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Toll cuts, new laws arrive with start of fiscal year

Maryland motorists will pay lower tolls, local governments no longer have to collect stormwater fees dubbed the "rain tax," and military retirees are getting a larger tax break.

Those are among dozens of state actions taking effect July 1 — fiscal New Year's Day for the state's $40 billion budget.

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Most of the actions come from laws adopted by the General Assembly during the session that ended in April.

Measures taking effect include a bill ensuring county governments and municipalities don't pass local laws about the use of drone aircraft, and another that makes sure people in Annapolis can buy alcoholic beverages on Election Day — an act that was technically prohibited.

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"You can go to the polls and come back and have a cocktail or you can have a cocktail and go to the polls," said John C. Astle, the capital city's state senator.

The toll decreases starting Wednesday are not the result of General Assembly action, but a vote of the Maryland Transportation Authority, chaired by a Hogan appointee who pushed the cuts through.

The governor and his supporters reminded voters who delivered the rollbacks.

"Thanks to Governor Hogan, tolls will go down at every single toll facility in the state. … The first toll reductions in 50 years," read a post on Hogan's Change Maryland Facebook page, which estimated the savings to drivers at $270 million.

The largest cut is for users of the Bay Bridge. The cash toll for the bridge will fall from $6 to $4 for a round trip, while customers using a Maryland-issued E-ZPass will get a larger discount that will reduce their toll from $5.40 to $2.50.

Users of other toll facilities will get breaks for E-ZPass use as the state continues to nudge motorists to use electronic tolling.

Maryland E-ZPass users will see the cost of a round trip on the Key Bridge, Harbor Tunnel and Fort McHenry Tunnel drop from $7.20 to $6, though tolls at those facilities are collected in both directions. Tolls on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, or Interstate 95, and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on U.S. 40 will drop to the same level, though they are collected in one direction.

EZ-Pass charges at other facilities and commuter rates also will decrease.

Not everyone is happy with the moves. Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton of Charles County, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, expressed concern at a hearing this month that the state was turning away money needed to replace the 75-year-old Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland. Tolls on that span were cut too, but not as much as at the Bay Bridge.

Of other laws taking effect Wednesday, the best-known may be elimination of the requirement that Baltimore city and nine large counties — including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard — adopt a stormwater management fee to pay for projects to control runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

Hogan billed the legislation as a repeal of the "rain tax," but it doesn't mean residents of those jurisdictions will see the charges go away. Under the new law, it's simply up to the jurisdictions to decide whether to keep the fees or find some other way to pay for stormwater cleanup.

The measure strengthens the requirement that the city and counties keep up with projects to meet a federal cleanup deadline.

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"Now it's going to really be up to the counties to figure out how to do it," said Karla Raettig, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters of Maryland.

Other Hogan-sponsored initiatives taking effect include raising the income tax exemption for military retirement pay from $5,000 to $10,000 and a measure extending the public financing system Hogan used in his successful 2014 campaign for governor.

One of the most consequential bills will become law without Hogan's signature. It requires the governor to fully fund the Geographical Cost of Education Index, part of the state's education aid funding formula that benefits higher-cost jurisdictions such as Baltimore.

Hogan funded that index at 50 percent in the budget year that begins Wednesday, setting up one of his biggest clashes with the Democratic-led legislature. The requirement for full funding will affect next year's budget.

Many new laws concern alcoholic beverages, such as the one allowing bars in Annapolis to serve thirsty patrons while the polls are open on Election Day. Astle, a Democrat, said the delegation-sponsored bill repeals a ban that hasn't been enforced in decades and was only recently uncovered.

"Every restaurant in Annapolis was open on Election Day in violation of state law," Astle said.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the state brewery trade association, said a local bill affecting Wicomico County gives Evolution Craft Brewing Co. in Salisbury capacity to grow. State law had capped production at each brew pub in Maryland at 22,000 barrels — a level Evolution is quickly approaching.

Previous efforts to increase the cap had failed. This year, Atticks said, lawmakers agreed to raise the brew pub ceiling to 45,000 barrels for Wicomico County only — a level he believes will keep Evolution in Maryland rather than forcing it to relocate.

Atticks said the industry will continue to work for a higher cap for other breweries "one bill at a time."

Another new law seeks to get state policy in line with developments in civilian drone aircraft technology. Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's Democrat, said the new law calls on the executive branch and the University System of Maryland to study the technology and make recommendations to the legislature on how to best regulate it.

In the meantime, local governments will be prohibited from passing their own laws on drone use.

"We think drones are here to stay and the technology is only going to get more flexible," Rosapepe said. "We want Maryland to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems."

The wave of new laws includes one sponsored by a father-daughter Senate-House duo, an apparent first in Maryland.

Introduced by Anne Arundel County Republicans Sen. Bryan Simonaire and Del. Meagan Simonaire, the measure grants a tuition break to victims of human trafficking — those forced into the sex trade — who are trying to get their lives on track by attending community college.

Senator Simonaire credited his daughter with educating him on human-trafficking issues. He said many victims live in Baltimore but don't want to go to college in the city for fear of running into people from their old lives. The law will help them go to school in the counties without having to pay higher tuition rates charged there.

"Education is one of the key parts in helping those who have been human-trafficked," he said.

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Other laws effective July 1

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Food deserts: Allows Baltimore to grant a property tax credit for new supermarkets that locate in what the city considers a "food desert." A report this year defined food deserts as areas where the nearest supermarket is a quarter-mile away, median household incomes are low, more than 30 percent of households lack a vehicle and nutrition is poor. A fourth of Baltimoreans live in such areas.

Tax sales: Raises the minimum overdue debt that would trigger a foreclosure sale of an owner-occupied home in Baltimore from $250 to $750. The bill was backed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Uber bill: Creates a regulatory framework that would allow ride-booking companies such as Uber and Lyft to compete with traditional taxi companies.

Wineries: Dedicates a portion of the Maryland tax on wine sales to promoting the state's growing wine industry and conducting research on grape farming practices. The program is expected to generate about $160,000 for the industry in its first year.

Fertility services: Extends a health insurance coverage mandate for in-vitro infertility treatments to same-sex couples.

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