The Maryland House of Delegates brought mandatory seat belt use a step closer to enactment today when it gave the measure preliminary approval after slightly diluting it.
After a short but intense debate about the trade-off between public safety and individual rights, the House voted to bar law enforcement officials from charging drivers with a moving violation that costs them a "point" on their records if they are found in violation of the seat belt law.
On a vote of 77 to 51, House members turned aside arguments by members of the House Judiciary Committee, who had nar-rowly defeated such language, that removal of the penalty would diminish recalcitrant motorists' incentive to comply with the measure.
"If we're going to make this a law, let's make it mean something. Let's not go back to our districts and say, 'I have saved your life at the expense of your freedom,' for nothing," said Del. Jerry Hyatt (D-Montgomery), who opposed the seat belt bill in committee but defended it today on the House floor.
Supporters said, however, that the amendment would make the seat belt proposal more consistent with other motor vehicle laws, such as measures requiring that young children be restrained in safety seats. They noted also that the move makes the House bill closer to the measure adopted by the full Senate more than two months ago, enhancing its chances to become law. Another House vote is scheduled on the measure.
In other action today, the House, rushing to catch up on its work as the Senate took the day off, narrowly voted to allow service employes of the Montgomery County school system to strike under certain conditions. Although the measure affects only Montgomery, it provoked a heated floor debate from lawmakers representing other, mainly rural areas, who said it would encourage school employes throughout the state to seek the right to strike.
The measure was passed on a razor-thin majority, the minimum needed for passage, as several Montgomery lawmakers broke ranks with the delegation and either voted no or declined to vote.
Another local bill was also successful. One measure granting Takoma Park independent zoning authority was approved 118 to 1. The measure is an effort to resolve the problems of the city that straddles Montgomery and Prince George's counties, without granting the city the right to unify in one county as many of its residents would like.
Several House committees also took significant action today, in an effort to meet a Tuesday deadline for the House and Senate to pass bills they intend to send to the other body.
The House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee approved a weakened alternative to a proposal that would have forced municipalities to stop requiring voters to register separately for local and state elections.
Members of the panel had delayed voting on a so-called "universal registration" bill sponsored by Del. Albert Wynn (D-Prince George's) in the face of opposition from the Maryland Municipal League.
Wynn and state officials had argued that the burden of registering separately for local elections resulted in de facto discrimination.
The committee instead opted for a bill crafted by Montgomery County Democratic Dels. Donald Robertson and Michael Gordon, which directs muncipalities to notify voters and town residents about the need to register separately.
Voters would also then be able to register to vote by mail.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 8 to approve a bill that overturns a Court of Appeals decision allowing people to sue manufacturers of cheap handguns -- so-called "Saturday Night Specials" -- for injuries they suffer from the guns.
However, a comparable measure was killed in a Senate committee and is given little chance of passage this year.