The Maryland House of Delegates rebuffed Gov. Harry Hughes today, voting overwhelmingly to delay a final decision on the site of a new state prison.
By a vote of 100 to 18, the House voted to accept language in the capital construction budget that orders the governor to wait until Nov. 1 before choosing a prison site and, in the interim, consider sites in Somerset and Cecil counties. Hughes had chosen Somerset as the prison site before the start of the legislative session.
Today's vote means that in spite of Hughes' protests that the language will delay the start of much-needed prison construction by six months, he faces the likelihood of having to start up the difficult process of locating a prison site once again.
Hughes did receive a consolation prize today when the House Judiciary Committee, after rejecting the most radical bill in Hughes' drunk-driving package, voted to adopt several less-significant bills, including one that had been expected to die, and send them to the House floor. The bill killed by the committee today would have allowed for the seizure or forfeiture of a vehicle after a second drunk driving conviction.
The bill that had not been expected to pass--but did--expands a law passed last year that says a person stopped for drunk driving while his license was suspended or revoked could have his car's registration revoked if no one else's name appeared on the registration. The bill approved by the committee today provides for revocation of the registration even if the car is registered in more than one name.
The committee's vote shocked many delegates, but committee members said it was largely the result of a strong lobbying effort by the governor's staff, most notably Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran Jr.
"After all the lobbying they've done on this I doubt if there's any furniture left in those offices up on the second floor," said Del. Richard A. Palumbo (D-Prince George's), a member of the committee. "I think there will be opposition to it on the floor."
The committee also passed several other measures, including a bill that would raise the number of points assessed against a driver's license for driving under the influence from six to eight; a bill that would take away the blood test as an option for a driver, leaving only the Breathalyzer test; and a bill that would increase from 60 to 120 days the length of time a license could be suspended for a first drunk driving offense.
The House action on the prison came despite Hughes' pleas at a news conference Thursday that the legislature leave his prison recommendation intact. The leading advocate for the new language was appropriations subcommittee chairman Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's). Maloney again argued that the decision to build the prison in Somerset had been based on politics and not on the criteria set by the governor's prison task force when it began its work a year ago.
"We do not believe this is an appropriate way to make a decision on a prison that will be used by the state for the next 100 years," Maloney said. "The governor's task force set seven criteria for a prison site and this site on the 602-acre Staller Tract in Somerset as of today only meets one for certain, and that is it is available to be bought."
"This is not the kind of decision that the legislature should make in the last 16 or 17 days of a session," Maloney said.
Freshman delegates from Cecil and Harford counties objected to the language because it renewed the possibility that the prison could be located in their communities.