Maryland House Advances Bills Ahead of Key Senate Deadline

By John Wagner and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Maryland House of Delegates advanced bills yesterday to overhaul the state's voting machinery and procedures, ban a potentially dangerous chemical from plastic baby bottles and increase slot machine proceeds going to racing purses as delegates rushed to meet a key deadline tomorrow for sending legislation to the Senate.

The flurry of activity came with barely two weeks left in the 90-day session, a time when lawmakers traditionally pass the vast majority of bills that they will send to the governor.

Most work has been completed on the state's nearly $14 billion general fund budget for next year, but dozens of controversial measures will rise or fall in coming days. Among them: whether to return to regulating energy production, whether to stop providing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and whether to start replacing the state's aging medevac helicopter fleet.

Bills that have not passed at least one chamber by tomorrow night will face additional procedural hurdles. With that deadline approaching, the House took action on more than 150 bills in a rare Saturday session yesterday. The Senate has a long agenda awaiting its return tomorrow.

On a 100 to 36 vote, the House shipped the Senate a bill that would implement an early-voting program approved in a November referendum. Most Republicans opposed the bill, saying they objected to paying for the program, which starts next year, with a dormant public financing fund for gubernatorial elections.

The House also voted, 108 to 26, for a plan that would facilitate the state's move to voting machines that offer a paper trail by next year. The bill would also require every voting place to offer at least one computer touch-screen machine to accommodate disabled people who might have difficulty using an optical scan machine.

"Polls say people want this. We did as they requested, and now we're ready to roll for 2010," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), who chairs the committee that dealt with the issue.

Delegates adopted a bill, on a 126 to 9 vote, that would require law enforcement agencies to report every six months on their use of SWAT teams, including what kinds of warrants the teams serve and whether any animals are killed during raids. The bill was prompted by the case of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, whose two black Labrador retrievers were shot and killed during a botched raid by a Prince George's County Sheriff's Office SWAT team in July.

Calvo has said he was surprised to learn that police departments use the heavily armed units far more routinely than they once did but that it is difficult to get reliable statistics about SWAT raids. The Senate has passed a similar measure.

The House debated amendments on dozens of bills, advancing them in preparation for final passage tomorrow.

One of those would bump up the percentage of slot machine proceeds used to subsidize racing purses. Under current law, 7 percent of proceeds are earmarked for purses and horse-breeding subsidies. The bill that moved forward yesterday increases the share of that money going to purses from 85 to 89 percent.

Another bill would make Maryland the first state in the country to ban the use of bisphenol A in the production of baby bottles, sippy cups and other plastic items for infants. The nation's six largest bottle manufacturers have announced they will cease use of the chemical because a series of studies have linked it to a wide range of health problems, including neurological damage, diabetes and breast cancer.

Sponsor James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's), who persuaded colleagues last year to ban lead-containing toys in Maryland, said he hopes a state law could push the federal government to crack down on the chemical.

Delegates advanced a bill that is a priority of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to prohibit landscapers and construction companies from classifying full-time employees as independent contractors. Some companies do so to avoid paying benefits or workers' compensation.

Two bills of specific interest to Prince George's were advanced yesterday. One would give the seven-member Prince George's Hospital Authority until next year to sell the troubled county-owned hospital system. The group had been charged with finding a buyer by this month but asked for more time because of the economy.

Another proposal is designed to ease the county's budget shortfall by allowing it to tap up to $76 million over the next two years in surplus funds maintained by the regional Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for county needs.

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