Assembly good to Leopold

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold rolled off several significant legislative victories as the General Assembly came to a close this week, including long-sought-after reform of the school board selection process and a ban on panhandling along county roads.

The Leopold administration salvaged a bill to extend the statute of limitations, from one year to three years, for criminal building violations within 1,000 feet of the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, an area commonly referred to as the "critical area."

A key provision inserted Friday would require Anne Arundel homeowners accused of building violations to declare that when listing their house for sale.

Elsewhere, the county also got a budget boost with state passage of a record $27.8 million for school construction projects and $11.2 million to preserve open space.

The county executive also successfully lobbied to make permanent a state program to help residents purify well water that is contaminated with radium. The only piece of his five-part legislative agenda to fail was a request for state authority to impose a rental-car tax targeting out-of-state visitors.

"That's a good percentage that even Ted Williams would be pleased about," Leopold said.

In his first go-round as county executive, Leopold pushed through what he couldn't in 20 years in the House of Delegates: a school-board bill that requires the governor to select members from a list drafted by a nominating committee and mandates a retention vote for new members.

The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. John C. Astle, was viewed as a compromise between backers of the existing system and an elected board.

Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a College Park Democrat whose district includes part of West County, said the bill "will give the public more of a voice in the Board of Education and guarantee representation for the western part of the county."

But Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, a Pasadena Republican who pressed a competing bill for a directly elected board, said he would decide within the next week whether to pursue a nonbinding referendum on Astle's measure. Simonaire said that his bill, unlike the one supported by Astle and Leopold, "had wide support," but the freshman senator said he will consult Leopold and county lawmakers first before making his decision.

The bill to outlaw panhandling proved almost as divisive, after it was amended to prohibit people displaying "any message," including advertising and campaign signs, from standing along public roads.

Del. Tony McConkey, a Severna Park Republican, supported the original bill but questioned whether the amended version would hold up under a legal challenge.

"What if President Bush came to Annapolis to visit the legislature?" he said. "Under this bill, people who wanted to protest or show their support for their president along the route technically couldn't do that. And I think that's unconstitutional."

Leopold pushed for an outright ban less than a year after he guided through legislation that allowed the county to prohibit minors from panhandling. The County Council followed through, but county officials said that adult solicitors made up the lion's share of the problem.

Leopold said that the bill was thoroughly vetted by county lawyers and that he has been assured by other legal experts that the bill isn't an unlawful infringement on free speech.

Tim Reyburn, president of the West County Federation, said its passage serves "as an excellent example of a grass-roots effort."

Opponents, which included the county's firefighters union and some charitable groups, had asked for exceptions for participants of fundraising campaigns.

"We have panhandlers and prostitutes, and it's just out of control," said Del. Barbara A. Frush, a Beltsville Democrat. "Our constituents came to us and asked for help, and we did our best to accommodate their needs."

County leaders sought the local critical area bill because under current law, they had only a year from the time the illegal structure was completed to press criminal charges against critical area scofflaws.

Leopold said that once Gov. Martin O'Malley signs the bill into law, the county executive would advertise the information about the seller's notification clause on the county Web site in hopes of protecting purchasers.

On education, the county will receive about $3 million each to help pay for the completion of Gambrills Area Elementary School, a new science wing at Arundel High School and a revitalization of Severna Park Middle School. The district received about $6 million more than last year.

George Margolies, the school district's chief of staff, said school officials were disheartened that an effort to require the state to provide extra money to districts in areas with a higher cost of living failed. Anne Arundel schools would have been among 13 school districts to benefit.

The district also received $266.5 million from the state for its operating budget, a $28.7 million jump from the year before. The state typically provides 28 percent of the district's operating cost. The school board has passed the district's $940 million budget and is awaiting word of Leopold's budget

Sun reporters Ruma Kumar and Dan Lamothe contributed to this article.

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