The 2002 Session of the Maryland General Assembly ended at midnight on April 8. I am pleased to present to you this summary of key issues that we addressed.
THE BUDGET: Governor Parris Glendening submitted to the General Assembly a $22 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2003. His proposed budget far outpaced expected revenues. To bridge the gap, the Governor reduced the state's reserve fund from $888.2 million to the required minimum of $500 million. Legislators restored $5 million in the Emergency Medical System Fund, thanks largely to outcries from all parts of the state, including Montgomery County's fire departments.
As Senate Chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Welfare Reform, I objected to the Governor's proposed removal of $50 million from a special fund to help welfare recipients to obtain and retain their jobs, leaving just $760,000 for this purpose. $11 million was restored to this account.
The General Assembly approved a $21.6 billion state budget for FY 2003, reducing the Governor's proposal by $370 million — but still $400 million above the $21.2 billion budget for FY 2002. The budget honors the 2 percent final payment on the 10 percent income tax reduction promised to Marylanders in 1997. $160 million in new money goes for public schools. Aid to state universities and colleges increases by $46 million. $42 million goes to the Rural Legacy, GreenPrint and Community Parks/Playgrounds programs.
TOBACCO SETTLEMENT: The Governor reached an agreement with attorney Peter Angelos to settle a three-year dispute over legal fees for the state's tobacco lawsuit. Angelos will receive $150 million over five years. This frees $123 million from an escrow account with Angelos receiving $30 million and $93 million going into the state budget.
Special thanks go to Andy Klingenstein of Potomac and Jeff Hooke of Chevy Chase whose citizen action group spurred both sides to settlement.
CIGARETTE TAX FOR SCHOOLS: The cigarette tax will increase by 34 cents, making the total sales tax $1 for a pack of cigarettes. Most of the proceeds will go toward a public school funding plan, based on recommendations by the Thornton Commission, to assure that Maryland's 24 school systems have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.
The approved Thornton plan calls for state spending for public schools to increase by $1.3 billion over the next six years. School systems must provide full-day kindergarten for all children by 2007-2008. Montgomery County will receive $152.4 million, which is an $84.8 million increase over the Thornton Commission's original recommendation of $67.6 million.
Revenues from the cigarette tax will cover most of the first two years of increased aid. Beyond that, the General Assembly must approve a joint resolution each year, affirming that Maryland has sufficient funds for the next installment of aid.
TRANSPORTATION: The General Assembly approved a joint resolution requesting the Governor to resume the environmental impact study of the Intercounty Connector (ICC), which he brought to a halt in 1997. Another joint resolution urges the Governor to proceed with planning for the Inner Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton and across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to Alexandria.
Tougher drunk driving laws were approved, which qualify the State for $7 million per year in federal highway construction funds. Passengers are prohibited from holding an open container containing an alcoholic beverage with violators subject to a fine of $25. A person, who is convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol more than once within a five-year period, will face a one-year driver's license suspension and must use an ignition interlock for up to one year as a condition of license restoration.
Intentionally fleeing the scene of an accident involving serious bodily injury or death will be a felony.
Children will be required to ride in a booster seat until their sixth birthday.
Unfortunately, a bill to stiffen penalties for trucks and trucking companies that knowingly load their vehicles in unsafe ways, failed to pass.
CAREFIRST BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD: The General Assembly placed tight limits on the proposed conversion of CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield, the health insurer for over 3 million people, to a for-profit company and its sale to Wellpoint Health Networks, Inc., of Calif. We require that the conversion is in the public’s best interest among other provisions.
THE MARYLAND SECURITY Protection Act of 2002 permits the use of a "roving wiretap" to record a suspect's conversations on multiple phones with a single warrant. Currently, investigators must get court permission for each phone line they wish to tap, which allows criminals to buy cheap cell phones and throw them away after a few calls. A bill, which I sponsored, to add an unlawful terrorist act to the list of crimes in which a law enforcement officer may wiretap, did not pass. It was argued that current wiretapping law covers such crimes.
TASK FORCE to Study Putting Utility Lines Underground: The General Assembly approved this bill, which I sponsored with Del. Charles Boutin of Harford County on behalf of the Maryland Municipal League. Many communities with overhead power lines supported this bill — and it could be helpful in Potomac.
PROPERTY TAX — Petition for Review Outside of Assessment Cycle: Municipalities, counties and the Attorney General will no longer be able to appeal a real property tax assessment outside of an assessment cycle. Montgomery routinely seeks to appeal a property tax assessment when a property sells for significantly more than the current assessment. About $5 million a year has accrued to the county from this practice.
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS: The General Assembly closed a loophole in state law by changing the date for the filing of annual campaign finance reports from November to late January. This ensures timely disclosure of money raised in the weeks before the session begins. Passage of this bill was one of my top priorities.
SCOTLAND COMMUNITY CENTER: No bond bills were approved this year, including a bill to help fund the renovation of the Scotland Community Center, which I sponsored with Del. Jean Cryor (R-15). However, the bill did call attention to the longstanding need for renovating this center in the historic Scotland community.