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Md. General Assembly focuses on consumer protections

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Maryland consumers soon could be allowed to order wine from out-of-state vineyards. They likely could see new restrictions on the kinds of toys and infant formula containers they can buy. And before long, residents may be able to take their dogs to outdoor restaurants.

With barely two weeks remaining, this year’s session of the Maryland General Assembly could well be remembered not for any signature initiative but for a raft of modest bills, meant to help consumers, that affect day-to-day routines.

Lawmakers, who met in a rare weekend session Saturday, are debating numerous bills that would add little if anything to the state’s budget — a reflection of the tough fiscal situation. Instead, there has been a stepped-up focus on protecting consumers, including those left in the dark in the Washington area following January’s snowstorm.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said some of the action on consumer legislation amounted to “cheap liberalism,” while other movement has come on bills “that have been hanging around for a long time and were overdue.”

The focus comes as many higher-profile initiatives have stalled or sputtered out.

A bill to allow same-sex couples to marry collapsed this month on the floor of the House of Delegates. And some of the top priorities of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) are struggling for acceptance, including bills to spur offshore wind development and to create a $100 million public-private investor fund for Maryland businesses.

The fate of most legislation will become a little clearer by Monday, the annual deadline for bills to pass either the House or Senate or face additional procedural hurdles that often spell their demise.

The House met Saturday to act on dozens of bills before that deadline.

The most controversial among them was legislation to provide anti-discrimination protections to transgender people in the areas of employment, housing and lending. The bill passed 86 to 52 but faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Proponents said the bill would give basic safeguards to a vulnerable class, while those opposed argued that the job protections could send the wrong message to children in schools, day-care centers and other settings.

Montgomery County and Baltimore already have adopted broader protections locally.

The House also approved a bill Saturday that would allow residents to ship bottles of wine from vineyards to their homes. To the delight of wine aficionados, Maryland appears poised to join the District, Virginia and 36 other jurisdictions nationwide that allow such shipments.

The House approved the bill 135 to 1, and a similar measure is pending in the Senate.

“It’s going to pass, and it’s going to help our consumers,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

Wine connoisseurs have long complained about not being able to order rare vintages from other states. Suburban Washington residents have skirted the rules by shipping bottles to their offices in the District or to the homes of friends in neighboring Virginia.

Despite years of opposition from the powerful alcohol industry, the General Assembly has advanced legislation in both chambers that would make it legal to ship 18 cases of wine per year, per household.

In a compromise with the industry, legislators eliminated a provision that would have allowed consumers to ship wine from specialty retail stores and Web sites.

In another nod to consumer protection, the House passed legislation last week that would ban infant formula containers with high levels of the controversial chemical bisphenol A, or BPA.

Other states, including New York and Wisconsin, have taken steps to limit exposure to BPA since the Food and Drug Administration reported concerns about its health effects. Many manufacturers already have voluntarily removed BPA from their containers.

Last year, the General Assembly banned baby bottles and sippy cups with high levels of BPA. The legislation this year is aimed at the liners of infant formula cans, including those provided to families enrolled in the state’s supplemental nutrition program, said the bill’s sponsor, Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George’s).

“I want to make sure we’re not feeding them at the expense of poisoning them,” Hubbard said.

Lawmakers also are trying to ban cheap costume jewelry for children that contains high levels of cadmium.

The bill is in response to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall last year of thousands of charm bracelets with high levels of the metal, a carcinogen that might cause developmental defects. It follows the lead of at least seven other states, according to legislative analysts.

Another effort aimed at protecting toddlers, however, appears to have flamed out.

By 43 to 3, the Senate last week passed a bill that would ban the sale of so-called novelty lighters, which supporters said can be mistaken by children as toys with tragic consequences.

A similar bill, which is a priority for state firefighters, was rejected by a House committee.

Environmental advocates, meanwhile, are facing an uphill battle in trying to pass a bill that would affect a wide range of consumers: a so-called bag tax.

The legislation would impose a fee on disposable plastic and paper bags at Maryland’s retail stores. Funds raised from the 5-cent fee would help clean up the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay.

A similar measure took effect in the District last year, resulting in an 80 percent drop in the use of disposable bags.

“It’s working miracles in D.C.,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery).

But prospects for the tax this session seem dim, with neither the House nor Senate acting on the measure in committee before Monday’s deadline.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), who chairs the panel that oversees environmental issues, said “it’s the wrong time” to pass such a bill. She pointed to a long list of other fee increases proposed to help balance the books in the spending plan for 2012. Opposition to the measure has come largely from bag manufacturers.

Legislators are also responding to the poor performance by Pepco and outrage from constituents after the late January snowstorm that left nearly 200,000 customers in Maryland without power for days. A Washington Post report found that the company ranks near the bottom in national surveys of reliability.

The House on Friday passed legislation, backed by O’Malley, that would require state regulators to create reliability standards for utility companies and impose penalties when they are not met. A similar bill is moving forward in the Senate.

On a lighter note, the House has approved legislation that would authorize restaurant owners with outdoor seating areas to allow customers to bring their dogs along.

The measure, dubbed the “Dining Out Growth Act of 2011,” passed 124 to 8 on Friday, and several delegates “woofed” in acceptance.

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