts; measures dealing with toxic chemicals in well water; and pay raises for the sheriff and state's attorney.

In a race with the clock on the last night of the session, Del. Charles R. Boutin got a victim's rights bill passed that affects the entire state. His so-called "Laci Peterson bill" allows for a murder charge in the death of an unborn baby. "In Maryland, a guy can beat up his pregnant wife, and if the baby dies, he can only be charged with aggravated assault," said the Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties.

"It's my last bill," he said. "I resign from the legislature on June 30 to take a job with the Public Service Commission. This bill made me feel better about walking out the door."

The lawmakers also approved several education projects, including funding for the continued renovation of North Harford High School; a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for North Harford Middle School; and more portable classrooms for Bel Air-area elementary schools.

Children with learning disabilities will benefit from a $500,000 bond bill that will help finance the design and construction of the Highland School's new building in Creswell.

Legislation dealing with the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, turned out to be a mixed bag.

Lawmakers approved several bills stemming from a gasoline leak that contaminated the drinking water in about 180 wells at homes in the Upper Crossroads section of the county but stopped short of banning the use of the additive.

One of the bills approved would require such facilities as schools and day care centers using nontransient water systems to test for MTBE and to notify parents if there is a finding of more than 20 parts per billion - the level at which the state advises residents to filter their water or to drink bottled water.

The bill stems from a situation at the Fallston Presbyterian Church preschool, where the MTBE level reached 229 parts per billion in March 2003, and parents weren't informed of the problem until after it was corrected.

A second MTBE bill that passed requires local health departments to notify residents within 14 days of an MTBE leak within a half-mile radius of their homes.

Glassman said another approved bill requires the Maryland Department of the Environment to study the economic impact of a ban on the use of MTBE in gasoline and the viability of using an alternative and report back to the General Assembly before the 2006 session.

Residents of the Upper Crossroads area were disappointed, however, that several bills aimed at phasing out the use of MTBE failed to survive.

Steven J. Scheinin, president of the Greater Fallston Association Inc., said the group's members were happy with what the lawmakers were able to achieve but admitted he would have wanted more. "We would like to see the state of Maryland say that we don't need MTBE or any other oxidizer in our gasoline," he said.

The health effects of MTBE on humans are unknown, but it has caused cancer in laboratory animals in high doses.

A bill sponsored by Del. Susan K. McComas, a Republican, that would have allowed town police officers to go beyond their jurisdictional borders to arrest drunk or reckless drivers encountered its own roadblock.

The county's legislative delegation pushed for the passage of the McComas bill, which would have allowed town police officers in Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen to make traffic arrests outside of their jurisdictions.

Glassman said the bill met stiff opposition from Prince George's County lawmakers, who felt that it could have statewide implications.

Other bills passed by the General Assembly with Harford implications include:

A pay raise from $90,000 to $98,500 a year for the sheriff and the county's state's attorney.

An exemption from the 5 percent amusement tax for the Bel Air Roller Rink and farms that offer tours or entertainment such as corn mazes.

Clearance for Fiore Winery in Pylesville to add the production of brandy.

As part of the budget haggling process, Glassman said the governor backed down from a previous threat to pass the $21 million cost of teachers' pensions from the state to the county. "It was another sign that the state's economy is improving," he said.

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