Delegate who helped kill pit bull bill seeks special session

Three days after the General Assembly ended its 2013 legislative session, there's already a call to bring lawmakers back to Annapolis for what would be their fourth special session in a two-year span.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, wrote Gov. Martin O'Malley Thursday asking him to call a special session to resolve the issue of how to deal with an unpopular Court of Appeals ruling that pit bulls were "inherently dangerous" and that their owners and their owners' landlords could be held to a standard of "strict liability" when one of the animals bites a person.

Animal advocates say the ruling has prompted landlords, homeowners' associations and condo board to adopt policies excluding pit bulls to avoid lawsuits. The advocates said that as a result, many people have been forced to choose between their homes and their pets -- with many pit bulls being left at shelters to be euthanized.

The legislature appeared on the verge of resolving that issue and letting landlords off the hook Monday when negotiators for the House and Senate, which passed starkly different bills, came to an agreement on a compromise. The Senate approved the deal, but when the conference committee report reached the House floor, Kramer led a successful effort to block House approval with a withering interrogation of lead House negotiator Del. Kathleen Dumais, another Montgomery County Democrat. The confrontation ended in a shouting match when Kramer accused Dumais of misrepresenting details of the issue.

With time soon to expire and other bills backed up behind it, House Speaker Michael E. Busch pulled the bill off the agenda, later explaining that the votes weren't there to ratify the deal.

Now Kramer wants a do-over. He urged O'Malley to meet with Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to immediately bring lawmakers back for what he said could be a one-day session to "stop the carnage."

Such a session would be the second to take up the pit bull issue in the past year. During last year's special session, which mainly dealt with gambling issues, the House and Senate tried but failed to reach agreement on an approach to dog owners' liability. That disagreement, in which senators favored a stricter liability standard to protect bite victims and delegates took the side of pet owners, carried over into the session that just ended. With the congressional  redistricting session in the fall of 2011, a new session to deal with dogs would make four in two years.

Kramer acknowledged his role in scuttling the deal that could have spared many of the animals being turned over to shelters.

"I'm the guy who worked to kill the conference committee report on the floor because it was a terrible product," he said. Along with others, he objected to the agreement's strict liability standard that would have applied to all dog owners in cases where their pets bit children 12 and under.

Kramer said the House and Senate could avoid the disagreements that prevented them from agreeing this year by confining the legislation to the issue of limiting landlords' liability in pit bull cases -- a matter the two chambers agreed on. He suggested that the question of which liability standard should apply for dog owners could be put aside until next year's session.

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor would have no comment on whether there would be a special session before he talked with the delegate, Busch and Miller.

Dumais' reaction to Kramer's suggestion was more blunt: "He's lost his mind."

Dumais said the conference committee report wasn't perfect but was a "rational and reasonable compromise." There is no reason to believe that the House and Senate would easily agree to Kramer's suggestion in a single-day session, she said. Nor, she added, would it be easy to explain to taxpayers why they should bear the costs of a special session to deal only with the dog issue.

"I'm not sure we can. That's an analysis that has to be done. I don't know that it can be justified," she said.

Tami Santelli, Maryland director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the group would support fixing the problem in a special session. But she found some irony in the fact it is Kramer urging that action because she said her group wanted to see the compromise bill passed and warned Kramer and other opponents of the ramifications of killing it.

"I think there would need to be a clear agreement before anybody could argue that it would be worth it to come back for a special session," Santelli said.

Dumais said some dog owners who listened to the end of the House session were appalled to hear the members making guest introductions and talking about non-legislative matters with the legislation still pending. She said citizens were especially offended when someone in the House chamber started playing "Who Let the Dogs Out" as time expired.

"This is a very serious matter to those individuals that own dogs," she said.

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