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Maryland senator Zirkin sees successful legislative session

It was quite a legislative session for Bobby Zirkin, the Maryland state senator who represents northwest Baltimore County.

For the first time in his 17 years in Annapolis, Zirkin was a select member of the inner circle by virtue of his selection as chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

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It's a huge responsibility that gives the area's state senator far greater influence with his colleagues, Senate President Mike Miller and Gov. Larry Hogan.

If Zirkin's Baltimore County district needs something from Annapolis, he's in a prime position to make it happen.

The change thrust Zirkin into the role of "the man to see" on bills coming before his committee. It will likely help his campaign fundraising, too.

"I underestimated how much time it would take" compared to his previous duties in the legislature, said Zirkin, who also practices law from an office on Owings Mills Boulevard.

Being chairman "is unbelievably time-consuming.

"Everybody — legislators, lobbyists and special interests — wants to meet with you before the hearing on their bill, during the hearing and after the hearing."

Thus, he noted, his biggest challenge was time management.

Zirkin didn't realize how much committee members rely on the chairman for guidance and leadership. That's especially true when none of the senators has expertise on a particular issue.

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"They look to the chairman for direction and advice. I had to study up on some of these issues. You don't want to do the wrong thing."

Zirkin is especially proud "the committee came together" without any partisanship. "We worked these bills 'till everyone was comfortable" with the end product, he said.

For instance, the panel had trouble with a bill passed by the House allowing police to operate body cameras. A wide range of issues that could have made the bill unworkable hadn't been addressed.

"We spent four days amending the bill so that everyone was satisfied," said the chairman. The final version met approval from Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. It passed the committee 11-0.

Zirkin was impressed the panel took on issues "that had not been touched in decades. I've never seen a committee tackle so many big bills."

This included a bill doubling the amount — from $200,000 to $400,000 — aggrieved citizens can collect from the state or local governments if there is police abuse.

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A loophole in last year's effort to ease the state's marijuana law was closed. It is now legal to possess marijuana paraphernalia.

Judges were given discretion when they impose jail time for drug offenses, instead of being locked in by rigid, mandatory-minimum prison terms.

Maryland's strict divorce laws were eased a bit so a childless couple that has worked out a settlement does not have to wait a year or two — they can get a divorce immediately.

Four bills designed to deter domestic violence also passed Zirkin's committee.

A measure imposing a two-year ban on the gas-drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," will give the state time to study environmental fallout from such drilling.

And finally, minor, youthful offenses now can be expunged from an individual's record so it doesn't become an impediment to finding a job.

Locally, Zirkin has been working behind the scenes to smooth the way for Stevenson University's takeover of the state's Rosewood Hospital property adjacent to Stevenson's growing Owings Mills campus.

Completing that deal in the months ahead — which is complicated by a costly environmental cleanup the state must undertake — would make Zirkin's legislative year even more of a success.

Barry Rascovar of Reisterstown can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com. He write a political blog, http://www.politicalmaryland.com.

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