City election change moves forward in House

A measure to move Baltimore's election to the presidential cycle was among scores of bills that cleared the House of Delegates during a rare Saturday session, setting the stage for MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeand the current city council to be in office for an additional year.

Other legislation receiving House approval included a lower charge for those caught with small amounts of marijuana and a bill that would require helmets for motor scooter drivers. Delegates also had a testy debate on a provision that would allow expedited court procedures for some developers.

The House faces a deadline to pass bills by Monday if lawmakers want swift consideration in the Senate. House bills passed after Monday will face additional procedural hurdles.

The legislation that would most directly affect city residents changes the next primary election from 2015 to 2016, when the president and members of Congress are on the ballot. The Senate has passed a similar measure, though both chambers must vote again on the bills. And the city would have to approve another measure to move the general election to that year.

Baltimore politicians now benefit from having an election cycle that is out of sync with the rest of the state because it allows lawmakers to run for higher office without giving up their current office.

Last year's record low turnout for city elections prompted leaders to push for a change to the cycle. However there are many, including Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller, who think Baltimore should be on the gubernatorial schedule, just like all of the state's 23 counties.

"It doesn't make sense," Miller said Friday night, but he allowed a similar bill out of his chamber.

"Baltimore city wants to be treated like the major counties in every other way except this," Miller said. "It is a large subdivision and their people should be voting when there is the most turnout."

Baltimore Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, the bill's sponsor in the House, said city politicians have always had an advantage with the off-cycle election, and he did not want to remove that perk by putting the city in line with the gubernatorial schedule.

Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, said the new schedule ensures a measure of independence for the mayor and city council. In other counties, she said, a powerful state senator can run as a team with delegate and county council candidates — an arrangement that concentrates power in the state. The bill passed 129 to 0, with all of the city delegates present supporting it.

Another bill to receive final House approval allows a lower penalty for marijuana possession under seven ounces, and is intended to keep the less serious drug possession cases out of the circuit courts. It is backed by Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, a Democrat.

The bill would still leave prosecutors with an option to charge a higher drug possession offense — carrying a one-year sentence. "It helps with efficiency in the courts," said Baltimore Del. Luke Clippinger, who sponsored the bill. Clippinger also works as an Anne Arundel County prosecutor, and said he has seen first-hand how the circuit court docket can be clogged with minor cases.

The day's most spirited debate came on the issue of whether developers helping the state with some projects should have access to an expedited legal process. That provision is in an administration bill pushed by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown that sets up a framework for public-private partnerships.

The measure would be retroactive, and therefore help Maryland push through a legal tangle that has stalled the State Center project near Bolton Hill in Baltimore.

"What we have here is the worst type of sweetheart deal," thundered Del. Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who wanted the provision erased.

Defenders of the provision, including Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, argued that the current legal process can be onerous and stifle business. "Time is money in development," McIntosh said. "We don't want our regulations to drive business out of Baltimore."

The provision stayed in the bill, as the House gave its initial nod to the public-private partnership plan.

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