When Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes delivers his state-of-the-state speech here tomorrow, he will touch briefly on the subject of drunken driving and his belief that the state needs to continue to clamp down on those who drink and drive.
He will spend less than a minute on the subject and will mention that he plans to introduce several bills on the topic this session.
They will include one bill that would require a mandatory jail sentence (of at least 48 hours) for anyone convicted of driving while drunk twice within five years, and another bill that would make it easier to remove the license plates from the car of a driver who has been caught driving with a suspended or revoked license because of an alcohol-related offense.
Since almost everyone will be preoccupied with the budgetary portion of Hughes' speech, his mention of drunk driving may go almost unnoticed. But the five bills that Hughes will refer to have been in the works almost since the legislature adjourned last spring.
They are part of a process the governor and his staff go through each year in putting together the chief executive's legislative package.
This year's package, because of the election and the austere nature of the budget, is smaller than some others, and at least at the moment, does not include any bills on the one subject in which Hughes really failed in last year's legislature: handgun control.
But it does include the drunk-driving package, lobbied for heavily by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who were instrumental last year in successful first attempts at toughening Maryland's drunk-driving laws.
This year's package, including the drunk-driving bills that were put together with help from the state police, the Motor Vehicle Administration and the governor's task force on drunk driving, will be introduced next week.
If new laws are going to be passed this session to make life more difficult for the drunk driver, John F.X. O'Brien, Hughes' chief legislative officer, will be as responsible as anyone. Last year, when Hughes got the legislation he has fought for the hardest in his four years as governor--the new state gasoline tax--the point man in the process was O'Brien.
A former two-term delegate to the General Assembly, O'Brien, 47, is one of the most respected members of the Hughes organization. "One of the main reasons Harry Hughes has had success with the legislature recently is John O'Brien," said Speaker of the House of Delegates Benjamin L. Cardin. "He's good because he doesn't just talk issues, he talks politics. Politicians need that."
Last year, when Hughes was trying to do what was considered almost impossible--pass a tax increase (gasoline) in an election year, O'Brien and his chief assistant, Verna Harrison, began working almost nine months before the legislature began. They set up meetings for Hughes with legislators, followed up with letters, met with them themselves and sent Secretary of Transportation Lowell K. Bridwell around the state to tell legislators exactly what the tax would do for roads in their districts.
Once the session started, Hughes became his own chief lobbyist, calling legislators in one by one. "The work that went into it was enormous," said Ejner J. Johnson, Hughes' chief of staff. "A lot of people think the legislative process is a 90-day thing. It's not even close to that."
This year, even with a modest package, there have already been innumerable meetings. Always, each department head submits a number of departmental bills. Then come the more controversial bills, some of which are not decided on until after the session begins.
For example, this year, Hughes may introduce legislation that would change current state law on how conclusive a breath test is. Under the current law, if a person shows .13 percent alcohol content during a breath test, that is considered prima facie--but not conclusive evidence--that he is drunk. The legislation that might be proposed would make it conclusive. The person would be considered in violation of the law as soon as he showed .13 and could have his license suspended administratively before going to trial.
Hughes will receive a task force recommendation on such a bill either tomorrow or early next week and then make a decision on whether to submit the legis- lation. Often, he amends recommendations.
For example: the bill that will be introduced this year allowing the removal of license tags is an outgrowth of a bill that passed last year.
That bill limited removal to cars registered solely to the person driving with the revoked or suspended license.
State police found that only 900 of the 3,600 drivers with revoked or suspended licenses had single registration. So, they recommended a change in the law so that any car driven by such a person, regardless of registration, could have its tags removed.
Hughes did not like the state police idea that would have allowed removal of the tags on the spot. Instead, the bill will allow someone 15 days to show cause why he should not have the tags taken away.