O'Malley signs pre-K, dog-bite bills

Just hours after the General Assembly wrapped up its 90-day session, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation Tuesday that will expand pre-kindergarten education and lift the "inherently dangerous" legal stigma from the pit bulls of Maryland.

O'Malley, flanked by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, put his pen to a bill that will fund pre-K for an additional 1,600 low-income youngsters at a cost of $4.3 million.

By highlighting the pre-K bill, O'Malley took advantage of an opportunity to showcase the work of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the governor's choice to succeed him when he leaves office in January. Brown, who joined the governor at the signing table, pushed for passage of the measure and has made a further expansion a central theme of his campaign for the Democratic nomination in the June 24 primary.

Brown said the legislation would help close the achievement gap between low-income students and other children. He said it is a step toward his goal of pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds in Maryland.

A rival for the nomination, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, staked his claim to the issue. As officials and advocates gathered for the official photo of the bill-signing, Gansler — who has released his own pre-K plan — squeezed into a prime position just behind Busch. After the signing, Gansler passed behind Brown on the way back to his seat. The two ignored each other.

The governor signed 110 bills into law at Tuesday's ceremony. Similar ceremonies to sign other bills are expected in the coming weeks.

During almost eight years in office, O'Malley has cast few vetoes for policy reasons. This year there is one bill about which he has expressed serious misgivings — a measure restricting the construction of energy-generating wind turbines in the vicinity of the Patuxent naval air station. The governor said Monday night that he's still considering whether to sign it.

Most of the laws O'Malley signed Tuesday were narrow in scope, but one has been the subject of passionate debate among dog lovers for the past two years.

That measure negates a 2012 Court of Appeals ruling that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous" and must be held to a stricter liability standard than other dogs. Animal advocates objected to the court's decision to treat pit bulls differently, but the case also put a spotlight on Maryland's law making it difficult for dog-bite victims to collect damages from dog owners.

The legislation passed by the legislature this year — after failed attempts to reach agreement between the Senate and House in 2012 and 2013 — applies the same legal standard to all dogs. It shifts the burden of proof to the owner to show that there was no previous reason to believe a dog was dangerous. Previously, the burden had been on the bite victim.

The legislation also makes it more difficult for victims of pit bull attacks to sue landlords. The court decision had opened the door to such suits, and animal advocates contended that people were being given the choice of losing their homes or giving up their pets.

Tami Santelli, Maryland director of the Humane Society of the United States, said she was thrilled finally to be waiting in line to have her picture taken at the signing of a law she had advocated for two years.

"It will stop people being kicked out of their homes just because of the dog they have, and finally pets will stop being surrendered to animal shelters just because of the ruling," she said.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said he originally thought it would be an "easy fix" to undo the ruling and never expected that it would take two years.

"I'm very relieved. It's a good bill. It's fair to pet owners. It's fair to victims. It's fair to landlords," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is leaving the state Senate to run for attorney general.


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