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 a cost-of-living-raise in the last three years. Did state employees get the 1.6 percent raise and/or step increases?
Dresser: State employees received a $752-per-person pay raise, equivalent to an average 1.6 percent increase. It was structured this way to benefit lower-paid workers.
Steve Metts, Baltimore: With Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller stating, "We're facing a fiscal hell next year," and his knowledge that even if approved, slots wouldn't provide any revenue for the next two fiscal years, why is he opposed to the proposed sales tax increase that would generate revenue?
Dresser: Miller is not opposed to raising the sales tax but has said it is futile for the Senate to pass one when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has stated he will veto any increase. The Senate president said he could have convinced 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 General Assembly to pass legislation in the year 2005 that authorizes 10,000 slots machines under the Maryland Stadium Authority operation to be in one location in each county?
Nitkin: Unlike in California and several other states, there is no provision in Maryland law for voters to petition issues to referendum. The law does allow, however, for voters to gather signatures to petition to referendum a law approved by the General Assembly, for the purposes of overturning it.
Rocco Rotondo Jr., Parkville: Why can't there be a referendum vote for slots? Wouldn't that be a fair way to vote on slots? That way, everyone gets their view in, and whatever area wins, they get the slots in their jurisdiction. The governor does not want this -- he will surely lose. Most people who want slots are Republicans, but they don't want slots in their area.
Libit: Del. Shane Pendergrass of Howard County introduced a bill to hold that kind of slots referendum, and there was talk in the final days of the legislature that it could be supported in the House. But the Senate president and the governor both opposed it, saying that an election delayed slots too much. The governor also says that his victory in 2002 should be considered a referendum on slots.
Howard Gorrell, Westminster: Why didn't The Sun cover any legislative bill regarding child support?
Nitkin: About 2,500 bills and resolutions are introduced in the General Assembly each year, and we spend much of our time deciding which issues to cover. Only about 20 percent become law. Typically, we try to focus on issues 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 the baltimoresun.com and the General Assembly Web site -- so they can track issues on their own.
Keith Zumbrun, Glen Arm: Did the motorcycle helmet bill that would not require helmets pass?
Wilson: The helmet bill, Senate Bill 611, emerged from the Senate on April 6, after the crossover deadline. It was held up in the House Rules Committee and did not make it out of committee in time for consideration by the full House of Delegates. So it was not passed by the legislature.
Donna Disbrow, Columbia: Will it cost me extra to flush the toilet every time I go? What is going on with this state? What's next -- a tax for expelling human gas, just so we can punish ourselves for contributing to the Greenhouse Effect? Priorities are askew; tax the corporations and developers for bringing extra noise, pollution and traffic into our communities instead of taxing -- or overtaxing -- the middle class. The Assembly can do better than this.
Dresser: The so-called "flush tax" is a flat $2.50-a-month surcharge on residential sewer bills.
Jennifer Dean, Arnold: How will teen-agers be affected by new taxes and fees?
Nitkin: Teen-agers are not specifically singled out, but various motor vehicle fees will certainly impact you. If you are a teen who pays his or her own car registration, or if you lose your driver's license and decide to appeal the decision, you will pay more to state government.
Jim Etchison, Crofton: What was the final resolution on corporations in Maryland that pay no state taxes. Was this large loophole closed ... or even addressed?
Nitkin: The General Assembly adopted legislation to close the so-called Delaware holding company loophole, which allows corporations to establish shell corporations in states that do not tax assets derived from intellectual property such as patents and trademarks. In addition, a bill passed granting amnesty to companies that would owe back taxes, estimated to total about $80 million. Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer opposes the amnesty provision, and Ehrlich will make the final decision.
Fred Bealefeld Jr., Pasadena: Do I have to pay the sewage bill? I have a septic system.
Dresser: Septic system users will be charged an equivalent fee of $30 yearly, but the charge will be delayed until October 2005 while the state determines how to collect it. The money will be used to upgrade sewer systems and for other measures to protect the Chesapeake Bay from nutrient pollution.
Maude Jacobs, Annapolis: I understand that the bill extending the life of the Maryland historic preservation tax program has been approved. My question is: Are there any specific changes to the existing program?
Dresser: The commercial projects financed by the historic tax credit have been capped at $30 million a year. Baltimore, which had been receiving about 90 percent of the credits, will be capped at 50 percent. In addition, 10 percent of the money for commercial projects will be reserved for nonprofits.
M.R. Stoudt, Germantown: With all the carping about new revenue sources, why was there no consideration of a state automobile inspection? The General Assembly had no problem increasing the registration fee, but with all the barely road-worthy cars in this state, a $30 annual fee plus repair cost would serve to increase revenues and safety. Pennsylvania has had it for decades.
Dresser: There was no consideration given to using vehicle inspections as a revenue source. The state has an emissions inspection program, but even its relatively modest fees are controversial. A separate inspection program, with fees high enough to raise revenue for projects, would have little General Assembly support.
Cindy Stacy, Swanton: What are the revisions, or at least the most significant revisions, to the state's nutrient management program for agriculture?
Libit: Within the "flush tax" bill, the Assembly included several big changes to the nutrient management program. The "right-of-entry" authority of the Department of Agriculture was repealed, and the paperwork burden was reduced for both farmers and the department. The department was also given some more flexibility in setting standards for farmers, with the hope that more of them will try to comply with the law.
David Garmin, Baltimore: Was any legislation passed relative to landlords and 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 them access. The bill would also require a separate evidentiary hearing and allow legal discovery in a case where a landlord's immunity from liability is 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 mass release of balloons a crime, subject to $500 fines. It is named for the pygmy sperm whale that had ingested plastic and a Mylar balloon, was rescued 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 House Judiciary Committee in March, and therefore did not become law.
