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Votes

Delegates Negate Vetoes, Look Ahead

"Wal-Mart Bill” gets attention, but Potomac reps see variety of issues.

Part of continuing coverage of Potomac representatives’ plans for the 2006 Maryland legislative session, which convened Jan. 9. For previews focusing on other legislators, visit www.potomacalmanac.com.

It’s possible that Maryland legislators just like controversy.

Last year, lawmakers convened for a special session the week after Christmas to deal with medical malpractice insurance reform. Little was resolved, but the issue, which spilled into the first month of the January, 2005 session echoed a national debate.

This year, the General Assembly began with override votes for two controversial vetoes: one of a $1 per hour minimum wage increase, and one of the Fair Share Health Care Fund Act which would require companies that have 10,000 or more employees to spend 6 percent of their payrolls on healthcare benefits or pay into a public Medicare fund. Fair Share has been dubbed the “Wal-Mart Bill” because Wal-Mart is the only company that would be affected by the legislation. (At least two other employers — Giant Food and Johns Hopkins University — have 10,000 employees, but they already meet the bill’s standards.) The bill has drawn national media attention.

Both veto overrides were successful and the original legislation will become law. The General Assembly was slated to vote on additional veto overrides, including bills dealing with early voting and voter verification on Jan. 17, after the Almanac’s press time.

All of Montgomery County’s representatives, including lone Republican Jean Cryor (R-15), who represents Potomac, supported the overrides.

Delegates reported being relieved to have dealt with the controversial overrides at the outset of the session so that they can move on to pursuing the budget, local issues, and their own legislative agendas on issues ranging from biotechnology to identity theft.

* Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-15)

Committee assignments: Judiciary Committee, Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

Planned legislation: Dumais deals with family law in her private law practice and has focused much of her attention on family law issues in the legislature as well. She will introduce a bill this year that gives courts authority to transfer title to real property in divorce proceedings. By law, assets are divided equally in most divorce cases in Maryland.

"If it’s a jointly titled piece of property, the only the authority the court has is to order it sold," Dumais said. Her bill would mirror provisions in all of Maryland's neighbor states and allow the court to order title transfer as long as the equity is balanced against other assets.

"It's really just giving the court one more tool to use in a disposition of property," she said.

Another bill would supply procedures for handling cases of juveniles found not competent to stand trial. Last year, Dumais helped pass legislation that set standards for determining competency.

"The good news in all of the partisan bickering that has been going on over the last few years, is that over the summer there has been an informal work group" addressing juvenile welfare issues and working to repair what Dumais described as a deeply troubled system in Maryland.

"It was one of, quote, the pillars of the governor's platform when he ran — improving juvenile services," she said. "To be honest I think that’s something that’s not happened."

The third major bill deals with adult competency.

"It's basically going to set up a review so that an adult doesn’t get determined incompetent and sent to an institution and then falls through the cracks," she said. Dumais raised the example of adults who are not dangerous but found not competent to stand trial for minor offenses such as trespassing or minor theft.

"In some cases [they] ended up staying in the institution longer than the sentence would have been because there wasn’t ... a review process in place," she said.

Other issues: "In the Judiciary Committee, one of the things we’re going to hear a great deal about is the bill that strengthens our laws about dealing with sexual predators." Currently there are competing bills, Dumais said, but "I think we’re going to get something out on that issue that’s important regardless of whose name is on it."

On partisanship: "[In District 15,] we all work together incredibly well, all four of us. I have nothing but respect for Jean Cryor as well as Rob [Garagiola] and Brian [Feldman]."

At the end of her first term, Dumais said that with greater experience "you understand the importance of developing relates with the other legislators both within your committee and across the other aisles. You get a lot more done when everybody’s focused on problem solving. ... Maybe I'm a little naïve but that’s still the way I approach it."

* Del. Brian Feldman (D-15)

Committee assignments: Economic Matters Committee, Joint Committee on Access to Mental Health Services, Maryland Veterans Caucus.

On veto overrides: “The minimum wage bill I thought in particular was a particularly difficult one to understand the other side,” he said. “If you’re going to have a minimum wage I think it makes sense to ratchet it up every so often” at least to match inflation and increases in the cost of living.

Feldman pointed out that it has been nine years — matching a record — since the last increase in the federal minimum wage. Such increases aren’t a partisan issue, he said, noting that Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) sponsored the most recent increase proposal and that California, led by a Republican governor is currently considering an increase from $6.75 to $7.75.

“I think it’s a similar principle on the Fair Share bill — are we going to have a minimal standard in this country when it comes to providing healthcare insurance or healthcare coverage?” he asked. Wal-Mart is one of the wealthiest corporations, thanks in part to aggressive cost-saving measures. Employees who don’t receive healthcare coverage end up in emergency rooms, where their care costs more. Those costs go to taxpayers and businesses that pay into public healthcare programs — which amounts to a subsidy for Wal-Mart, Feldman said.