Dan Welsh, Forest Hill: Was funding approved for the bill that was passed several 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 past two years, Ehrlich has not provided funding for the program in his budgets, and the General Assembly can't add money to fund the program, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Ron Thomas, Timonium: What happened with the three educator retirement bills: retired teachers returning as teachers to same system? Retired principals returning as principals to same system? Retired teachers/principals going to work in another state agency?
Rockoff: The program allowing retired teachers and principals to return to work for a regular salary and collect their pension will expire because legislators failed to reach an agreement on reforming and renewing it. That means that teachers and principals who retired, say, from the Baltimore County schools can't go back to work full time in the Baltimore County schools without losing some of their pensions. They can go to work for a different 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 -- nor could it. Legislators' salaries are set every four years by an independent commission and go into effect without a vote unless legislators take action to decrease it.
Christina Salla, Millers: Is anything being done to help the Chesapeake Bay ecosystems?
Dresser: Besides the imposition of the "flush tax," lawmakers passed bills designed to increase energy efficiency and encourage the use of renewable energy sources. They also tightened the laws protecting environmentally sensitive "critical areas" from development.
J.Brown, Windsor Mill: The vehicle tag fee increase bill -- when does this go into effect?
Nitkin: The bill takes effect July 1.
Melvin Boteler, Glen Burnie: The "flush tax" legislation appears to be directed only at home owners. Does it have any effect on commercial enterprises such as office buildings or malls or facilities contributing high volumes to the sewage system?
Dresser: The "flush tax" applies to commercial enterprises as well as residences. Commercial users of sewer systems will pay a fee based on a formula 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 used by many developers when selling property and put the proceeds toward school construction, passed the House but died in a Senate committee.
George V. Edwards, Essex: I will not take the vehicle fee increase lying down. This is robbery -- "give me your money or your vehicle." Is there any organized opposition to repeal this law or remove the governor like they did in California?
Dresser: Robin Ficker, a Montgomery County, anti-tax crusader, is apparently trying to mount a challenge to Ehrlich, but otherwise there is little organized opposition.
Ed Warzel, Anne Arundel: Where and how can an individual get a tally of each 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 Web site at http://mlis.state.md.us. The problem with this is that you would have to go through each bill and check each roll call vote. It would be a daunting task to compile the record of even one legislator because each casts hundreds of votes during the course of a session -- most of them on bills that generate no controversy.
Joe Fields, Pasadena: Could you please give me a roll call on slots vs. tax increases? Who voted which way and their party affiliation?
Dresser: There was no roll call that posed the question of slots versus tax increases. No slots bill came to the floor of the House. There was a slots vote 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 that ran Feb. 28, and the House tax vote, in a story that ran March 26. You may review the stories and attached roll calls -- which included party identification -- 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 the number of a bill for which you want to see the voting results. Votes are typically recorded at the end of the page. The roll call votes do not include party affiliation, but you can cross-reference that against the biographies on the Web site.
Mike D., Baltimore: What kind of influence do legislative staff and analysts have on shaping legislative policies during the legislative session? 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 the world a different way.) The legislative analysts tend to lay out options rather than make recommendations, but when their advice is sought they can be very influential.
Allan Holtzman, Monkton: Why don't you make a list of the changes in county taxes per county because of the governor's failure to compromise on sales or 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 of government rather than dealing with it as he should. Taxes are not as bad as lies and ideology!
The other list I'd like to see is the Maryland delegates and state senators who have accepted contributions from racing and gaming interests. Then, we would have a "scorecard" to give us more of a "perspective" on why some of "our" delegates and senators are voting. And don't forget to list the campaign contributions the governor has taken from gaming and racing interests.
Morgan: Changes, if any, in county taxes will be made by each jurisdiction in 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 tax increases. As for campaign contributions, baltimoresun.com/assembly has a link to various databases through which you can look up donations to individual lawmakers. Also, we've written a number of stories on the topic of gambling contributions and those stories can be reviewed from the archive of General Assembly stories at that site.
You may want to check specifically: "Gambling interests gave thousands to lawmakers; donations given to Ehrlich, others supporting slots," which was published Jan. 23; "Gambling interests pour cash into PAC; state Senate president leads Democratic group," Feb. 4; "Md. probe of Senate president is ended; state prosecutor found no violations in Miller's fund-raising practices," Jan. 13; "Gambling interests spending millions to influence Md.; lawmakers face scrutiny as slot machine, casino issues are considered," July 10; "GOP fund raising continues in months after Ehrlich's win; companies contribute more than $500,000 since November election," Jan. 17; "Fund-raiser for Steele raises issue of propriety; contractors donate funds; his panel drafts their rules," which ran Feb. 13.
George Comer, Essex: Did the governor sign the bill making lacrosse the state team sport?
Morgan: The bill was passed by the legislature but the governor has not indicated 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 the only ones paying to clean up the bay when the Susquehanna River dumps into the bay from Pennsylvania?
Dresser: The money to be raised from septic system users will be put in a special fund separate from the sewer upgrade fund. Septic users' payments would be used to help owners of failing septics upgrade to cut the pollution from those systems, as well as to fund a "cover crop" program that would reduce nutrient runoff into the bay. Pennsylvania is a sovereign state with its own laws. It would be fair to say the bay is a bigger issue to Marylanders than to Pennsylvanians for geographic reasons.
Brian Pace, Manassas, Va.: What's the status of HB 1284, the Medical Decisions 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 defeated in a Senate committee.
Steve, Crofton: Who do you consider the most ethical and honest legislators, and who are the worst?
Dresser: Sorry. That question calls for an expression of opinion that goes beyond the role of a reporter.