Planned legislation: Last year, Feldman was lead sponsor of the Biotechnology Investment Incentive Act, which provided tax benefits to venture capital companies that invest in early-stage biotechnology companies in Maryland. This year, he plans supporting legislation that will enhance some of the bills’ provisions and establish a fund to support the tax incentives to the tune of $7-10 million per year.

Another bill would protect people with developmental disabilities from losing their homes in condominium conversions. Legal protections are currently limited to people with physical disabilities.

A final bill will dedicate accountant licensing fees to the Maryland Board of Accountancy, which oversees the industry in Maryland.

“I think it’s important to know that financial reports and things of that nature are what they appear. It’s at the heart of the way our markets operate,” Feldman said. Currently, the Board of Accountancy does not automatically receive state licensing fees. The fees go into the general fund and “they basically have to beg to get money out,” Feldman said.

The legislation is modeled on a successful bill last year related to the real estate industry.

* Del. Marilyn Goldwater (D-16)

Committee assignments: Health and Government Operations Committee (appointed Vice-Chair in 2005)

On veto overrides: “We’re going to have to come to some kind of an agreement on that to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share into the system. … If we don’t give [people] the healthcare that they need and it becomes acute it becomes more of a burden on the taxpayer.”

Planned legislation: Goldwater, now serving her 30th year in the legislature, was recently appointed vice-chair of the powerful Health and Government Operations Committee. Her duties will include helping set the committee’s legislative priorities and helping younger committee members with their bills.

Goldwater said that she plans to focus on settling in to her new role rather than introducing new legislation of her own.

“It’s going to be a period of new responsibilities for me, adjustment to those new responsibilities,” she said. “This first year will be sort of a learning experience."

District 16 colleague Susan Lee called Goldwater a role model to newer lawmakers and praised her new appointment.

"She is probably one of the most knowledgeable persons on the issue of healthcare," Lee said. "She’s a real exemplar for a lot of us here."

On the election year session: “I think there’s going to be a lot more grandstanding on the house floor. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I think people will want to get up and express themselves so their constituents know how they feel. … I’m hoping that it does not become contentious as some people feel it will be.

“I’ve been down here a good number of years now, since 1975 and we’ve always had a very harmonious relationship between the two parties. We’ve been able to compromise and work together and get out the legislation that we feel will help the people of the state.”

On health care: Maryland’s population is aging, Goldwater said, but “in my opinion, you want to keep people out of institutions as long as possible and provide them with the services they need so they can live in a more normal situation as opposed to being institutionalized.”

“I support stem cell research without any questions. I think it’s very important for us to support something that holds great promise for new techniques and new treatments.

“Technology makes it necessary for us to make some changes. New technologies come along, new players come along. Even though it may seem it’s the same old same old issue that we’ve been taking on, it isn’t the same old because the environment is changing.”

* Del. Susan Lee (D-16)

Committee assignments: Judiciary Committee

On veto overrides: "It was kind of intense at certain times. I supported the override of both bills because I think both bills are very supportive of the economic health of the state. The Fair Share Healthcare Act — that’s just common sense. Wal-Mart is one of the wealthiest corporations in the nation. If its workers go uninsured, they go to emergency rooms which means that the taxpayers of Maryland end up paying."

On the minimum wage increase, Lee noted that several of Maryland's neighbors have higher minimum wages. "We’re not a poor state," she said. "We should be doing this anyway."

Planned legislation: Lee has been the legislature's leading proponent of greater consumer protections and higher legal standards related to identity theft. Last year, she helped establish a bi-partisan task force, which will propose comprehensive legislation next year. In the meantime, Lee is planning several "remedial measures" including bills that would allow individuals to freeze the information in their credit reports and a law requiring companies to notify customers when their personal information may have been compromised in a security breach.

"They have all this personal information that they use. If the wrong person gets a hold of this it could be devastating," Lee said, noting than more than 3,000 Marylanders were affected in the ChoicePoint breach last year. "There's nothing that says you have to notify the consumer that there's been a breach."

Other issues: Lee said that one priority this year is making sure that the Thornton education initiative — which she supported in 2002 — finally receives full funding.

She said she will also support increases in teacher pensions, which is expected to be a major issue. By many accounts, Maryland's teacher pensions are the worst in the country.

"Many people actually move and want to live in Maryland because we have such great schools here," she said. "We need to take care of our teachers. Why would any young bright teacher want to stick around here? It is not an incentive to stay and want to raise your kids here and be permanent here."

On completing her first full term in the House of Delegates: "You learn as you go along. When I got there, I literally just hit the ground running. ... You learn how to make things happen, how to work with your colleagues. Every year I’ve learned more and more. And I think there’s something to say about experience." Lee plans to run for reelection this year.